Eric Simon: What's going on with the Cubbies? Left for dead a couple of months ago, they have been the hottest team in baseball and are now jockeying with the Brewers to be perched atop the NL Central. What has changed?
Al Yellon: The first thing that "changed" was -- and you're going to laugh at first, but I'm serious -- Lou Piniella's tirade in the game vs. the Braves on June 2. He even said it was calculated, that if he had a chance to go out and argue that day, he was going to do it. He wanted to fire up his team and he did so.
But the more serious answer is that the Cubs, who were seriously underachieving in April and May, have begun to play to form. You didn't really think Carlos Zambrano would have an ERA over 7 all year, did you? Or that Alfonso Soriano would hit no home runs?
With Z and the other starting pitchers being consistent every time out, that has let the entire team relax and start playing better.
D.J. Short: The Mets will face Carlos Zambrano in the series opener. His season has been night and day since he last faced the Mets in May. What happened? Secondly, would you take Zambrano and Ted Lilly over any other 1 & 2 starters in the National League?
Al Yellon: Believe it or not, I think the Zambrano-Barrett fight had a lot to do with Z's transformation. It was reported that he went home and his four-year-old daughter asked him, "Daddy, why do you fight?" He claims that made him a changed man, and he surely has come out and pitched that way. Z is passionate and sometimes that passion has come out in negative ways. If he can channel it properly, he can throw lights-out, and you have seen the results.
The other thing that's changed is his mechanics. We could see it from the stands -- there was something wrong with his arm slot. That's been fixed.
Right now, yes, I think I would take Z and Lilly over any other 1-2 in the NL. There are weaknesses in the 3-4-5 slots, as Sean Marshall, Rich Hill and Jason Marquis have all been good -- but also bad at times. They need to be more consistent.
Eric Simon: Talk to me about the Cubs' catching situation. Michael Barrett, a solid offensive backstop, was discarded, presumably for reasons unrelated to his baseball skills. His replacements - Jason Kendall, Rob Bowen, Joyie Hill, Geovany Soto - have contributed something approaching bupkis at the plate. What is the plan there, both short- and long-term?
All Yellon: It's weird, isn't it? Six different men -- the five you mention and Henry Blanco -- have started games behind the plate for the Cubs. And you're right, none of them can hit. And then you get weird days like Hill's 5-RBI game vs. the Giants. All of them -- save Barrett, who really was not a good defensive catcher, and by "defense" I mean more than just throwing out runners, I mean blocking pitches in the dirt and calling games -- are well-liked by the pitching staff and call good games.
The Cubs won a division title in 2003 with two guys like this, Damian Miller and Paul Bako, behind the plate. If the rest of the team hits -- and the last two months, they have -- they can do it again.
Long-term, I have no idea. Kendall's likely going to be allowed to walk as a free agent; Hill isn't the answer. A lot of Cubs fans like the potential of Geovany Soto, who's been hitting well in Triple-A, but he is unproven as a major league catcher. The Cubs may try to trade for a catcher in the off-season, or sign a free agent like the Mets' Paul LoDuca.
D.J. Short: Kerry Wood is scheduled to return on Friday. He's had 11 trips to the disabled list since 1999. How much of a factor can he be down the stretch? Are expectations tempered a bit due to his history?
Al Yellon: Wood's going to be brought along slowly, probably pitching in the middle innings rather than be seen as any sort of "savior". The impact will be more psychological. Cubs fans all remember him in tears at his locker after game 7 of the 2003 NLCS, taking responsibility for losing the series because he didn't throw well that day, and taking less money to return to the Cubs this year because he wanted to show all of us that he could still perform. He does a lot of charity work, and in many ways is the face of the franchise.
You'll want to pay attention to the ovation he'll receive the first time he comes in from the bullpen. You won't ever hear something as warm and heartfelt.
Eric Simon: The Cubs made some smaller deals earlier in the year but were quiet at the deadline. What are your thoughts on this team as it is currently assembled? Did Jim Hendry do the right thing, or do you wish he had done more to improve the club?
Al Yellon: So many Cub fans were clamoring for a deal -- "Get Jermaine Dye! Get Ken Griffey Jr.!" -- or others, including me, I was all for the Cubs trying to make a play for the White Sox' Jon Garland, sort of "payback" for trading Garland away as a kid in A-ball for Matt Karchner in 1998.
But the problem here is -- it's easy to say "get this guy", even if he's on a team going nowhere, as Dye is, and Dye's also a free agent. It's more difficult when the other GM is asking for the moon, stars, planets, and a pony.
I wouldn't have made a deal just to do so and Hendry didn't. I'm in the "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" camp -- the Cubs are 35-19 since June 2. They're winning with what they've got.
If a decent deal comes their way in August, I'd expect Hendry to make it. Otherwise, this is the Cub team down the stretch.
D.J. Short: Where are the Cubs the most vulnerable?
Al Yellon: That's a really good question. You look at the roster and you wonder how they're doing this, with kids (Fontenot and Theriot) as the DP combination, starting outfielders who have 2 HR (Jacque Jones) and 4 HR (Cliff Floyd), and three inconsistent starters. But somehow, every day, when one part of the club fails, someone else steps up and becomes a hero. This is a team in the best sense of the word. They're going to need to continue to get the good starting pitching they've been getting. Yesterday's game against the Phillies was a good example -- Sean Marshall didn't get out of the third inning, yet the bullpen kept the Phillies down while the Cubs came back to 7-6, only to see Will Ohman put the game out of reach by throwing a poor ninth inning.
That hasn't happened too often, and if the bullpen picks up the rotation as it did for half yesterday's game, the Cubs can and will continue to win.