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Chicago Cubs Feel Reality's Wrath

Tab BamfordSenior Writer IJuly 21, 2009

CHICAGO - JULY 08: Manager Lou Piniella #41 of the Chicago Cubs paces in the dugout during a game against the Atlanta Braves on July 8, 2009 at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. The Braves defeated the Cubs 4-1. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

What a difference a day makes.

Or a two hour drive north.

On Sunday, the Chicago Cubs finished a relatively easy four-game sweep at the Washington Nationals, running two rookie pitchers to the hill and finding an offense that had been dormant for a couple weeks.

The Cubs were now just two games behind the St. Louis Cardinals, despite their woeful first half. Things were looking up, right?

Rewind...the Cubs swept the Washington Nationals. On Monday they suited up against a real, major league roster.

In fact, it was against the defending World Champion Phillies in Philadelphia.

And so after a fun series that felt as much like Spring Training as it did the start of the season's second half, Monday brought about as warm a reception as the back of Samuel L. Jackson's right hand.

And I'm talking about the "Shaft" Jackson, not "Deep Blue Sea."

The Cubs had sandbagged their lone All Star representative, Ted Lilly, for an extra two days because of a leg issue. That had him well rested for a big game against a good team.

Lilly might have wanted to wait another four days. Christmas trees don't get lit up as much as Lilly did on Monday night.

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Lilly's line: four innings pitched, eight hits, nine runs (seven earned), two walks, two homers and two free passes.

At least the bullpen looked good, right?

The bats did as much to help their struggling starter as they did for most of their starters in the first half of the season.

The Cubs had as many hits with runners in scoring position as they had double plays (one), and left seven men on base. But consider this reality: even if the Cubs had scored all seven of those runners, they would have still lost by two.

The heart of the Cubs order needed the paddles of life on Monday, as Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez and Micah Hoffpauir saddled up to go 0-10 at the plate. If not for Alfonso Soriano's three hits, there wouldn't have been a starter on base after Ryan Theriot batting second; Mike Fontenot and Koyie Hill were 0-4 each.

Thankfully the Cubs were embarrassed by one of the Phillies' best pitchers.

Oh, wait...that was Rodrigo Lopez on Monday night. Yes, the Rodrigo Lopez.

Lopez improved to 2-0 on the season, holding the Cubs to one run on five hits over six innings.

I guess there's a difference between a good team and the Nationals after all.

This loss begins what could prove to be a pivotal stretch of games in determining whether or not the Cubs are buyers or sellers at the trade deadline. The pitching matchups do not favor the Cubs, and the teams they're playing aren't sitting back and enjoying the chorus of "Go Cubs Go."

After being thoroughly dominated by Lopez, the Cubs get a look at Joe Blanton and Jamie Moyer in the final two games in Philadelphia before coming home for three games against the Reds.

In the Cincinnati series, the Cubs will face Aaron Harang and Johnny Cueto with their two rookie starters, Randy Wells and Kevin Hart, before getting Lilly back out there on Sunday against Micah Owings.

Then the Cubs go to Houston for four crucial games, during which the Cubs should face Roy Oswalt and Wandy Rodriguez.

There is no doubting the Cubs are in the mix in the National League Central; the standings show you that they're certainly a player in their division.

But Monday served notice that there's a difference between competing in a mediocre division and playing championship-caliber baseball.

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