Bucs look at Cubs as hope for future
PITTSBURGH -- Baseball fans usually don't appreciate a visit from the league's top team.
The 2001 Chicago Cubs are an exception.
It's hard not to marvel at the remarkable turnaround manager Don Baylor has engineered with the NL's Central Division leaders.
After two seasons where the Cubs lost a combined 192 games, Chicago's lovable losers own the league's best record (55-38).
Their turnaround from last-to-first offers hope for struggling teams like the Pirates, who have contended just once in the past nine seasons.
The Cubs aren't alone. After miserable seasons last year, the Minnesota Twins and Philadelphia Phillies also are contenders again.
But the Cubs are special -- they haven't won it all since 1908.
Pitching key: For Chicago, the key has been much-improved pitching. Last year's team posted a 5.25 earned-run average. Entering Wednesday's game at PNC Park, the Cubs were tied with the Atlanta Braves for the NL's lowest ERA -- 3.76.
The leader is former Pirate Jon Lieber, whose 12 wins are only one behind NL leader Curt Schilling's 13.
Kerry Wood wasn't around for Wednesday's decision, but he's 8-6.
Jason Bere, who spent the last two months of the 2000 season with the Cleveland Indians before signing with the Cubs, is 7-4 with an ERA of 4.10.
Another former Indian, Julian Tavarez (6-6, 3.82), looks to go above the .500 mark tonight against the Pirates.
The Cubs' fifth starter is the only one with a World Series ring -- 37-year-old Kevin Tapani, who won with the 1991 Twins.
With the trading deadline less than two weeks away, the question keeping general manager Andy MacPhail awake at nights is how many trades are needed to strengthen a team trying for its first World Series appearance in 56 years?
Trade rumors are swirling about the Cubs after Tampa Bay's Fred McGriff invoked his no-trade clause to reject a swap to Chicago.
Giambi next: The Cubs' next choice appears to be Oakland first baseman Jason Giambi. While many believe the Athletics will deal the free-agent-to-be to the New York Yankees before the July 31 trading deadline, Chicago is in the picture.
If Baylor covets a big bat to hit fourth behind Sammy Sosa and spark his team's sluggish offense, he's not showing it.
Before Wednesday's game, Baylor said with a poker face that he'd just as soon acquire another pitcher.
"I believe you are foolish to believe that pitching is not going to win it for you," Baylor said. "I'd take another pitcher if we're not going to score a lot of runs."
Baylor's said his primary concern is Tapani, but added that in "his last time out, with the proper rest, he was as good if not better."
Tapani, who is scheduled to pitch Saturday at Houston's Enron Park, said he feels OK and is enjoying this season after going 6-12 in 1999 and 8-12 last year.
"Winning is a lot more fun," said Tapani, who went 19-9 in 1998 when the Cubs won the NL wild card. "Overall, our pitching is better and we're doing what it takes to win each game.
"Pitching-wise, we're keeping us in the game. We're moving guys along, playing strong defense and taking hits away when we need to. It's a lot of the little stuff that's making the difference."
As for roster changes, Tapani said his teammates are trying to block out the rumors.
"We try not to get caught up too much in that because we need to do our stuff here," Tapani said. "The guys who are here are the ones who got us to where we are at."
Learned a lot: Tapani said the team has learned from last year when Sosa trade rumors were rampant.
"I think we ran into that a little bit last year where we were spending a lot of time hearing and paying attention to [rumors] of dealing a guy here and dealing a guy there," Tapani said. "We got together as a team and [vowed] we're going to make it work with what we have here.
"We've hung together well. Considering where we are at, to take another approach wouldn't be right."
Time will tell if MacPhail agrees.
XTom Williams covers Major League Baseball for The Vindicator. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.