Chicago Cubs: A Look Back at 2008, Maintaining a Lead

Neil FinnellCorrespondent IDecember 30, 2008

Interleague play, a broken hand, DL trips for Carlos Zambrano and Reed Johnson, new arms added to the mix, a big turnaround against the Fish, and a four-game sweep were just a few of the storylines and highlights for the Cubs in June and July.

The solid start Lou Piniella preached about ended up being the difference as injuries and a difficult schedule caught up to the Cubs and almost bumped them out of first place in the Central.

The notion that divisions cannot be won in July was thrown out the window in 2008 after the Cubs showed how important every game is during a long season.

Lou Piniella's crew entered June in first place in the Central Division with a two-and-a-half game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals. While June of 2008 was far less dramatic than a year earlier, the third month of the baseball season still posed challenges for the Cubs.

After beginning the month on the West Coast, the Cubs lost Alfonso Soriano for six weeks on June 11 with a broken left hand...the Braves' Jeff Bennett hit Soriano on a pitch high and tight. The Cubs survived without Soriano but other than sweeping the White Sox at Wrigley, struggled in Interleague Play.

The Cubs reached 20 games over .500 on June 15 with a win over the Blue Jays in Toronto but ran into a very talented Tampa Bay Rays team soon after.

June also saw the Cubs place Carlos Zambrano and Reed Johnson on the DL. The injuries to Soriano, Zambrano and Johnson took a toll on the Cubs in July.

Despite sending eight players to the final All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium, the Cubs stumbled toward the break, especially Carlos Marmol. Marmol struggled but the injury to Kerry Wood provided an opportunity for Marmol to be named to the NL All-Star team. The boost of confidence ended up being exactly what Marmol needed.

The Cubs received a shot in the arm, and the rotation, when they acquired Rich Harden and Chad Gaudin from the A's on July 8 for Matt Murton, Eric Patterson, Sean Gallagher and Josh Donaldson. Harden made his electrifying debut at Wrigley on July 12 against the San Francisco and struck out 10...eight swinging.

The fourth month of the season ended with a clash in Milwaukee between two of the league's best. With the recent addition of CC Sabathia, no one gave the Cubs much of a chance in the four-game series to win one game, much less all four.

But the Cubs swept the Brewers in their park and those four games ended up being the turning point of the season.

June and July - Injuries, Interleague Play, The White Sox, Harden and All-Stars

Cubs Record in June - 15-12 - Overall Record for 2008 as of June 30th - 50-33 - First place in the Central Division 2 ½ games ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals

Dempster Completes One and Soriano Breaks His Hand - June 11, 2008 - Dempster Goes the Distance in a Costly Win

Ryan Dempster's complete game and the Cubs 10th straight win of the year at Wrigley was lost after Alfonso Soriano was hit in the left hand by a pitch from Jeff Bennett in the second inning.

The Cubs won the game 7-2 with the big hit coming off the bat of Kosuke Fukudome. Fukudome gave the Cubs a 3-0 lead with his fifth home run of the year in the 1st inning.

Bobby Cox and the Braves do not like facing Alfonso Soriano. After a three home run performance on a Friday night in Atlanta in 2007, Tim Hudson "brushed" Soriano off the plate the next day and the drama continued on Sunday night. Ted Lilly was ejected after hitting Edgar Renteria and Renteria took his frustration out on Mike Fontenot's face.

At the time the question was did the Braves order the high and tight pitch from an inexperienced pitcher. Whatever the case, the Cubs lost their left fielder for six weeks and his absence put a strain on the rest of the roster, especially Mark DeRosa and Kosuke Fukudome.

However, Jim Edmonds stepped up and provided the Cubs with some much-needed offense in Soriano's absence.

Jim Edmonds and Reed Johnson would be the difference the following day. Edmonds drove in the first two runs and tied the game with one out in the bottom of the ninth with a solo shot to left.

Len Kasper paid tribute to Jack Brickhouse while Edmonds circled the bases. Reed Johnson drove in the winning run when Jeff Ridgeway hit him with a pitch with the bases loaded in the 11th inning.

Reed Johnson and Ted Lilly Return to Toronto - June 15, 2008 - 20 Over

A day after Reed Johnson beat his former team and Roy Halladay with a 3-run shot Ted Lilly took the mound north of the border and beat his former club 7-4. While the 70th game of the year was just another in June, the win set a season-high mark of 20 games over .500.

Micah Hoffpauir, the Cubs' DH Derrek Lee, Kosuke Fukudome, Reed Johnson and Jim Edmonds each had a big day at the plate.

Sweeping the South Side - June 20, 2008 - How About That Finish....Cubs Win!; June 21, 2008 - One Great Inning....Cubs Win!; June 22, 2008 - Another Gem for Dempster....Cubs Sweep!

While the White Sox would end up repaying the favor, the first series of the year between the Cubs and White Sox was on the North Side....and the weekend belonged to Lou Piniella's crew.

Without Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Zambrano and Reed Johnson the Cubs squared off against the AL Central Division leading White Sox. The first game featured a match-up of Ted Lilly and John Danks....and was dominated by the Sox early on.

The Cubs fell behind 3-1 before Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez went back-to-back in the seventh to tie the game. Aramis Ramirez lifted the Cubs to their 12th straight win at Wrigley in the eighth. Ramirez ripped a 1-0 pitch from Scott Linebrink over the wall in center to power the Cubs to a 4-3 win.

Game two featured a match-up of Jason Marquis and Jose Contreras. The Cubs placed Carlos Zambrano on the DL before the game and recalled Eric Patterson from Triple-A Iowa. The game was decided in the fourth inning.

The Cubs scored 9 of their 11 runs in the fourth off of four home runs. The Cubs went back-to-back twice in the same inning and Jim Edmonds hit two of the four dingers off of White Sox pitching. Eric Patterson played a big role in the win and was 3-for-5 with two runs scored, a double, a stolen base and a RBI.

Ryan Dempster and Javier Vazquez took the hill in game three on Sunday Night Baseball. The Cubs thumped the Sox by a score of 7-1 behind a gem by Dempster. The Cubs won their 14th straight at Wrigley for the first time since June 4 - July 10, 1936. Dempster allowed only one run in eight-plus innings on 10 hits with four strikeouts and a walk. The Cubs defense turned three double plays.

Aramis Ramirez, Derrek Lee and Eric Patterson supplied the offense in the Cubs sixth straight win against the White Sox.

The next day rumors began to surface that the Cubs were interested in trading for Rich Harden.

The White Sox rebounded the following weekend with a 3-game sweep of their own at the Cell....

Cubs Record in July - 15-11 - Overall Record for 2008 as of July 31st - 65-44 - First place in the Central Division 5 games ahead of the Milwaukee Brewers

The First To 50 in the N.L. - July 1, 2008 - Finally...50

Lou Piniella's crew was poised to become the first team in the majors to reach the 50-win plateau but after stumbling against the Orioles and White Sox, they had to wait to the last day of June.

The Cubs began the month on the West Coast and the 50th win of the year did not come until after midnight in Chicago. Ted Lilly earned his ninth win of the season in a 9-2 victory over Barry Zito and the Giants.

Mark DeRosa hit a pair of home runs, including his third career grand slam. DeRosa tied a career high with six RBI's and with Aramis Ramirez on the shelf became the first Cubs' third baseman since Ron Santo in 1961 to hit two home runs, score three runs and drive in six.

Matt Murton put together his best game of the year as a Cub with two doubles and two RBI.

The win ended the Cubs four-game losing streak and their six-game road losing streak.

Fireworks, Big Z and Pujols' 300th on the fourth - July 4, 2008 - Z's Back

Carlos Zambrano returned from the DL and made his first start since June 18th. Zambrano dominated the Cardinals and tossed six innings of shutout ball. Big Z allowed only four hits....and two of them did not leave the infield. Only two Cardinal baserunners reached second base and Cubs' pitching did not allow a single runner to reach third base.

The Cubs won the game 2-1 and both of the Cubs' runs were scored off of by Kosuke Fukudome and the other by Geovany Soto. Bobby Howry surrendered the Cardinals only run on the night....a solo home run by Albert Pujols in the eighth, the 300th home run of his career.

Bouncing Back in St. Louis - July 6, 2008 - Marshall, Marshall, Marshall...Cubs Win Series

A day after the Cubs and Kerry Wood blew a two-run lead in the bottom of the 9th, Sean Marshall took the hill in what was the biggest game of the year for the Cubs at the time. The Cubs were at the end of a very difficult stretch....the Sunday game in St. Louis was the 23rd game out of 32 on the road. The Cubs spent most of that time without Carlos Zambrano and Reed Johnson....and Alfonso Soriano was still on the DL.

Sean Marshall posted his first win of the season and allowed one run (a solo home run by Ryan Ludwick) on six hits with four strikeouts and a walk. Marshall pitched like an ace with a calm, cool demeanor on a day his club needed a solid performance from their starting pitcher.

The offense broke out of a minor slump. Each starter recorded at least one hit in the 7-1 win over Todd Wellemeyer. Aramis Ramirez and Derrek Lee both drove in runs and Geovany Soto hit his 15th home run of the year in the eighth inning....on the day he was named the first rookie catcher in the history of the National League to start the All-Star Game.

Star Star - July 6, 2008 - Heading to the Bronx

Lou Piniella's crew set a new franchise record for having at the time seven players named to the N.L. All-Star team. Kosuke Fukudome and Geovany Soto were voted starters by the fans while Carlos Zambrano, Kerry Wood, Alfonso Soriano, Ryan Dempster and Aramis Ramirez were named to the N.L. squad.

Alfonso Soriano was unable to participate due to injury, despite the fact he tried to rush himself back....because he wanted to play for one last time at Yankee Stadium. Kerry Wood also had to bow out due to the blister that sidelined him for a month.

Carlos Marmol at the time was in the middle of a horrible stretch but was named by his peers to take Wood's spot....a move that would end up paying big dividends for the Cubs in the second half. The confidence boost Marmol received far outweighed the loss of time away that he would have received during the break.

Rich Harden and Chad Gaudin - July 8, 2008 - From the Wire....Harden and Gaudin to the Cubs

After the Brewers added CC Sabathia, many wondered if the Cubs would make a splash of their own. While Jim Hendry said the acquisition of Rich Harden had nothing to do with the Brewers, the Cubs added one of the best pitchers in baseball, when healthy, for a very good pitching prospect in Sean Gallagher, two players that no longer fit in Matt Murton and Eric Patterson and a highly touted catching prospect in Josh Donaldson.

The additions of Rich Harden and Chad Gaudin bolstered a very good pitching staff. Harden was effective for the Cubs despite missing time after receiving an injection in August. Gaudin started off strong but after his mysterious late night injury was less than stellar when he returned and failed to make the playoff roster.

If the Cubs can receive productive, healthy campaigns from Harden and Gaudin in 2009, the trade made on July 8, 2008 could end up being better than the one that sent CC Sabathia to Milwaukee.

Rich Harden's Debut - July 12, 2008 - Two Games for the Price of One

Rich Harden was as advertised in his Cub debut. Harden electrified the home crowd and left to a standing ovation that gave those in attendance chills. Harden dominated the Giants on that Saturday afternoon and left with one out in the 6th with the Cubs up 7-0.

Kevin Hart retired the Giants in order in the seventh but the Giants started chipping away in the eighth off of Hart and tied the game in the ninth off of Carlos Marmol. Several defensive miscues and lackadaisical play led to Harden not receiving the win in his debut.

Jim Edmonds drove in four of the Cubs' first seven runs, all with two outs but it was a single in the 11th by Sean Marshall that led to the win. After a failed sacrifice bunt by Mike Fontenot forced Marshall at 3rd base, Reed Johnson singled home Mark DeRosa with the game winner.

The Cubs won 8-7 in 11 innings but most of the crowd left Wrigley shaking their head that day.

Soriano, Little Babe Ruth and the Shark to the Rescue - July 27, 2008 - A Timely Comeback

After struggling to start the second half and barely resembling the team that took the field for most of the season, the Cubs limped into a game against the Florida Marlins tied atop the Central Division with the Milwaukee Brewers....with a big series starting the next day in Miller Park.

Jason Marquis struggled with his command and gave up five runs before the first nine outs of the game were recorded. Mike Jacobs hit two home runs of Marquis and at the time the Brewers were up 4-1 at Miller Park.

Alfonso Soriano started the comeback with a single in the third and the Cubs cut the Marlins lead to 5-2 going into the fourth. Henry Blanco reached on a one-out bloop single in the fourth and Jason Marquis followed with a walk. Alfonso Soriano stepped in and tied the game with a three-run shot to right, his first since returning from the DL.

Marquis gave up the lead the next inning after Dan Uggla hit a ball onto Waveland Avenue.....but the Cubs were far from done.

Chad Gaudin kept the Marlins from tacking on and Derrek Lee tied the game in the 7th with his 17th home run of the year. With the bases loaded and two outs, Mike Fontenot cleared the bases with a double to left over Josh Willingham's the meantime the Astros had battled back at Miller Park and was up by a score of 8-5.

Jeff Samardzija retired all six batters he faced in the last two innings on 25 pitches, with a little help by a tremendous catch in left center by Jim Edmonds, for his first career big league save.

With the changing of fortunes at Wrigley and Miller Park, at the end of the day the Cubs had a slim one game lead in the division....and headed to Milwaukee for the four-game showdown.

A Heavyweight Title Bout - Four Rounds for the Crown - July 28, 2008 - Steppin' Up; July 29, 2008 - Z Wins Z Battle; July 30, 2008 - Keeping the Mo; July 31, 2008 - An Exclamation Point

Ned Yost and Lou Piniella set their rotations for this series. The Cubs faced the top four pitchers in the Brewers' rotation and Milwaukee faced the best from Piniella's staff: CC Sabathia vs. Ted Lilly in Game One; Carlos Zambrano vs. Ben Sheets in Game Two; Ryan Dempster vs. Manny Parra in Game Three; Rich Harden vs. Dave Bush in Game Four.

The Brewers were the odds on favorite to win the series if not sweep it, after all they had the best pitcher in the National League in CC Sabathia, who had not been beaten since coming over from Cleveland.

The young Brewers had become the media darlings and came in playing their best ball of the year.....they had the Cubs right where they wanted them.

Game one of the Brewers series was arguably the best game the Cubs played the entire season. Derrek Lee and Alfonso Soriano stepped up and led their team to victory behind Ted Lilly. Lee drove in the Cubs' first run after a leadoff double by Soriano. The Cubs leadoff man stole 3rd and scored on Lee's single to right.

Soriano followed his double in the first with his 17th home run of the year in his next at bat. Soriano gave the Cubs a two-run lead and set the tone for the series. The Cubs offense made CC Sabathia work and chased him after six-and-two-thirds innings and 124 pitches....his highest pitch total at the time in five years.

If not for Bobby Howry serving up a game tying home run to Russell Branyan in the seventh, the Cubs would have handed Sabathia his first loss in a Brewers' uniform.

The difference in the game was a one-out double in the ninth by Derrek Lee, his 11th game winning RBI of the season. Mark DeRosa added a two-out RBI infield single to the hole at short that accounted for the Cubs' sixth, and final run of the game.

Chad Gaudin picked up the win in the 6-4 defeat of the Brewers.

The second game of the series marked the first back-to-back wins for Lou Piniella's crew since the beginning of June in San Diego. Carlos Zambrano out pitched Ben Sheets in the 7-1 win.

Mark DeRosa gave the Cubs a one-run lead in the fourth on a sacrifice fly and the Cubs broke the game open in the sixth inning. They scored four runs on seven consecutive hits off Ben Sheets before the Brewers' ace was able to record the first out of the inning.

Kosuke Fukudome delivered the big hit, a triple to left that was misplayed by Ryan Braun. Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez scored to give the Cubs a 3-0 lead. Mark DeRosa and Carlos Zambrano drove in runs and the Cubs took a three-game lead in the division.

The Cubs' offense kept on hitting in game three. After a wild pitch in the first inning by Ryan Dempster gave the Brewers a 1-0 lead, Dempster settled down and did not allow another run. The Cubs beat the Brewers 7-2.

The Cubs first run came on a wild pitch on strike three to Reed Johnson. Alfonso Soriano and Ryan Theriot led the way. They reached base a combined ten times and Theriot drove in a pair with his third triple of the year.

Chad Gaudin was impressive out of the pen once again and the Brewers second run came off the bat of Prince Fielder....a shot to right in the ninth off of Neal Cotts.

The Cubs took control of the division with the win and went into Thursday afternoon's game looking for the knockout punch.

The Cubs improved to a season high 21 games over .500 with the 11-4 win over the Brewers in game four. Rich Harden picked up his first win as a Cub. The two big hits came off the bat of Jim Edmonds.....a solo shot in the third inning and a grand slam in the fourth off of Dave Bush.

Alfonso Soriano hit his 18th of the year in the eighth and the Cubs offense poured it on later in the inning. Aramis Ramirez doubled in a run and Kosuke Fukudome hit his 8th home run of the year....all three runs came with two outs.

The Cubs beat the Brewers 11-4 and stretched their lead to five full games on the last day of July.

On Deck: A Look Back at 2008 - Crowning the Champs


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