Baseball games in late June should almost never be considered pivotal – especially interleague baseball games. Yet to the ever-anxious fans of Chicago’s north side baseball team, circumstances conspired to make Thursday’s match-up between their star-crossed Cubs and the streaking Detroit Tigers take on an air of unusual importance.

Much like a crew of becalmed 18th century sailors, the Cubs seem to be stuck in the doldrums. The odds-on preseason NL Central favorites have seen their record stall in the vicinity of .500 – an injury to slugging third baseman Aramis Ramirez and an 8-game losing streak in late May knocked the wind from their sails, and since that time the Cubs have never been more than three games above or one game below the break-even mark. Despite trailing St. Louis by only 3.5 games in a division that no one seems to be working too hard to win, an all-too-familiar midsummer angst has begun to descend on Wrigleyville. After Wednesday night’s sloppy 5-3 loss to the Tigers that left the Cubs sitting at 34-34, manager Lou Piniella half-kiddingly considered pulling names out of a hat to set his lineup as a way to shake his players out of their offensive lethargy.

Conversely, the Tigers seem to have caught their second wind. After beating the Cardinals in St. Louis on June 18th to end a four-game road slide, the Tigers returned to Comerica and opened an institutional-sized container of Whoop-Ass Au Gratin on the other NL Central contenders, taking three straight from the Brewers and the first two games of their series against the Cubs in dramatic style. Tuesday’s win featured a walk-off pinch-homer off Cubs closer Kevin Gregg, after Tigers skipper Jim Leyland made the rare* decision to eschew the standard platoon advantage and pinch-hit for lefty Josh Anderson with the righty-swinging Ryan Raburn, on the theory that Gregg only throws his occasionally dodgy slider to righties. Sure enough, Gregg hung one, Raburn parked it, and Leyland looked like a genuine Match Game genius – that’s the sort of thing that happens when things are going your way. Currently sporting a 5-game lead in a heretofore lackluster AL Central, Detroit has a spring in their step befitting a team humming along on all cyllinders.

*How rare? Out of 1,322 pinch-hit appearances in late (7+ inning) and close (within 3) games so far in 2009, only 18 featured a same-side hitter batting for an opposite-side position player, and of those 14 were replacing a switch-hitter batting on his weaker side, two were resting superstars (Evan Longoria and Miguel Cabrera) tapped to pinch-hit, one was Ryan Garko hitting for Luis Valbuena, and one was Ryan Raburn hitting for Josh Anderson.

Given all this, Thursday’s Tigers-Cubs tilt in Detroit had the feel of a game the visitors “needed” to win more than the home team, if only for their emotional well-being. Admittedly “need” isn’t particularly useful in determining who should win a midseason baseball game – but starting pitching often is, and in Thursday’s game everything pointed the Cubs’ way. Ted Lilly was taking his 1.98 June ERA to the mound for the visitors, while the home team was trotting out Armando Galarraga, winless in his last 10 starts. With the Cubs hoping to break out of their slump and go into the upcoming weekend’s always emotional Crosstown Classic series with the White Sox on a winning note, this seemed like the perfect setup to accomplish it..

Early on, Galarraga seemed more than happy to oblige. The right-hander surrendered a first pitch double to Cubs leadoff man Alfonso Soriano on a low, inside sinker – a bad choice, since that’s the only pitch the slumping Fonzie can handle lately – then walked Ryan Theriot (who was trying to bunt) on 5 pitches. Two batters later Jake Fox lofted a Galarraga offering into the left-field bleachers for his first career home run, giving Chicago an early 3-0 lead – and ending a team-wide 1-for-29 streak with runners in scoring position. With Galarraga struggling to hit his spots in front of a Tiger bullpen that had seen heavy use in the first two games of the series, the Cubs looked to be in good shape to start rehabilitating their self-image.

Lilly got off to his typically strong start, with only a 0-run home run by Miguel Cabrera marring his first two frames. You may well ask how Cabrera managed such a feat – well, it’s because the umpiring crew appeared to be lost in the doldrums as well. Cabrera launched a drive to the wall in right center which Cub right fielder Micah Hoffpaiur made an awkward leap towards, but the ball hit above his mitt and caromed back into play as Cabrera loped into second with a double. Replay clearly showed the ball hit a metal railing above the wall – making it a home run – but the umpires never considered stopping to check the tape.

With that in mind, let’s pause for a second to discuss this question: Why can’t umpires just do their job? I’m not talking about making an incorrect call on a bang-bang play – that’s understandable, and in general umps perform those difficult tasks quite well. But not bothering to make use of all the fancy new toys MLB has endowed them with to review Cabrera’s home run is inexcusable, and is only Exhibit A in the case against the umpiring in this series — Tim McClelland’s crew irked me on several other occasions as well.

Exhibit B: On Tuesday, we were treated to McClelland’s leisurely strike calls behind the plate – maybe it’s just me, but refusing to speed up your strike call mechanic so that the fans who pay your salary, and the players which the fans pay to see, won’t have to wonder whether the count is really 2-1 or 1-2 seems wilfully arrogant.

Exhibit C: Tuesday’s box score also shows that Josh Anderson was picked off first base – except he wasn’t. Anderson had broken towards second too early on a hit-and-run play, and Carlos Zambrano whipped a throw to first that easily beat Anderson to the bag. But Anderson executed a terrific bait-and-switch slide – reaching towards the bag with his right hand to draw Derrek Lee‘s tag, then pulling it back while grabbing the bag with his left. Replays clearly showed Lee’s chest-high tag came after Anderson was a-hugging first, yet umpire Andy Fletcher rang him up anyway. You see this all the time, where umps call players out if the ball beats the player to the bag, regardless of the tag. If the tag isn’t important, MLB should make all baserunning plays force plays – but unless that changes, umpires should at least actually ensure a tag takes place.

There’s this thing in baseball called a rulebook. Learn it. Know it. Live it.

Anyway, after lethargy had ridden to the Cubs’ rescue on Cabrera’s “double”, Chicago was threatening in the top of the third when Alfonso Soriano displayed Reason #1286 why he is one of the most frustrating players ever to don Cubbie blue: his repeated bouts of baseball narcolepsy. After a bloop single to left, Soriano was nearly picked off first by catcher Dusty Ryan‘s snap throw. Soriano went in standing up – not the first time he’s done that on a close play – and a good tag would have had him, but he was called safe. Shortly thereafter, Lee smashed a searing line drive towards the left field alley, which Raburn gloved on the track. Soriano had already rounded second when Raburn made the play, so after the catch he started walking, then trotting, back towards first. By my count it took more than 4 seconds for Soriano to actually decide he ought to run back to first – but by then it was too late, as he was easily doubled-up to end the inning.

Soriano’s blunders must have awoken the slumbering hands of Fate, because it didn’t take them long to grab a wrench and start loosening the Cubs’ lugnuts. Galarraga settled down, while Lilly started catching too much of the plate and the Tigers made him pay. First Ramon Santiago launched a 2-run blast in the bottom of the 3rd, and then the recently-shorn Magglio Ordonez discovered a new way to let his freak flag fly by going deep for the first time since late April, giving Detroit the lead. Seemingly before you could say “Wake up, Alfonso!”, the Cubs had lost their 4th in a row and the Tigers had won their 7th. Ouch.

It’s losses like these, where your opponent takes advantage of every misstep, where bit-part players or the slump-ridden suddenly rise up to beat you, that feed a fatalistic view of a team’s future – especially when that team has gone a solid century without winning a title. With the Cubs a game under .500 and riding a 4-game losing streak, fans may already be inching out onto their customary ledge.

Yet there are a few reasons why there’s no need for Cubs fans to panic – at least not yet:

  1. One game is just one game – they’ll get to play 93 more. Momentum, especially of the “big win” or “tough loss” variety, is often illusory – note how the Cubs’ late-game heroics against the White Sox and Indians in wins last week counted for precisely squat this week.

  2. Their starting pitching has been stellar, and the bullpen has been better of late. If you believe Earl Weaver’s aphorism that momentum is tomorrow’s starting pitcher, the Cubs rotation seems well equipped to make a run.

  3. Even after losing a game they had every reason to expect to win, Thursday losses by the Cardinals and Brewers leave the Cubs only 3.5 games back as I write this.

  4. BP’s Adjusted Standings Report shows the Cubs with roughly the same actual, second-order and third-order wins – right around break-even. This means that while the Cubs haven’t been particularly unlucky in the win-loss column, at least they haven’t been particularly lucky either – they’ve truly played like a .500 ball club.

  5. While the offense continues to struggle, they’ve managed to stay in the race and around .500 with only 13 ABs since late April from their best hitter (Aramis Ramirez). Several key veterans (I’m looking at you, Fonzie) are performing well below their established level, and the Cubs are posting a .663 OPS with runners in scoring position – 60 points below their overall line, the biggest disparity in all of baseball. It’s reasonable to expect some of this to improve.

  6. The Cubs can’t break your heart in June if they’re already planning to break your heart in October.

On July 2nd, the Cubs will start an 11-game homestand that includes four games against both the Brewers and the Cardinals. If the Cubs are able to make up some ground with head-to-head wins in those series, they may be able to sail out of the doldrums and into the All-Star break with a clear course ahead of them. If not, they may be doomed to continue their aimless wandering, sharing their ancient tale of woe with whomever is unfortunate enough to listen.

Thanks to Bil Burke for providing pinch-hitting data on extremely short notice.