Cubs fight way to playoff hunt

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CHICAGO - Lou Piniella called upon decades of baseball knowledge when the Chicago Cubs were scuffling for the first two months. He watched intently, took mental notes and then started swapping out the parts.

Finally, he used some theatrics to literally kick-start his team. Turns out, a dirt-kicking temper tantrum against umpire Mark Wegner on June 2 was just what the Cubs needed, whether it was premeditated, whether it was the old Lou resurfacing in the more mellow one.

"It's just evolved. I don't think there were any turning points. We had to do some things to straighten ourselves out and just let the guys play," Piniella said. "If things aren't working - and they weren't working earlier in the year - you try to do different things to shore things up."

The Cubs fell nine games under .500 that day after Piniella was ejected, but are 61-42 since June 3. Now, 3 months later, Chicago is on the cusp of clinching the NL Central. The magic number is four headed into the final week of the season with three-game road series in Florida and Cincinnati beginning today.

The Cubs have a comfortable working margin, but the franchise has a long history of gut-wrenching collapses, like in 1969 when they led by 9 games in mid-August only to have the Mets pass them.

Three years ago, they led the wild card by 1 games with nine games left before falling apart.

And four years ago, in Dusty Baker's first season as manager, the Cubs led the Marlins 3-1 in the NL Championship Series. With a 3-0 lead in the eighth inning of Game 6, they were a mere five outs from the World Series. But Florida scored eight runs after a fan interfered with a foul ball, and the Marlins went on to win that night and again in Game 7.

So, nothing is safe. Not that the past means much to a team that was overhauled in the off-season with $300 million going to salaries.

The Cubs trailed Milwaukee this season by 8 games on June 23 but have caught and passed the young and talented Brewers.

The season has been a memorable one already for the Cubs.

A franchise-record attendance of 3.25 million came to Wrigley Field. There was a fight in the dugout and clubhouse between ace Carlos Zambrano and catcher Michael Barrett, who was later traded; a brawl with the Padres; a $91 million contract extension for Zambrano, who criticized the fans for booing him and then later apologized.

All this with the knowledge since opening day that the team is going to go on the auction block, probably sometime after the World Series.


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