Lou Piniella meandered up the steps and into the visiting dugout at China Basin on Tuesday, and what a sight he was. Gray hair exposed by the absence of a cap. Week-old stubble. Large boiler barely contained not by baseball pants but by slacks, over which his baseball jersey hung. He was, in short, hardly the vision of the ideal-looking manager. Unless, that is, you consider the team he's managing.

"Right there," Chicago Cubs general manager Jim Hendry joked, eyeing Piniella while conversing with a small group of reporters. "That's our team in a nutshell."

Indeed. Nothing about the Cubs in 2007 has been pretty. They've endured a dugout brawl, a major power outage, clubhouse strife and wild inconsistency from their best pitcher. It has been a season, frankly, not all that unlike the one Piniella endured as a player with the Yankees 30 years ago.

That campaign was so memorable, it was the subject for a book and the basis for the ESPN series, "The Bronx is Burning." And if the Cubs' season winds up the same way that one did for the Yankees -- with the team's first World Series championship in 99 years -- then the North Side of Chicago may well burn, too.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. For now, the Cubs' lot is a good one, but it's anything but stable. They led the Milwaukee Brewers by 11/2 games and the St. Louis Cardinals by four in the National League Central, but given the sad-sack nature of that division, they hardly can be called a juggernaut.


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Still, as Hendry said, this is the place they anticipated being back in the spring. And since it took them the season's first 145 days to establish this big a margin, they might as well enjoy it.

Heaven knows they've come through some serious turbulence to get here.

"We all felt like we had a pretty good team coming out of spring training," Hendry said. "So it was surprising how poorly we played. Then the frustration just kind of boiled over."

Of course that's old news by now, but it bears repeating because you can't tell the story of Piniella's Cubs without it.

Eight weeks from the gate, Lou's crew was 22-29; the rotation's ace, Carlos Zambrano, was sulking and scuffling, because a pending ownership change shelved a contract extension; and the season was on the verge of imploding.

Then the Atlanta Braves came to Wrigley Field for three days.

On Day 1, Zambrano surrendered a late home run to lose 1-0 and responded by punching catcher Michael Barrett in the dugout, setting into motion Barrett's trade to the San Diego Padres three weeks later. On Day 3, with two more losses on the ledger, Piniella disputed an umpire's call, blew a gasket as only he can and drew a four-game suspension.

The Cubs are 44-30 since then, and Zambrano went 9-3 with a 2.20 over the next two months. Hendry said it is not a coincidence.

"It was one of those instances you can have with a team where you feel like your back is against the wall, and your season is going to go one of two ways," he said. "You're either going to pull together and turn things around, or you're going to go the other way and your season is going to be done."

All of which brings us back to that disheveled man in the dugout.

Wrigleyville is Piniella's fifth managerial stop, and his .517 winning percentage over 20 campaigns becomes even more impressive when you consider the three-year jail sentence he served on the top step of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' dugout.

Piniella was 200-285 (.412) during that not-so-happy return to his hometown. Eliminate that from his record and his .536 winning percentage would rank him ahead of Tony La Russa.

"You have to have a guy on that top step who has to get everybody together," Hendry said of Piniella. "Lou knows how to do that. He has a history of doing that."

Nevertheless, this has been one of his better efforts. The Cubs threw $300 million at their problems after losing 96 games a year ago, and Piniella has succeeded in getting his high-profile stars to put their agendas aside.

He has mixed-and-matched his lineup superbly, helping the Cubs win in the wake of a serious injury to Alfonso Soriano (torn quadriceps muscle), a far-less-powerful bat from Derrek Lee (46 homers in 2005, but after a serious wrist injury in '06, only 14 this season) and yet another slide by Zambrano, who hasn't won since receiving (finally) an extension totaling five years and $91.5 million.

"It's a good group of guys that plays hard," former A's catcher Jason Kendall said of the team to whom he was dealt on July 16. "It reminds me a lot of last year. ... Guys play hard and play for each other."

Which, when you think about it, is as ideal a quality as you can want, no matter how it might look.

Contact Rick Hurd at rhurd@bayareanewsgroup.com.

Around the horn

  • The 30-3 epic produced by the Texas Rangers over the Baltimore Orioles on Wednesday provided more than a few mementos for the Hall of Fame. Among the items headed to Cooperstown, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, was Jarrod Saltalamacchia's bat, inscribed with his name, the outdated "Atlanta Braves" inscription and the No. 18 that he no longer wears. Manager Ron Washington's lineup card, the ball reliever Wes Littleton used to collect a save with a 27-run lead, and broadcaster Eric Nadel's scorecard also will be on display.

  • Somebody at the Hall ought to collect Travis Metcalf's itinerary from that day. Metcalf's day started with a 6 a.m. (CDT) cab ride from downtown New Orleans, where he'd been with Texas' Triple-A Oklahoma affiliate. He arrived in Baltimore around 11:30 a.m. (EDT). He was inserted into the game as a pinch-hitter in the seventh inning of the doubleheader opener and hit a grand slam. He then collected four more RBI in the nightcap to set a team record for RBI in a doubleheader. The team flight arrived back in Texas around 4:30 a.m. (CDT), and Metcalf finally reached his hotel around 5 a.m.

  • Edgar Renteria's return to the Atlanta Braves took considerably less time. Renteria took one pitch, shifted his weight onto his back foot and aggravated an ankle injury that had kept him out three weeks. The Braves were to re-evaluate the injury this weekend, and determine whether he needs to go back on the disabled list. Renteria said he was hoping to miss just a week.

  • The San Diego Padres' playoff hopes were similarly dinged when Chris Young left his start Tuesday at New York with discomfort in his lower back, but manager Bud Black said the team is hopeful he'll miss only one start. Young, who leads the NL with a 2.12 ERA, said his velocity has dipped about 5 mph since he injured an oblique muscle last month. Black said it was the adjustment to prevent an reoccurrence of the oblique problem that led to Young's back pain.

  • Fellow playoff contenders Philadelphia and the Los Angeles Dodgers would like to have San Diego's problems. The Phillies put Cole Hamels (left shoulder strain) on the disabled list last week and with Freddy Garcia (right shoulder strain) and Jon Lieber (foot surgery) also on the shelf, they're missing three-fifths of their expected rotation. The Dodgers found out they won't get Randy Wolf (left shoulder) back this season, and with Hong-Chih Kuo (left elbow surgery) already done for the season and Brett Tomko designated for assignment while sporting a 5.56 ERA as a starter, they resorted to signing 44-year-old David Wells for the stretch.

  • Minnesota Twins starter Boof Bonser is doing Wells proud, much to his team's consternation. Bonser, 24, is listed at 260 pounds, but the Twins are insisting he lose 10 to 15 pounds this winter. Bonser had a 12-start winless streak end Thursday -- the longest for a Twin since Pat Mahomes went 12 starts in 1995-96 -- and opponents are hitting .337 against him in the fifth inning and .328 in the sixth. In innings 1-4, opposing hitters are batting .269.

  • No such edicts have been given to Twins first baseman Justin Morneau, but the 2006 American League MVP has frustrated his team just as much. Morneau entered the weekend without a homer in his past 106 at-bats, the longest drought of his career. Amazingly, he was still tied for second in the AL with 28 home runs.

  • Then there was the dubious streak put together by Arizona third baseman Mark Reynolds, whose work was overshadowed considerably by the 42 straight scoreless innings compiled by teammate Brandon Webb. Reynolds struck out nine straight times in a streak that ended Tuesday, tying the mark set five times previously. Here's some consolation for Reynolds: The last player to do so was Kansas City's Bo Jackson in 1988.

  • New York Mets starter Tom Glavine is one of the few active players still remaining from 1988, and the Atlanta Braves purchased a full-page ad in the New York Daily News to honor his 300th win. The ad showed Glavine in a Braves uniform, and thanked him for the 242 victories he collected with the Braves.

  • Milwaukee Brewers third baseman Ryan Braun may be the favorite to collect NL Rookie of the Year hardware, but Colorado shortstop Troy Tulowitzki shouldn't be overlooked. Tulowitzki's 17 home runs are the sixth-most ever for a rookie shortstop, trailing only Boston's Nomar Garciaparra (30, 1997), Baltimore's Ron Hansen (22, 1960), the A's Bobby Crosby (22, 2004), the Yankees' Tom Tresh (20, 1962) and Cubs Hall of Famer Ernie Banks (19, 1954). Tulowitzki also leads all major-league shortstops in assists and is fourth with a .983 fielding percentage.

  • Speaking of rookies, Ian Stewart (Rockies), Hunter Pence (Astros) and Danny Richar (White Sox) all have done something this year that Braun and Tulowitzki haven't. Stewart joined the other two by hitting a grand slam against the Pirates for his first major-league home run on Tuesday. Pence did it May 5 at St. Louis, and Richar did it Friday at Toronto.

  • And finally, it was quite a summit in the Astros clubhouse Monday. Hall of Famers Tony Gwynn, Dave Winfield and Rod Carew met with and congratulated Astros second baseman Craig Biggio, the newest member of their 3,000-hit fraternity. Combined knocks among the four, through Thursday: 12,343.

    Items for this notebook were obtained from writers in other cities, Bill Arnold's Beyond the Box Score, various wire services and the Internet. Contact Rick Hurd at rhurd@bayareanewsgroup.com and comment on his blog at http://blogs.contracostatimes.com/baseball/

    Rail

    FIRE

    Ripping Rangers

    What's more mind-boggling, 30 runs in one game or 25 runs over the final four innings? That's the question the Rangers inspired during their 39-run doubleheader Wednesday. The big rippers: Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Ramon Vasquez with seven RBI apiece.

    1897 Chicago Colts

    Any team holding a record that has lasted 110 years deserves a special mention every century or so. Thus, a tip of the cap to these Cubs ancestors, who with Cap Anson, Clark Griffith and Bill Dahlen, posted a mark (36 runs) even the Rangers' explosion couldn't top.

    Brandon Webb, Diamondbacks

    His 42-inning scoreless streak puts him in a class with Orel Hershiser (59), Don Drysdale (58), Bob Gibson (47)and Sal Maglie (45) for the longest such streaks since 1940. Once he allowed a run, he followed with six innings of one-run ball and halted his team's three-game skid.

    ICE

    Battered Birds

    What's more embarrassing, surrendering two grand slams, dishing up 29 hits or posting a bullpen ERA of 54.00? The Orioles did all that in the 30-3 humiliation against Texas. The big tippers: Brian Burres (ª IP, eight earned runs), Rob Bell (1-1/3, seven) and Paul Shuey (2, nine).

    2006 Oakland Raiders

    Any team that fails to put up 30 once during an entire season deserves a not-so-special citation. Thus, a plug of the nose to Al Davis' bunch for keeping this from being a football-free zone.

    Billy Wagner, Mets

    His blown save Thursday against the San Diego Padres came two nights after he allowed a tie-breaking run in another loss. He's posted two of his three blown saves in the past two weeks and has allowed five runs and 14 hits in 10ª innings since the start of August.

    YOU DON'T SAY

    BY THE NUMBERS

  • 5: Innings in which the Texas Rangers did not score during their 30-3 win over the Baltimore Orioles on Wednesday.

  • 21: Games since the NFL's Baltimore Ravens, the O's football counterparts, have allowed 30 points in a game.

  • 45: Years since two teammates had seven RBI in one game, as Texas' Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Ramon Vasquez tallied. The Yankees' Mickey Mantle and Elston Howard were the last to do it.

  • 12: Players who have had 10 RBI in a game after the Angels' Garret Anderson tallied that many Tuesday.

  • .204: Anderson's average with runners in scoring position entering the game.

    FANTASY

    USE

  • GABE GROSS, Brewers: He earned more at-bats by going 8-for-20 with three homers, eight RBI since his Aug. 15 recall.

  • YUNEL ESCOBAR, Braves: Edgar Renteria aggravated his ankle injury, and that means Escobar will remain in the lineup.

    USE LESS

  • DAVID WELLS, Dodgers: Remember, the Padres already got rid of him, and Los Angeles picked him up only out of desperation.

  • CRAIG MONROE, Cubs: His at-bats don't figure to come in bunches, and he already played his way out of Detroit.

    REV: RANKINGS

    1. Angels Will deeply bruised wrist do what pitchers haven't done -- slow down Chone Figgins? 1

    2. Red Sox Jonathan Papelbon becomes first Bosox to record 30 saves in consecutive seasons 2

    3. Mariners Fatigue will be biggest challenge as they finish season with 44 games in 45 days 3

    4. Yankees Andy Pettitte 5-0 this August, 44-16 lifetime in dog days, and 68-33 career following N.Y. loss 5

    5. D'backs Brandon Webb retired 37 of 42 first hitters during his 42-inning scoreless run 4

    6. Mets Billy Wagner's recent slide -- one blown save, one loss -- has Flushing fans in a panic 7

    7. Padres So much for winning with pitching and defense; offense produced 40 hits in two wins at Mets 6

    8. Indians Reversal of strategy: Manager Eric Wedge moves Grady Sizemore back into leadoff spot 9

    9. Cubs Carlos Zambrano still trying to get his groove back after allowing 13 runs in past 12-1/3 IP 13

    10. Tigers Free-falling AL champs get only one more series against AL Central-leading Indians 8

    11. Phillies Chase Utley on target for return Monday to an offense that badly needs him 10

    12. Braves Mark Teixeira driving in runs, driving up viewers; TBS local ratings up 72 percent since arrival 11

    13. Dodgers Jonathan Broxton's 96ª-inning streak of not allowing HR ends as fifth-longest since 1958 19

    14. Rockies Pennant hopes were nice while they lasted, but real splash should come next season 12

    15. A'S Crowded waiting room: At least five players have been on the DL every day since April 23 16

    16. Twins It's still not too late for them to make a serious charge in AL Central 15

    17. Cardinals Only Connie Mack and John McGraw ever managed more games than Tony La Russa 17

    18. Brewers Priority No. 1 no matter how this season winds up: Learn how to catch the ball 18

    19. Blue Jays After one year moving up the ladder, they're entrenched in third place again 14

    20. Reds Fantasy alert: Jeff Keppinger hitting .373 with only five strikeouts in 123 ABs 26

    21. White Sox He can't be serious: Ozzie Guillen may bat Jim Thome first to aid chase for 500 HRs 20

    22. Royals Not a bad find: Brian Bannister first K.C. rookie since 1992 to win at least 10 games 22

    23. Rangers How long will it take them to score their next 30 runs? 27

    24. Orioles Kevin Millar reaches base in 50 straight, breaks Ken Singleton's 30-year-old team mark 21

    25. Pirates Something to build on? They have multiple 10-game winners for the second straight year 28

    26. GIANTS AT&T Park's atmosphere feeling more like Dodger Stadium with each passing game 29

    27. Nationals Manny Acta ought to receive more than passing consideration for Manager of Year 25

    28. Astros One upside to such a down year: Time to unveil top prospect LHP Troy Patton 24

    29. Marlins No sophomore jinx here: Hanley Ramirez becomes franchise's first with 40 steals, 20 HRs 23

    30. Devil Rays In 16 career starts, Jason Hammel has never departed with a lead 30