With the pressure off and the focus of the city squarely on the White Sox, the Cubs suddenly are looking like world-beaters.
A 6-3 victory Tuesday night at Milwaukee, coming on the heels of an 8-3 homestand, helped relax a clubhouse that was anything but loose just three weeks ago.
"Winning and getting hits and scoring runs relaxes you," manager Dusty Baker said. "When you're not winning and not hitting and you're pitching fair, it sort of makes everybody uptight a little bit. We're starting to feel that feeling of winning when you go out there every day."
Jacque Jones and John Mabry hit two-run homers off Tomo Ohka in the Cubs' five-run first inning, and rookie Carlos Marmol pitched well enough to even his record at 5-5. The Cubs have won 11 of 15 games, and are 17-10 since beating Milwaukee three straight at Miller Park July 7-9, the final three games before the All-Star break.
Was it the announcement of the "evaluation period" by general manager Jim Hendry that started the streak?
The reprieve for Baker?
Or is it simply a matter of everyone starting to do their jobs at the same time?
Asked before the game to pinpoint the main reason for the Cubs resurgence, Baker pointed to the offense.
"If you have got (Matt) Murton, (Angel) Pagan, Aramis (Ramirez), Jacque, Michael Barrett, Juan Pierre and Neifi (Perez) hot if you get guys hot, you're going to win," Baker said. "We also have some young pitchers going deeper into the games. So therefore I can matchup who I want to in the latter parts of the game."
Before the All-Star break, the Cubs hit .265 and were last in the National League in runs scored. In the games played since the break, they've hit .282 entering Tuesday and were tied for fifth in the league in runs scored. The pitching also improved, but not as drastically. The Cubs had a 4.80 earned-run average before the break, 12th in the league. They are ninth since the break with a 4.66 earned run average.
"We've been playing good baseball all around," Barrett said. "We've cut down on some of our walks, and that helps with the big hits. Keeping the walks down is huge."
Marmol lasted 51/3 innings, and allowed three runs on four hits and four walks. In his last seven starts, Marmol issued 36 walks in 35 2/3 innings.
Baker chalked it up to the perils of youth.
"You'll see progress, and then the next start you'll see (things) regress," Baker said. "Then you see progress again. The thing about a young pitcher, the main problem is usually consistency in the strike zone. We have to get him a consistent release pointto get consistent strikes."
After being staked to the 5-0 lead, Marmol served up home runs to Bill Hall leading off the second and Gabe Gross leading off the third. Baker gave him the hook with a 6-2 lead one out in the sixth after he walked Geoff Jenkins, his second free pass of the inning. Another walk by Michael Wuertz and an infield hit by Jeff Cirillo off Wuertz's glove made it 6-3, before Gross barely missed hitting a go-ahead grand slam off Will Ohman.
After Jones caught the drive at the wall, Ohman pumped his fist walking off the mound. The Cubs shut down the Brewers from there. Ryan Dempster recorded his 22nd save.
"Let's see someone write something bad about that," Dempster said.