They beat up the Pirates again Saturday with a 9-5 victory at PNC Park and go into Sunday's finale with a chance to win seven straight games in Pittsburgh for the first time in 108 years.
Carlos Zambrano shrugged off back pain in the second inning to throw 117 pitches in 72/3 innings, allowing five runs but theoretically saving the bullpen from overuse.
Zambrano, who raised eyebrows in the Cubs' front office by playing soccer Thursday during a promotion with the Fire, hurt his back bending over to pick up a ball that had deflected off his glove.
"I felt like a dog bit me in the back," Zambrano said. "No, really, like somebody twisted it hard. But when I stood up and stretched a little, I felt much better."
Zambrano improved to 12-5, while the Cubs moved to within five games of .500 at 65-70.
While numbers don't tell the entire story about the 2005 Cubs, they do present some clues as to where things went south:
In the three years of the Dusty Baker era, the Cubs' bullpen went from eighth in NL earned-run average in 2003 (4.16) to ninth in 2004 (4.03) to 10th this season (4.35), showing little or no improvement. Cubs starters under Baker went from second in the league in '03 (3.69) to first in '04 (3.72) before regressing to ninth this season at 4.36. In August, the Cubs' staff posted a 4.63 ERA, third worst in the league.
Injuries forced the Cubs to use Sergio Mitre, Rich Hill, John Koronka and Jon Leicester in 15 starts. They combined to go 3-7 with a 10.17 ERA, allowing 87 hits and 33 walks in 77 innings.
The decision to bring back Todd Walker over Mark Grudzielanek at second base suggested the Cubs valued Walker's offense over Grudzielanek's defense. Grudzielanek, now in St. Louis, leads all NL second basemen in double plays (100), an area in which Walker does not excel. Not coincidentally, the Cardinals rank first in the league in double plays turned and in ERA.
Baker handed Corey Patterson 127 at-bats as his leadoff hitter. Patterson ranks last in the league in on-base percentage (.268) from the leadoff spot. The Cubs are 15th in the league in both leadoff average (.253) and on-base percentage (.303).
Allowing Moises Alou to leave turned a team strength in '04 into a glaring weakness. With Alou in left field most of the season, Cubs left fielders combined to hit .291 with 40 home runs and 103 RBIs in 04, ranking third in the NL in homers and RBIs in left. This year's revolving door of left fielders has combined to hit .260 with 12 home runs and 57 RBIs, ranking 14th in homers and RBIs.
The Cubs set franchise records in '04 with 99 errorless games and a .986 fielding percentage. They have had 68 errorless games this season and a .982 fielding percentage, 12th in the league.