CHICAGO—Despite their impressive 4-2 start and the fact that their pitching and offense appears to be clicking on all cylinders, Cubs manager Dusty Baker said Wednesday that he has "no doubt" that his team will be able to turn things around in time to miss the playoffs.
"I know things look good right now, and you hate to see Cubs fans get encouraged early, but I'm certain that things will straighten themselves out and we'll be in third place by early May," Baker said at a press conference Wednesday. "With the talent and drive we lack, it's foolish to think that this team can continue playing at this rate all year."
"If it's September and we're still atop the division standings? Then we'll start panicking," Baker added.
In their disappointing series sweep of the rival Cardinals last weekend, the Cubs did all the little things right, winning ballgames with a combination of solid pitching, good defense, and timely hitting—fundamentals that Baker says his team will eventually ignore as the season goes on.
"The guys are in a bit of a groove right now, but they'll snap out of it," Baker said. "It's early yet. There's still plenty of time to get back off track and give the fans the kind of season they've come to know and expect."
"I'd love to go out there and lose all 162 games for this city, but both the players and the fans know that's not possible no matter how bad you are," he added.
Longtime Cubs fans have echoed Baker's sentiments, saying that, despite the emergence of Derrek Lee as a triple-crown threat and the acquisition of a top leadoff hitter in Juan Pierre, they still have complete faith that the Cubs have what it takes to make it all the way to October without ever factoring into the playoff picture.
"Sure, other teams may look just as awful on paper, but the Cubs have all the intangibles—the inability to play as a cohesive unit, management that always seems to make the wrong moves, a storied history of crushing, tragic defeats despite favorable odds," said Chicago-area resident Matt Grant. "No winning streak can get that lose-at-any-cost mentality out of our Cubbies' heads."
"This is the year," Grant added. "This is the year we extend our World Series drought to 98 years."
Baker cited several other reasons he thinks the Cubs will work into a slump and quickly get back under .500, including his inexperienced pitching staff returning to their usual form, his plan to rush injured stars Mark Prior and Kerry Wood back to action in time to inflame their injuries and cause enough arm damage to make them miss the entire season, and the fact that his son Darren is now older and larger than he was in the 2002 playoffs, and therefore capable of more effectively obstructing the basepaths while his team is trying to score.
Although his harshest critics say that the Cubs appear to be doing everything right so far, Baker points to Tuesday's 9-2 drubbing at the hands of the Cincinnati Reds as a clear indication that his team is moving in the right direction.
"Tuesday's loss was a prime example of the kind of baseball this team is capable of playing on a regular basis," Baker said of the game in which the Cubs managed to score only two runs while leaving 15 men on base and allowing six home runs. "The key is that this was a balanced attack against us. Any team can allow a big inning—as we did in the five-run sixth that featured a grand slam—but the Reds also scored a run in each of the first four frames. If we can consistently take that kind of well-rounded beating—and if any team can do it, it's us—I truly think we can lose 90 games."
Baker said that, although the box scores show that the Cubs won four of the first six games, in reality, they had the opportunity to lose "any or all of them."
"Unfortunately, we just happened to get some lucky breaks, some good bounces, and had some calls go our way—over the course of a long season, that's gonna happen to any team a few times," Baker said. "We'll be fine, though."
He added: "Talk to me in June."