|05-12-2001, 07:44 PM||#1|
Join Date: Apr 2001
Location: NetShrine WHQ
It's almost June - - maybe we have to start considering these guys...............
MILWAUKEE (AP) - Sammy Sosa was joking around one day during spring training when someone asked how good the Chicago Cubs could be.
``We're going to surprise a lot of people this year,'' he said.
Everyone smiled, spring training being the time of eternal optimism. Every team has big hopes and dreams in the spring, even baseball's lovable losers.
But when someone asked Sosa if the Cubs could make the playoffs, his playful smile vanished, replaced by a look of utter seriousness.
``We have a chance,'' he said, nodding his head. ``If we believe in ourselves.''
Crazy as that prediction seemed then, Sosa's looking like a wise man these days. Even after Saturday's 5-2 loss at St. Louis, the Cubs have the NL's best second-best record at 21-15.
They have a half-game lead in the NL Central and have been in first place since April 15.
``We believe that this team has all the ability and that we are capable of keeping it ... in the place where we are,'' Sosa said. ``We have a good team, and we're not going to stop.''
But these are the Cubs, the team that's made losing a tradition. They've lost 90-plus games in three of the last four seasons. They've made the playoffs only three times in the past 50 years and haven't been to a World Series except as spectators since 1945.
The last time they actually won the Series? Way back in 1908, when automobiles and telephones were still novelties.
Fans expect the Cubs to lose, and they love them anyway. Revere them, actually, filling Wrigley Field and following in packs when the Cubs go on the road.
``We knew we were going to be met with a lot of skeptical people,'' Eric Young said. ``We don't worry about that. We don't even talk about it. If they don't want to believe it, that's their problem.''
So how did this happen? The Cubs may not have made any blockbuster moves in the offseason - letting Mark Grace go made the biggest splash - but the parts they've added have fit perfectly so far.
Bill Mueller gives the Cubs their best defense at third base since Ron Santo was roaming the field, and he's hitting a team-high .312. The bullpen, the flashpoint for disaster last year with a 5.19 ERA and 57 percent of saves converted, has been dominant, anchored by Jeff Fassero and Tom Gordon.
Fassero, who hadn't saved a game since 1993, is among the NL leaders with nine. Gordon is 1-0 with two saves and an 0.00 ERA after missing most of the last two years with elbow problems.
``I don't have any problem going to any guy out there,'' manager Don Baylor said. ``These guys, they just pass the baton along and they don't drop it.''
The starting rotation has been equally good. At 5-1, Kevin Tapani is tied for the NL wins lead. Kerry Wood has 65 strikeouts, second only to Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez.
Even after giving up five runs Thursday to Milwaukee, Julian Tavarez has a 2.40 ERA, third-best in the NL.
``Guys from last year were embarrassed and wanted to change things. Then you had a bunch of new guys, a lot of guys who wanted a fresh start and wanted to prove themselves,'' Young said. ``When you get that mix ... that's a pretty hungry group that's looking to do something different.''
That this group would be different was clear in spring training, and it wasn't just the ``last-to-first'' mantra they were repeating. Instead of acting like the new kids in school, the new Cubs settled right in.
Ron Coomer and Matt Stairs joke around with teammates like they've been in Chicago for years. Stairs has taken young Julio Zuleta under his wing - he has Zuleta's baseball card up on his locker - even though Zuleta could be a threat to his playing time.
Jason Bere and Tavarez quickly adopted the ``Can-you-top-this?'' mentality of the starters. And Fassero brings a veteran's calm to the bullpen.
``It takes small steps first, then after a while guys start believing in what's happening around here,'' Baylor said. ``If we lose a tough game, we're going to bounce back the next day. Last year, we'd lose a game and we'd lose another one.''
And unlike 1998, when the Cubs won the NL wild card, Sosa isn't carrying the team. Pitching has led the way early, and different people are contributing offensively.
``Each guy just plugs away,'' Young said. ``That's what makes it very special.''
Granted, the Cubs still have their problems. The offense is scuffling along with a batting average that's been around .250. Sosa has 12 homers and has drawn 33 walks, but he's hitting .258. Chicago still isn't getting the offensive production it needs from center field.
And June, when the Cubs make their traditional swoon, is coming up fast.
``I really don't worry about what people say. We know what we've got here,'' Sosa said. ``If people want to think about it, that we're not for real, that's their problem.
``We're going to play in October.''
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