One Cubs-related drought ended in 2008, so why not another?
Yeah, yeah ... I know. Lame. I couldn't resist.
Still, Carlos Zambranothrew a no-hitter on Sunday. The Cubs hadn't had one since 1972, when Milt Pappas did it. If we can sift through the emotions involved with such an exciting circumstance -- and a weird one, considering the game was full of Cubs fans at Miller Park even though it was an Astros home game -- there was something extremely significant about this outing ... even if Darin Erstad had dribbled a grounder through a hole in that last at-bat. What was it?
Big Z is back.
The burly right-hander anchors the Cubs rotation. He is the heart and soul of the team from an emotional leader standpoint. The team is now 19-9 in his starts. So he's the staff ace, and we all knew that. The problem was, the Cubs were on the verge of hitting the panic button with Big Z. He hadn't started a game since September 2. In his five previous starts before the no-no, dating back to August 9th, he was quite poor. In 26 2/3 innings, the ERA was 8.10. The 33 hits and 17 walks made the WHIP dangerously close to 2.00.
There were health concerns. He had been pushed back a few days before his last start, and then was removed after only five innings and 86 pitches. The Cubs consequently shut him down, and there was even talk that his season was over. You know Cubdom. People were going insane. The team was reeling, and two of the three big rotation guns were shut down. Rich Harden had a nice outing Thursday against the Cardinals, so next up was Zambrano's turn to ease the collective minds of Cubs Nation.
Was Big Z actually okay? The answer Sunday night was a resounding "absofreakinglutely." This is the Z we Cubs fans all know and love -- he even had a hand in the big offensive inning. He was the fiery competitor that harnesses those off-the-charts emotions into some of the sweetest stuff from 60 feet, six inches in the majors. He was the enthusiastic equivalent of a seven year-old who was playing the game he loved, while being the professional equivalent of Curt Schilling. He was prepared for this outing, knew how he wanted to work every hitter, and never strayed from that game plan ... with the help of an incredibly gifted game-caller behind the plate in Geovany Soto.
The significance of this outing stretches so much further than simply a no-hitter. The impact of this gem could possibly be felt in late October. The Brewers have their hands firmly around their throats, so the Cubs' division lead is now a whopping 7 1/2 games. The bad streak that happened in early September is now clearly in the rear-view mirror, and the pressure is completely off the team. With the availability of Sean Marshall as a spot-starter, the Cubs can afford to be very conservative with Zambrano, Harden, and Ryan Dempster for the last two weeks of the season. They will also have the luxury of setting up the playoff rotation how they want it (for the record, I'd go Z, Dempster, Harden, Ted Lilly, Z for the five NLDS games).
An additional layer here is a team morale standpoint. The Cubs went through a streak of eight losses in nine games, and now they've won three in a row. The players had to be worried -- oh sure, they don't admit it to the media, but you know deep down, in places they don't like to talk about at parties, they were scared the mojo of '08 was gone. In two squeakers at St. Louis and one outing from their emotional leader, the mojo is back. Lou Pinella has wanted a "Cubbie Swagger" since he took the job at the beginning of 2007. They had it for a while this year, and then lost it. In one fell swoop, it's all back.
One last note ... I'm 30 years old. Obviously, I've had my fair share of ups and downs as a loyal Cubs fan. I really don't think I can properly put into perspective how cool tonight was. You saw the date of the last Cubs' no-no, and you're smart enough to do the math and realize I've never seen one from my favorite team. I felt like it was the World Series, only the rules were that the pitcher couldn't give up a hit. After it happened, I called my dad to see if he was still alive. This is our life (Cubs fans, not Snyders). I just ask that when you come across the idiocy that is mainstream Cubs fans -- translation, fairweather losers -- to please not paint us all with the same brush. There are some respectful people that truly hold this franchise near and dear to our hearts.
For us, Z's no-no was touching. It was also, in our warped minds, a precursor of things to come.
See you in October. I know think I'm ready.