Many still believe the Cubs first started to take off last year as soon as Kenny Lofton and Aramis Ramirez arrived in a late July deal with Pittsburgh.
But that's not entirely true. The Cubs were only 15-13 last August, and didn't really catch fire until the start of September, when they finished 19-8 to bolt past Houston and capture the Central Division crown.
Now it's the "Nomar Effect" that's under severe scrutiny, as armchair observers try to predict whether the acquisition of Boston shortstop Nomar Garciaparra can propel the Cubs into the National League wild card spot.
The Cubs won their second straight since Garciaparra's arrival, beating Colorado 5-3 at Coors Field on Tuesday behind a five-run second inning and Kerry Wood's dominance. Wood lasted eight innings after a shaky beginning, allowing three runs on six hits in his longest outing since coming off the disabled list on July 11.
"That's the best one he's thrown since he's been back," manager Dusty Baker said.
Garciaparra went 1-for-4 with a go-ahead RBI single in the second. His presence is quickly being felt both in and out of the clubhouse.
"We're all excited and I think he is too," Wood said. "We feel like it's time. Obviously it's been time for a while to put some wins together. He's going to be a big lift for this team."
In another example of the puzzling all-or-nothing Cubs offense, they knocked out seven hits off Rockies left-hander Jeff Fassero in the second inning, but wound up with only one hit over the final seven innings and nine hits for the night.
"Weird game," said Derrek Lee, whose two-run homer ignited the Cubs. "Woody struggled that first inning and Fassero struggled that second inning, but after that it was really a pitchers duel. Tip your hat to the pitchers for not letting it get away."
Wood (6-4) got off to a rocky start in the first, when it looked as though he was going to be in for a long, long night. Leadoff man Aaron Miles singled and stole second, scoring on Todd Helton's one-out, opposite field, two-run home run on Wood's first pitch. After a walk to Vinny Castilla, Larry Walker's triple rolled to the wall in right-center, making it 3-0.
But the Cubs answered back quickly and decisively, pounding Fassero (2-7) in the second. They started out with three straight hits--including a single by Aramis Ramirez and Lee's 424-foot, two-run homer. Wood's sacrifice fly tied the score, before Garciaparra and Sammy Sosa added run-scoring singles in a seven-hit inning.
"Nomar is going to make his presence felt," Lee said. "The guy is a proven hitter. He's won a couple batting titles, he's a superstar player, and plays great defense. Anytime you can make an addition like that it can only help your team."
Wood and Fassero settled down, nullifying the Coors Factor. After the first, Wood allowed only three harmless singles over the next seven innings, while Fassero shut down the Cubs on one hit- a Wood single- from the third through the seventh.
The later the game, the stronger Wood looked. He struck out three of the final eight batters he faced, making Todd Helton look silly while missing on a 75 m.p.h. curve in the eighth. Wood wound up throwing 110 pitches, the most he's thrown since returning from his triceps injury.
"My slider wasn't there and I easily could panicked about not having that pitch," Wood said. "But I just tried to stay focused, make pitches and try to let them get themselves out."