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Holy cow! Cubs not playing like lovable losers

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Something strange is going on at Wrigley Field.

No, it's not all of those out-of-tune people singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." It's the Chicago Cubs.This is June, the time of the season when baseball's lovable losers are supposed to be swooning out of contention. Yet Sammy Sosa has hit almost as many homers as Mark McGwire, Kerry Wood is throwing strikes at a record pace and, despite a recent downturn, the Cubs are near the top of the NL Central.

As the late Harry Caray would say, Holy cow!

"We've got an attitude now that we know we can beat anybody," said Mark Grace, first baseman and, as a Cub since 1985, the team's elder statesman. "Last year we came to the ball park hoping to win. This year we come to the ball park expecting to win."

The Cubbies? The team that's made watching losers a city pastime? The team that always finds new and creative ways to lose, whether it be the June swoon, the late-season fade or last year's 0-14 start?

Get used to it, folks. These aren't the same Cubs your parents - and even your grandparents - knew and loved.

"We are certainly not satisfied with where we're at in the standings through the years," manager Jim Riggleman said. "We're embarrassed by our record at times the last few years, and nobody wants to be embarrassed."

The Cubs have a long history of it, however. They've had just four winning seasons in the past 20 years, and haven't been to the playoffs since 1989.

It's been 52 years since they won a pennant. A World Series championship? You've got to go all the way back to 1908 for that.

Last year's season was one big disaster from the get-go. The 0-14 start was a new National League low, as well as a Cubs record for consecutive losses. Chicago finished 68-94, its worst record in a full season since going 64-98 in 1980.

But from the ashes of last year, the Cubs have built a team that believes it can win its division. At least.

The change began last August, when the Cubs traded ineffective closer Mel Rojas and outfielder Brian McRae to the New York Mets for Lance Johnson, Mark Clark and Manny Alexander.

Then, in the offseason, the Cubs signed free agents Jeff Blauser (Atlanta) and Rod Beck (San Francisco), and traded for Mickey Morandini and power hitter Henry Rodriguez.

"Now we don't need to go out there and win the game with only two guys," Sosa said. "Now I have a lot of help."

After losing the season opener to Florida, the Cubs won eight of their next nine and were in first place. A losing streak dropped them to fourth, but they managed to stay above .500.

And then came Wood.

With a 100 mph fastball, the rookie electrified baseball by fanning 20 Houston Astros in only his fifth major league start. Five days later he set a big league record by striking out 33 in consecutive games.

The 21-year-old who wears Nolan Ryan's number is being touted as the next coming of his idol. He gets standing ovations at away games. When he pitches at home, Cubs fans come armed with K signs to tack up on the railings.

The Cubs won 10 straight from May 29 to June 8, their longest winning streak since 1970. They were errorless in that streak, too, tying a club record. They swept three straight three-game series at Wrigley Field.

Of course, the Cubs being the Cubs, there had to be a slide somewhere. And it came right on the heels of the winning streak.

Chicago lost its fifth straight Thursday night and was one game under .500 for the month going into the weekend. But the Cubs were still in second place in the division, five games behind Houston.

"As of late, we've taken a step backwards," Riggleman said. "But I think the wins we accumulated earlier is a confidence builder for the ballclub as we go through a rough time now."

Sosa's streak helps. He hit his 19th home run of June on Thursday in Detroit, breaking the major league record for homers in a month set by the Tigers' Rudy York in August 1937.

Sosa had 32 going into the weekend, second only to McGwire .