Who are the “X” factors? Who will provide the unexpected boost?
This version of the Cubs should be rated X.
Get your mind out of the gutter. It has nothing to do with anything obscene — although the way the Cubs have been teasing their poor fans over the years has been quite obscene.
The Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals appear to be ready to duke it out during the final month of the season for the National League Central Division crown. Two games separate the three teams. It’s shaping up to be a fun race.
The Cubs face off with Milwaukee for the final time during the regular season when the Brewers come to town for a three-game series starting tonight at Wrigley Field.
Who are the “X” factors in all of this? Who will provide the unexpected boost?
The Brewers have an “X” factor in pitcher Ben Sheets. Can the oft-injured star return from a finger injury to make a difference in the race? (He could return to face the Cubs this week.)
The Cardinals have left-handed pitcher Mark Mulder and his hurt shoulder as their X-man. Can he come back and make the pitching-poor, offensively rich defending World Series champions better?
The Cubs, however, have the lead in “X” factors. They have five players whose performances this year have been sometimes up, sometimes down. The contributions of these players will weigh heavily in the North Siders’ bid for a spot in the playoffs.
The left fielder, who suffered a torn quadriceps muscle Aug. 5, is slated to be activated from the disabled list today. Manager Lou Piniella insists Soriano will return to the leadoff spot in the order, even though Ryan Theriot (.351 on-base percentage, team-high 22 stolen bases) is better suited for the job.
Soriano possesses a great combination of speed and power, but how long will it take before he’s fully able to make trouble on the basepaths again? Still, having him back in the lineup can’t hurt.
The Cubs acquired Monroe last week, knowing that with the Detroit Tigers his overall body of work this year (.222) was below par, but that he also could hit the heck out of left-handed pitching (.302). The Cubs are hoping he can be their 2007 version of Randall Simon. In the Cubs’ run to the postseason in 2003, Simon, a post-non-waiver trade deadline acquisition, hit .282 with six homers and 21 RBI in 33 games.
Tonight’s scheduled starting pitcher has a 7-7 record with a respectable 3.67 ERA this season. The left-hander has been consistently inconsistent more than consistent, and with ace Carlos Zambrano struggling (three straight losses), the Cubs need someone to step up and dominate. If Hill can regain the form he showed in April (3-1, 1.77 ERA in six starts), the Cubs should prosper.
Jones was buried on the roster by Piniella and nearly traded by general manager Jim Hendry after Jones hit .233 with two homers and 20 RBI before the All-Star break. Since then, he’s hit .326 with three homers and 27 RBI, and turned in some defensive gems in the outfield. If he can stay hot and add to his power — he has just five home runs in 359 at-bats this season — it will give a boost to the Cubs’ inconsistent offense.
As has been proved many times over the years, the usually unheralded middle relievers can radically determine the fate of teams. Howry (5-7 overall, 3-3 in one-run decisions) has almost as many decisions as many starters in the league, so he’s usually in the middle of the action. If he can just stick to victories and holds, the bullpen will be better for it.
Jeff Vorva can be reached at email@example.com or (708) 633-5957. Read his blog at http://blogs.dailysouthtown.com/vorva.