Had we known, in April, that the Cubs would open August fighting the Philadelphia Phillies for a position in the standings, we would have been fairly excited. Had we known that the Cubs would be three games above .500, our excitement probably would not have been tempered much. In April, a .500 season was looking more than tolerable for the Cubs this year, even after our expectations rose with the acquisition of Andre Dawson. Had we known, however, that the position the Cubs and Phils would fight for would be fourth place, we probably would have been a little let down. Expectations change from day to day, but unfortunately performance remains all too consistent.

Expectations also differ from person to person, in the stands and, it appears, in the Cubs’ front office, the dugout, and even on the field, and these different expectations have caused some problems for the team in the past few weeks. Nevertheless, as far as we fans are concerned, through last weekend the Cubs–at four games above .500, ten and a half games out of first, in full control of fourth place–had given us a much better season than we had any right to hope for in April. The main reason for that is not Andre Dawson (we can’t say he’s outperformed our expectations; in our wildest dreams, he hit for higher average and competed for the triple crown, not merely the home-run and RBI championships), but another old veteran who has exceeded expectations–Rick Sutcliffe. Turn Sutcliffe’s record around, from 15-4 to 4-15, and the Cubs are having a much more typical season: 44 wins, 61 losses, and in last place, a full game and a half behind the Pittsburgh Pirates. In two games during last week’s brief home stand, Sutcliffe showed the best of his new form–playing sleight of hand with the hitters, nibbling at the corners–and the best of the old–getting tough and bearing down with men on base. There is really no one in the National League who can compete with him as Comeback Player of the Year, and that includes the Saint Louis Cardinals’ Jack Clark and Willie McGee.

Other players have provided nice surprises, most of them, fortunately, coming from the younger players we all now recognize as the Cubs’ future. Both Jamie Moyer and Greg Maddux have had their high and low points, but I haven’t heard many complaints about either, not even during their off days. Moyer is a nervy, thin pitcher with the jaws of Mike Ditka, who pounds away at bubble gum whether he is pitching well or in a jam. Earlier this year, he almost pitched a no-hitter against the Phillies, and he continued to dominate them last Friday, in the first game of the three-day battle for fourth, but failed to get a decision when the Cubs pissed away three unearned runs. Maddux, meanwhile, hasn’t pitched as effectively but has been at least as impressive. The youngest player in the National League, having turned 21 during the season, he is really unflappable on the mound. Listed at six feet tall (hmm) and 150 pounds (maybe), he still manages to throw a 90-mile-an-hour fastball, and he has wicked breaking stuff. Everyone feels that it is simply a matter of time before he is a consistent 15- to 20-game winner. Both pitchers began last season as mere rumors, at AA Pittsfield.

The Cubs have gotten excellent production in new, specialized roles from old vets Bob Dernier, Jerry Mumphrey, and Brian Dayett. The most impressive new Cub, however, is Dave Martinez. He has always fielded like a demon, but last year and early this year, he looked meek and overmatched at the plate. Even in batting practice he slapped at the ball, just trying to make contact. Now he pulls the ball, on occasion, and hits it hard to the opposite field. The difference is noticeable. He stands relaxed at the plate, at ease but with his bat held out and away from the body. (The only player more relaxed in the batter’s box is the Cincinnati Reds’ Eric Davis.) He then tenses as the pitcher enters his delivery, and he attacks the ball. He’s the best center-field prospect I’ve ever seen on the Cubs, and if this seems damning with faint praise–he easily outdistances Don Young, Jim Qualls, Brock Davis, “Tarzan” Joe Wallis, and even Oscar Gamble and Mel Hall–I should also state that he is one of the best outfield prospects in the game and that he was named one of the ten most promising players in the league by last season’s American Association managers.

If this seems a little premature, to talk of prospects with an eye toward next year, we would have thought so too until Dallas Green dealt Steve Trout to the New York Yankees for still more prospects, just before the All-Star break. The deal caused some turbulence on the club that still hasn’t died down; it effectively changed the players’, the manager’s, and the fans’ attitudes toward the season. Manager Gene Michael, who wasn’t consulted on the deal, saw it as a move toward next season–a doubtful move, to a manager’s way of thinking, considering that in order to get to next year he has to finish well enough this year. Although Green has no obligation to consult with the manager about any deal, consider one fact that has been otherwise overlooked: here was Green, dealing with the Yankees for players they claimed were three of the top prospects in their system, yet he didn’t consult with the one person in his own organization who was highly placed with the Yankees only a year ago–Gene Michael.

Michael, meanwhile, has followed Green’s lead and been quick to criticize players in public. All through a west coast road trip in which the Cubs looked flat, through a poor series with the Montreal Expos, and into last Friday’s game with the Phillies, Michael complained of Leon Durham, Jody Davis, and Keith Moreland. Durham and Davis, truth be told, have played well under expectations this year, and both shoulder much of the blame for the Cubs’ decision to play for next year: whether they are part of those plans, no one can say. Moreland, meanwhile, is near a 30-homer, 90-RBI pace–respectable numbers in anyone’s book–and while they say he can’t play third (he leads the club with 21 errors), he has looked, actually, promising in the infield, and will eventually be a tolerably good third baseman if given the chance. And here’s Dallas Green, motivator of men, saying he’d like to trade him. Jeez.

In any event, Michael held a team meeting last Friday morning, as the team opened the series against the Phillies, and the Cubs went out and promptly fell on their faces, losing 8-5. They looked sick. On Saturday, they loaded the bases with none out in the first inning. The man sitting next to me turned and said, “Bet they don’t score,” an offer he extended to all those around him. Dawson lined sharply to Mike Schmidt at third, who beat Martinez to the bag for a double play, and the Phillies got out of it when Moreland grounded to short. The man’s wife chided him for calling down bad karma on the Cubs and for being such a bad example for the fans. “Nobody bet me, did they?” he said, and no one had, although I hadn’t taken the offer seriously.

Dawson, however, quite literally carried the day, driving in all the Cubs’ runs while hitting three homers for the first time since–well, since he hit three in Wrigley Field in 1985, while a member of the Expos. It was the sort of day all of us expected when he signed with the Cubs, because we’d seen him do it before.

So the battle for fourth came down to Sunday’s rubber game, in which the teams matched their aces, just as they would have if they were battling for first. If Sunday’s game is as close to a pennant race as we get this season, it will suffice, because it was a marvelous game. It was a pitchers’ duel from the first inning, and like all good pitchers’ duels its tension mounted slowly but exponentially through several innings until it finally burst–pock pock pock–in a series of small explosions, each one louder than the one before. This was a game where the small was magnified, a game where full counts were danger signs and hits the manifestation of dread. Through five, both Sutcliffe and the Phillies’ ace, Shane Rawley, pitched in and out of trouble but remained in control. Then, in the sixth, Sutcliffe allowed a single and a double, bringing up Mike Schmidt with runners on second and third and one out. He walked Schmidt to get to Glenn Wilson, who grounded the first pitch right back at him to start a 1-2-3 double play.

In the bottom of the inning, Rawley allowed two hits before getting the last two men in the Cubs’ order. In the seventh, Sutcliffe walked a man, hit another, then allowed Rawley a sacrifice bunt to put runners on second and third with two out and the dangerous Juan Samuel at the plate. Sutcliffe got ahead in the count, then nibbled at the corners too precisely, and the count went full. He struck out Samuel for the second straight time, however, on a low, outside pitch nowhere near the strike zone. A two-out rally for the Cubs in the bottom of the seventh did everything but score a run: they left the bases full.

Milt Thompson led off the seventh by slashing a low, outside Sutcliffe fastball (a good pitch, actually) into the left-field bleachers, and the disappointing release in tension was almost tactile. Sutcliffe walked the next two men and then allowed an RBI single to Wilson, as Michael was characteristically slow with the hook. Frank DiPino, however, got out of the inning with yet another double play, this one following a strikeout. Michael then sent four straight pinch-hitters up against the Phils’ relief ace, Steve Bedrosian, who leads the majors in saves. They squeezed a run across when Ryne Sandberg singled with two out. In the ninth, the Phils went anxiously and quietly. Then Bedrosian retired the first two men he faced. Michael–who’d played all his left-handed cards in the eighth–allowed Manny Trillo to bat, and he hit a flat slider into the left-field bleachers to tie the score and send the game into extra innings.

With Lee Smith on the mound, the Cubs got another double play to end the tenth without incident, while the Phils’ manager, Lee Elia, panicked and pulled Bedrosian early, bringing on a left-hander, Jeff Calhoun, to face the new group of Cub left-handers. He walked Durham, allowed Mumphrey to sacrifice, then threw a wild pitch to put Durham on third. Another walk and he was out of the game. Kent Tekulve came on to face Sandberg, who lined one deep to right over the pulled-in outfield to score Durham and give the Cubs full possession of fourth place, which is not quite what we expected of them, but we didn’t expect the Expos and Cardinals to play so well, either.