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May 25,2007
Superhuman delivery by D-Lee
by Mike Nadel

CHICAGO - Human beings simply can't do what Derrek Lee did.

After missing nearly a week's worth of games with neck spasms, mere mortals do not step up to the plate and hit game-clinching grand slams.

A producer would have thrown such a script back into a screenwriter's face, saying: "Get this hokey, unrealistic claptrap out of here! And I want the 'Oceans 117' script on my desk in the morning!"

Hokey or not, Lee authored his own story on a spectacularly sunny Saturday for baseball. I know he did it because I saw it. And my ears are still ringing from the sonic-boom-like sound at Wrigley Field after he launched Boone Logan's pitch into the right-field bleachers. The blast capped a six-run eighth inning in the Cubs' exciting 11-6 victory over the White Sox.

"He hadn't hit in a week and he goes up there and hits a grand slam in a pressure, pressure, pressure situation," teammate Michael Barrett said. "It just truly amazes me. It shouldn't amaze me, but it does."

Lee almost didn't get a chance to amaze. Before the game, Lou Piniella had said with great certainty that Lee wouldn't play at least until Tuesday, not even as a pinch-hitter.

"We're not gonna take any chances to jeopardize this young man," Piniella said. "There's nothing seriously wrong. It's just that this thing here hasn't cleared up as quickly as everybody anticipated."

When a Cubs manager says "there's nothing seriously wrong," fans have become conditioned to believe the player won't return to the lineup until the following season. If then. This time, the error in the statement went the other way: The player actually was healthier than we were led to believe.

Piniella later said he wasn't lying, insisting he had said Lee would be available to pinch-hit. It hardly matters whether it was a little Lou lie, a gamesmanship bluff against Ozzie Guillen or simply a 63-year-old man forgetting what he had said five hours earlier.

Lee, the 2005 NL batting champion, hated missing most of last season with a broken wrist. And it was killing the league's top hitter this season (.394) to watch helplessly this week as the Cubs repeatedly self-destructed in New York. He desperately wanted in.

"I was actually playing a simulated game along with the game, pretending I was hitting every time my spot in the order came up; I was 3-for-3," he said. "And while we were on defense, I was taking throws in the training room."

When he lobbied Lou for pinch-hitting action, "at first he told me no," Lee said. "Then he thought about it, talked to the coaches, and I got in there."

Giddy Cubbie fans gave Lee a standing ovation before he even stepped into the batter's box. They groaned when Logan's first pitch, snail-slow slop, made Lee take what he later called "an I-didn't-see-the-ball, completely-fooled, pathetic swing."

He then was able to lay off three more slowballs out of the strike zone. When Logan had to come in with a not-fast-enough fastball right down the middle, D-Lee knocked it into tomorrow. Wrigley was up for grabs.

To say the Cubs need Derrek Lee is like saying I need sunscreen during a Chicago summer. Having him guarantees little (as 2004 and 2005 proved), but not having him pretty much guarantees misery. He's the best first baseman alive - watching Daryle Ward fight the baseball Saturday was painful - and one of the most powerful, disciplined hitters in the majors.

"What he does for this team, what he does for our lineup, what he does for our defense ... he's the anchor," Barrett said. "Just him, alone, can be a huge boost for this team. And you saw why today."

Like most everybody else, Barrett was told Lee would be unavailable.

"When Derrek Lee came up to hit, I was shocked," he said. "The crowd reaction was remarkable. And then he delivers ... just an unbelievable day for us and the fans."

Well, it wasn't so wonderful for the thousands of White Sox fans who had paid scalpers megabucks for tickets - only to see their team's bullpen fritter away a second straight game to the hated Cubs. Sure, the game was exciting, but I'm guessing Sox fans would have settled for a boring victory.

Meanwhile, Cubbieland denizens got all the good things wrapped in one: a beautiful day, a thrilling game, a comeback triumph over the sinking South Siders and the chance to see a live action hero deliver a superhuman feat.

Mike Nadel (mikenadel@sbcglobal.net) is the Chicago sports columnist for CNS. Read his blog, The Baldest Truth, at pjstar.com/php/index.php/nadel.

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