Home cooking

A trip to sunny San Diego would be welcomed by most hearty Midwesterners who endure rough winters.

But not the Chicago Cubs, who began June in first place for the first time since 1908, when they last won the World Series.

The Cubs began a West Coast trip in San Diego last night after winning all seven games at Wrigley Field, the country's best ballpark, to run their home record to an astonishing 26-8, tops in the NL.

The Cubs hadn't started 26-8 at home since 1918, when they went to the World Series. They haven't won 50 home games since 1998, and they were a modest 44-37 at Wrigley in 2003, when they almost went to the World Series.

Wrigley is so unusual, and jam-packed, that one might think the Cubs would generally enjoy a distinct home advantage. Yet that hasn't been the case for a club that's probably gone longer - 100 years - without a championship than any professional team.

"We used to spend a lot of time trying to figure out why we weren't better at home," said Cubs general manager Jim Hendry, who concluded that it must be a coincidence.

Derrek Lee, who has hit 11 of his 13 homers at Wrigley, explained the disparity quite succinctly: "It's baseball."

The Cubs' home record is more remarkable when you consider they began the season 3-3 at Wrigley, meaning they've won 23 of 28 since.

Of course, when a team scores more runs than any other team, it will usually win. Going into last night, the Cubs had scored 324 runs, most in the majors and nine more than the runner-up Phils.

End is near?

For the first time since October 2004, 41-year-old John Smoltz was in the Atlanta bullpen last night.

Not that he's thrilled about it, but it was his decision.

Smoltz just came off the disabled list and told manager Bobby Cox he wasn't healthy enough to start. The classy righthander has suffered from a painful right shoulder. In an interview with Jayson Stark of ESPN.com, Smoltz was forthcoming about his future, suggesting the end to his great career may be at hand.

"When I say [retirement], I'll be absolutely, 100 percent convinced one way or the other," Smoltz said. "And I'm not right now."

Hitting pitcher

Cardinals pitcher Braden Looper has an ERA of 5.03, but who cares? The guy does his best work in the batter's box, where he's hitting .429 and has an on-base percentage of .520.

Looper's hitting stats are even more impressive considering he spent 10 seasons as a reliever.

Weary travelers

Since television networks finance most sports these days, they dictate starting times, which in turn leads to some crazy logistical inconveniences.

ESPN moved Sunday's Mets-Dodgers game in New York from 1 to 8 p.m. Both teams played on the West Coast last night, assuming they were awake after landing around dawn.

The time change also meant the teams had to fly out of Kennedy airport rather than LaGuardia, which is closer to Shea Stadium. LaGuardia has late-night traffic restrictions.

But don't feel sorry for the players. If not for that TV money, they wouldn't be so obscenely wealthy.