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The Wrigley Field vines are turning colors earlier than usual, the kids are getting ready to go back to school and the Cubs finally are starting to get their act together.
It's beginning to look a lot like summer's end in 2003, when a late-season push propelled the Cubs into one of the wildest postseason runs in franchise history.
Whether it's all a mirage is unknown at this point, but the Cubs' 13-4 victory over Milwaukee on a rainy Tuesday night at Wrigley Field looked mighty convincing.
"We always knew we had a good lineup," Moises Alou said. "I guess we needed a wake-up call. Time is running out, a playoff chance is right there. Let's go take it."
Alou homered twice and drove in a career-high six runs, Derrek Lee hit a grand slam and Aramis Ramirez added a solo shot to give Matt Clement all the runs he needed ... and more. Clement (9-11) won for the first time since beating Milwaukee on July 26th, and for the first time in Wrigley since June 8th, when he beat St. Louis.
"For the first time this year, we're all together as a unit," Clement said. "In my mind, it's nice we're building momentum, going out and getting good starts in a row."
The Cubs have scored 60 runs over their last seven games, winning six. That qualifies as their first extended hot streak since June 12-17, when the Cubs captured six straight on a road trip to Anaheim and Houston.
With Florida pounding San Francisco, the Cubs snatched a one-game lead over the Giants in the National League wild card hunt. On Wednesday they'll go for their first three-game sweep at home since taking three from the White Sox on July 2-4, with Greg Maddux facing left-hander Doug Davis in the final game of the season series.
In Clement's previous 13 starts, the Cubs had scored a total of 25 runs when he was on the mound. He was 1-7 record with five no-decisions in that span, despite a sterling 3.15 earned-run average. The Cubs had not scored more than four runs for Clement in any single outing in those 13 starts since June 13th, and he entered Tuesday's start with the fourth-worst run support (3.78 runs per 9 innings) of any National League starter.
But Alou's three-run homer onto Waveland Avenue in the first and Lee's grand slam in the second, both off Chris Capuano, gave Clement a quick 7-0 lead. Ramirez's shot in the third and Alou's two-run homer in the fourth, his 31st, made it 10-0.
Alou is currently on pace to break his career high of 38 home runs, set in 1998 with Houston, and could break Sammy Sosa's streak of 11 consecutive seasons as the Cubs home run leader. Clement started out with four hitless innings, conjuring up visions of Monday night, when Carlos Zambrano carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning. But Brady Clark broke up the no-hitter with a leadoff double in the fifth, scoring on Bill Hall's two-run homer. Scott Podsednik added a two-run shot later in the inning, and Clement suddenly looked out of sync, rushing his pitches.
"Don't go out there and try and mess with Mother Nature and hurry up," Clement said. "I was doing fine at the pace I was pitching at."
With two on, Clement he reared back and struck out Russell Branyan and Geoff Jenkins to get out of the inning. He allowed four runs in six innings before being removed after 113 pitches. With seven starts remaining, Clement is ready to look forward and forget the prolonged stretch of starts in which he got little or no support.
"The past is the past for me," Clement said. "This is the fun time of the year."