Monday, August 24, 2009

Day-Off Reflections: 2003

2003 gave us false hopes. Allow me to let it happen again.

Bring up the 2003 Cubs and three names come to mind instantly: Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, and Steve Bartman. Not exactly a flood stream of happy memories.

So I'm going to ask something of you that you've probably asked of yourself hundreds of times: forget the 2003 postseason and the 2004 SI cover jinx ever happened. If you can't afford that much therapy, just pretend you can forget those things ever happened. Because once you set the dismal end aside, you might remember that 2003 was a dizzying, thrilling, spin-you-round-till-you-toss-your-cookies carnival ride.

The 2009 Cubs have now played 122 games. At this point in the schedule (after a 5-10 loss to the Dodgers) the Cubs were 64-58 and in 2nd place, a 1/2 game behind the Astros. Not a shock that the Cubs wound up winning the division, based on that position alone. But at a couple of points before and after the 122-game mark, the outlook was about as bleak as it is now.

Game 101. After getting swept at home in a 2-game series against the Phillies, the Cubs dropped one game under .500, putting themselves in 3rd place and 5 1/2 games out of the division lead. Things were really bad. Twenty games later, the Cubs were in 1st.

Game 135. The Cubs were shutout 2-0 by Doug Davis and Milwaukee, putting them back in 3rd place, a mere 3 games over .500, and 2 1/2 games behind the division-leading Cardinals. With only 27 games left to play, things looked really bad . . . again. Eight games later, the Cubs were in 1st.

Game 149. The Cubs dropped a heartbreaking 1-0 loss to the Reds, putting them 2 games behind the Astros and 9 games over .500. Things weren't hopeless, but with 13 games to play, it looked bad.

Game 155. A loss to the Pirates kept the Cubs 1 1/2 games behind the Astros, who lost to the Cardinals with 7 games to play. Darkness.

Game 159. Todd Van Poppel's Reds beats the Cubbies, bringing them into a tie with Houston. Three games to play. Totally nervous.

Games 160 and 161. A rainout forces the Cubs to play a doubleheader with the Pirates—and the Cubs sweep! The Astros lose to Milwaukee, and the Cubs clinch the National League Central! There is much rejoicing throughout Cubdom! Exclamation points are overused, and no one cares!

Are things as bad now as they were then? It's pretty tough to answer that question objectively, since I want the answer to be, "No, they were worse then, and there's no way the Cubs can lose!" Being 8 games behind the Cardinals right now stinks. However, I would rather be 8 games back chasing 1 team than 5 games back chasing 2.

I use this rule of thumb: to calculate how far back in the standings a team is, I combine the number of games they trail every team in that race because you need all of those teams to lose. On July 24, 2003, the Cubs were 5 1/2 games behind the Astros and 2 games behind the Cardinals. I look at that as being 7 1/2 games out of first. As I said before, it only took 20 games for the Cubs to overtake first place after that point (which they would later relinquish and reclaim multiple times).

So the big question remaining is, are the 2009 Cardinals superior to the 2003 Cardinals and Astros? No, they're not. In fact, he 2009 Cardinals aren't even as good as . . . the 2009 Cardinals.

Let's be realistic: Matt Holliday is hitting .394 with a .457 OBP and .688 SLG since joining St. Louis. With Oakland, those numbers were .286 / .378 / .454. I can't guarantee anything, but it is highly likely that Matt Holliday won't continue to put up the numbers he's currently posting with St. Louis. Albert Pujols makes his teammates better, but unless he's sharing HGH, he doesn't make them that much better.

The Cardinals will probably slow down a bit. Past Cubs teams have shown the ability to close a big gap in a short amount of time. The big question is, can this year's Cubs team feast on the smörgåsbord of suck laid out before them in the coming weeks?

I don't know. But I don't feel like a total idiot for hoping they do.

Pictures courtesy of MLB, Sports Illustrated
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