Manager Dusty Baker said after Friday night's 14-inning triumph that perhaps "the worm has turned" for the Cubs.
Whether or not that's the case, there's little doubt they have been playing much better, as evidenced by Saturday's 8-5 victory over St. Louis at Busch Stadium.
Aramis Ramirez's grand slam off Mark Mulder paced a 13-hit attack, and Glendon Rusch pitched five innings for his first victory since April 16 at Pittsburgh. The Cubs have won four of their last five games, as well as their last two series, and are 6-2 against the first-place Cardinals.
"I think we've been playing good baseball in this series," Rusch said. "I think it's kind of the same situation a little bit like when we play Milwaukee.
"Milwaukee kind of comes in and plays us tough. We continue to come in and play St. Louis tough. Hopefully, we can do that with everyone in our division."
Even reliever Roberto Novoa got into the act, pitching three scoreless innings in relief and hitting an RBI double in the sevenththe first hit and RBI of his career. Novoa was using Henry Blanco's bat, wearing Rusch's batting gloves and borrowing Carlos Zambrano's grip-it-and-rip-it approach.
"Everything's working OK," Novoa said. "I got a hit. I'm pitching pretty good. Everybody's happy."
Everybody except the Cardinals, who were uncharacteristically sloppy, committing three errors in the Cubs' five-run fourth inning.
"Maybe it's our time to get some breaks," Baker said.
Rusch entered the game with a 1-4 record and 8.46 ERA as a starter but limited the Cardinals to three runs on four hits over five innings, earning another start from Baker. The Cardinals were forced to replace slugger Albert Pujols in the second inning after he suffered a strained right oblique muscle and quickly discovered they were as toothless without their top hitter as the Cubs looked in May without Derrek Lee.
"You don't wish that upon anybody," Rusch said. "But it's always nice when you don't have his bat in the lineup."
Errors by David Eckstein and Scott Rolen in the fourth led to Ramirez's grand slam off Mulder that gave the Cubs a 4-1 lead. First baseman Phil Nevin, making his first start as a Cub, smoked a two-run homer to straightaway center in the fifth, sending the Cubs on their way.
"It almost felt like an Opening Day at-bat," Nevin said. "I haven't been nervous in a long time. I keep looking down and seeing 'Chicago.' It's pretty cool."
Nevin's presence has taken some of the pressure off Ramirez, the only other real power hitter in the lineup since Lee went down. "It helps the team, not just me," Ramirez said. "We all know he can hit. He has pop and that's what we need."
The Cubs are still 11½ games behind St. Louis, but at least the miseries of May seem to be in the rearview mirror.
"It's a lot better than the way we started those last couple of trips," Baker said, referring to seven straight losses on a West Coast trip and a 1-5 trip to U.S. Cellular Field and Miami.
Despite being 10 games below .500, the Cubs are optimistic they still have time to prove they aren't dead yet.
"There's a ton of baseball left," Rusch said.
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