Mike Nadel: Fonzie's back, and just in time
Alfonso G. Soriano is to prototypical leadoff hitters what George W. Bush is to popular presidents.
While we Americans can do little but survive the next six months with the latter (unless we can convince John McCain and Barack Obama to move up the election to August), Lou Piniella is determined to stick it out with the former.
The Cubs manager knows he has several better top-of-the-order options, most notably Ryan Theriot, but Piniella defers to the highest-paid player in franchise history because Soriano likes batting leadoff. Case closed.
And while we're closing cases, let's slam the door on the inane theory that the Cubs might be better without Soriano.
When the $136 Million Man went on the disabled list June 12, the Cubs were 42-24. Over the next six weeks, they had a 16-18 record, often had trouble scoring and had their once-sizable NL Central lead reduced to one game over the blazing-hot Milwaukee Brewers.
Soriano returned Wednesday and helped the Cubs end an otherwise awful road trip with a 10-6 victory over Arizona. In Thursday's 6-3 victory over Florida, he was walked intentionally during the decisive, four-run fifth inning - despite his superior on-base percentage, Theriot wouldn't have been treated with similar respect - and also doubled.
"Having Fonzie back is huge," teammate Geovany Soto said. "I mean, the guy was out six weeks and he still has 15 home runs and 41 RBIs out of the leadoff spot."
It's no coincidence the Cubs are 2-0 with 16 runs since Soriano's return.
"Plus, his presence in the dugout changes everything," Mark DeRosa said. "He's one of the loudest guys, very charismatic. He gets you going and has a lot of fun."
Yes, he swings at (and misses) too many pitches nowhere near the strike zone. And he's not exactly Gold Glove material in left field. But no Cub gets hot the way Soriano does.
He carried the Cubs out of their early-season abyss last June, carried them into the playoffs last September and carried them to a big division lead this May.
With Milwaukee (and St. Louis, to a lesser degree) rudely ignoring the preordained 2008 Cubbie coronation, one of the biggest questions going forward is: Will Soriano stay healthy enough to carry the Cubs to the Central crown?
Soriano has company in stirring up angst for Cubs fans. Closer Kerry Wood, who has made a career of causing consternation among the masses, on Thursday made his 12th trip to the disabled list - this time with a stubborn blister.
"Hopefully he'll be ready to go Tuesday in Milwaukee," said GM Jim Hendry, who made Wood's DL stay retroactive to July 14. "He is making progress. It's just a bad case where the blister's taking a long, long time to heal."
As far as treating it, Hendry said: "Go back to the old days with the pickle juice. There's ointments. Some experts say, 'Keep it moist. Some, 'Keep it dry.' He's tried everything ... but I haven't asked him if he's tried the Moises Alou approach."
Hmmm. Old Urine Hands has spent plenty of time on the DL, but never with a blister, so maybe Wood should go for it.
During Wood's first 10 days of unavailability - a stretch that began with the All-Star break - the Cubs went 2-4. Both victories were by lopsided scores, so they didn't face a save situation until Thursday.
Carlos Marmol cleaned up an eighth-inning mess left by three other relievers and then made a mess of his own by walking the bases loaded in the ninth. He finally preserved Carlos Zambrano's 11th victory by striking out Wes Helms with a 3-2 slider.
Because of Marmol's lack of command, most who had lobbied for him to be the closer have admitted the error of their ways. He still can be extremely valuable - and he might have to be The Man if Wood's blister turns into a lengthy ordeal. (Hey, it happened to Red Sox star Josh Beckett.)
"We've got (60) games to go and we're gonna have to step it up," Piniella said. "We had that real good spurt when we got about 20 games over .500, but we've been treading water since."
He then recited a list of Cubs who have been hurt - an annoying habit he seemingly inherited from Dusty Baker, The Excuse Maker. The Cardinals, Rockies, Dodgers and others with far longer lists don't want to hear Lou's lame lament.
"Look, I like our ballclub, but we gotta get healthy," Piniella said. "When we get Wood back, and with Soriano back, I think you'll see us pick it up."
Seems the Cubs desperately need their leadoff hitter, even if he really isn't one.
Mike Nadel (email@example.com) is the Chicago sports columnist for GateHouse News Service. Read his blog, The Baldest Truth, at www.thebaldesttruth.com.