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Single-minded approach clicks
The Cubs cap off a stormy first half Sunday with enough stories to last a lifetime.
Pitchers punching catchers, fans charging relievers, mind-reading umpires and dirt-kicking tirades were only a few of the episodes from this drama-filled season.
"It has gone by quick," manager Lou Piniella said. "It really has."
Piniella then paused.
"Not that quick," he added.
No matter the pace, the Cubs appear to be getting their act together at the right time.
They pulled to within 4 1/2 games of first-place Milwaukee on Saturday after a 7-1 victory over Pittsburgh before a crowd of 33,293 at PNC Park, dusting off the Pirates with a 14-hit attack that included 13 singles.
Every starter except Jacque Jones and Aramis Ramirez drove in a run against Pittsburgh right-hander John Van Benschoten and four relievers, including starting pitcher Ted Lilly, who improved to 8-4 with another strong outing.
The Cubs have won 12 of their last 15 games and are 22-11 since June 3, the day after Piniella's ejection for kicking dirt on umpire Mark Wegner.
Lilly has won four straight since his first-inning ejection June 10 in Atlanta for allegedly throwing at Edgar Renteria.
Considering Carlos Zambrano is 5-1 since punching Michael Barrett on June 1, creative tension may be just what the doctor ordered for the feisty Cubs.
Lilly pitched 7 1/3 innings, allowing one run on eight hits with six strikeouts and one walk, while Carlos Marmol threw 1 2/3 innings of scoreless relief, reducing his earned-run average to 0.96.
Lilly was in control all night, continuing the hot streak that preceded his ejection.
"He has gotten better as the summer's gone on, which is good to see," Piniella said.
While Lilly has allowed two or fewer runs in three of his last five starts, he's not altogether satisfied with his first half.
"I'm happy with it but I'm not satisfied," Lilly said. "There are a lot of things I could've done better. There was a stretch of three, four games where I didn't think I was aggressive enough. … I was struggling there for a while, but for the most part, we're in good position, so for the most part I'm happy."
The Cubs got to Van Benschoten early, as Alfonso Soriano beat out an infield hit and stole second. Ryan Theriot singled and Derrek Lee broke an 0-for-12 skid with an RBI single. Daryle Ward added a run-scoring single two batters later, and the Cubs were on their way.
The Cubs haven't homered in eight games, but no one seems to mind.
"I'd rather not get any and win then get four or five and lose," said Theriot, who had three hits. "The key to the game is whoever touches home most wins. However you do that really doesn't matter too much."
Zambrano will start Sunday in the first-half finale, and everyone will scatter afterward until Thursday when the Cubs have a night workout at Wrigley Field. Piniella will retreat to his Tampa home to spend the break with his wife, Anita, and meet up with some old friends.
Piniella's first 3 1/2 months as Cubs manager have been an exhilarating yet exhausting experience, but he wouldn't want it any other way.
"Look, I've enjoyed it," Piniella said. "I've had good people to work with here, and players who've played hard. There has been a lot of movement here. Win-loss-wise, I wish we had played a little better. I think everybody would like that.
"It has been slowly getting better, and what we need to do is continue to get better the second half of the season. That's really our objective, and we'll probably have to make a few adjustments to our roster still.
"The city of Chicago and Wrigley Field and our fans, they're special, they really are."
And the media too?
"Most of it," he replied. "Most of it."