"This division of ours is starting to get really interesting, with St. Louis and Milwaukee," said Piniella, well aware of the 100-year drought since the team's last championship. "It's going to be a nice fight the second half of the season."
Wood and Dempster, both named to the National League All-Star team, are up for the battle.
The longest tenured Cubs player, Wood arrived in Spring Training camp competing for the closer's job with two other pitchers, Carlos Marmol and Bob Howry. At the break, Wood ranked among the NL leaders in saves.
"I thought he'd be a natural for it," Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said of Wood's switch. "He always had the stuff and the demeanor. I thought he could have been Goose Gossage when he was young, if that's what he wanted to do."
The first half hasn't been without a few speed bumps. On Opening Day, Wood gave doubters reason to worry when he served up three runs in the ninth in what was a scoreless game against the Milwaukee Brewers.
He picked up saves in his next three outings, but Jason Bay connected on a game-tying leadoff homer in the ninth in Pittsburgh on April 9, sending the game into extra innings. On July 5, Wood blew his fifth save of the season as St. Louis' Rick Ankiel hit a two-run, go-ahead single in the ninth.
The next day, Wood was in the clubhouse, smiling. It was a new day, a new opportunity.
|CUBS TOP PERFORMANCES|
3/31, MIL 4, CHC 3 -- Fukudome's opening act
Kosuke Fukudome electrifies Wrigley Field with a three-run, game-tying blast in the bottom of the ninth on Opening Day.
4/25, WAS 5, CHC 3 -- Robbery by Reed
Reed Johnson robs Felipe Lopez of extra bases by diving into the warning track and head first into the left-center wall.
5/19, CHC 7, HOU 2 -- Soto hustles around the bases
Geovany Soto goes yard the hard way, becoming the first Cubs catcher to record an inside-the-park home run in 49 years.
5/30, CHC 10, COL 9 -- DeRosa decides it
Mark DeRosa caps an eight-run comeback victory against the Colorado Rockies with a euphoric two-run homer.
6/20, CHC 4, CWS 3 -- Ramirez powers sweep of Sox
Aramis Ramirez makes the Cubs 4-3 walk-off winners against the White Sox with his second home run of the game to complete the sweep.
"He's learned to get over it quick from being a starter and being hurt," Cubs pitcher Scott Eyre said. "He knows he's got to be ready, that 'I'm pitching today.' He's proven he can pitch every day. It's a testament to what he's done."
Wood had to switch to relief because of injuries to his right shoulder, which somehow balked whenever he tried to throw more than 60 pitches. In the first half, Wood has pitched in three straight games twice -- picking up five saves in the six appearances -- and gone back to back nine other times. So much for any questions about his durability.
"Woody never had a save in his life -- he only had 30 games out of the 'pen," Eyre said. "To do what he's done, I wouldn't say it's amazing but the guy has good stuff and he knows how to pitch. Is it amazing? He's doing what he's always done, and he's healthy now and having fun."
Dempster's makeover was different. He was a starter early in his career, and underwent Tommy John surgery on his right elbow in 2003. The Cubs needed a closer in '05, and Dempster, a genial guy, agreed. That year, he and Wood actually began the season in the rotation.
After three years as the Cubs closer, including last season when he saved 28 of 31 games, Dempster was told he could start again. That meant he had to build up his stamina so he could pitch 200 innings. He created a gym in his Colorado home, hired a personal trainer and went to work.
"When I was working out [in the offseason], it pushed me more than anything," he said. "If I felt tired, or felt I was going to throw up, or didn't want to run the next set of stairs, it pushed me.
"What I'd like is for my second half to be better than my first half," said Dempster, named to his second All-Star team, and first since 2000. "That's when all the hard work comes in. It's easy to have success in the first half -- you're fresh, everything goes OK. But can you keep it going?"
Other teams have seen what the new and improved Dempster can do. He finished the first half of the season unbeaten at home.
"Now, you have to go out and execute pitches and stay healthy," he said. "Physically, I feel great. I feel as strong as I can be. Velocity-wise, it's the same in the seventh as in the first, and even better than earlier in the season. I feel strong, now I have to stay mentally sharp."
He's a different pitcher now than earlier in his career, and it's not just because of the unusual glove-wave he does before pitches to help his timing and hide his grip.
"Back then, I threw fastballs, sliders, and if a guy swings and misses, yeah," Dempster said. "Now, I don't try to strike everybody out. I try to strike people out when I can do it. I truly try to execute one pitch at a time, and not worry about the last inning or the last hitter.
"The things I've done better this year is if I give up a home run or a base hit, or whatever, if it gets the game close or ties it, or lets them get ahead, I don't let it affect the next batter," he said. "I try not to. Before, I bet you could look how many times if I gave up a home run, I walked the next guy. Just like if you get somebody out, you have to get the next guy. You have to stay focused."
When he was a closer, Dempster wasn't around too long after giving up a home run. It's a different job, a different role.
Wood and Dempster are close friends. They've both had to deal with major surgery to their arms. They understand each other's roles. This season, five of Wood's saves have come in Dempster's starts. He did blow one because of Pittsburgh's Bay. They're even now -- Dempster blew one of Wood's starts on May 23, 2006.
Wood was named an All-Star in 2003 when he was a starter, and earned his second trip as a closer. That's pretty impressive, especially in his first year in his new job.
"He's come up with some huge saves for us," Dempster said. "Half the reason our record is as good as it is is because of him, and deservedly so. He made it. He could've walked away a bunch of times because of all the pain and stuff, but he persevered."
You could say the same about Dempster.
"They're two of our bigger keys this year," Eyre said.