All over Chicago and parts beyond, long-suffering Cubs fans (federal law requires they be referred to as such) are ripping their team. As we speak, someone is bashing Sammy Sosa's homer hop -- which, when performed prematurely Wednesday, got him thrown out at second base. Someone is lamenting their maddeningly sloppy play, their myriad injuries, their brutal travel schedule. Someone this very second is predicting doom -- because, after all, "They're the Cubs."

Hey, folks, get over it. The Cubs, underachievers though they may be, are going to get into the postseason -- if for no other reason than the fact no one seems prepared to take the final spot away from them. And when they do, they are going to make some poor opponents' lives miserable.

The Cubs may not be the best team in the league. Heck, they can't seem to get within 14 games of St. Louis in their own division. They also can't seem to shake San Francisco in the wild-card race -- they're just one-half game ahead of the Giants through yesterday -- but the Cubs have an easy schedule from here on out, while the Giants are dueling the Los Angeles Dodgers this weekend and next for the NL West title. If not the best, the Cubs are potentially the scariest team in the NL. Their rotation is so deep, Greg Maddux, with his 303 career wins (15 of them this season) might be pitching Game 4 of the Division Series -- so deep, in fact, that Matt Clement, who would be a No. 2 starter on some clubs, might be moved to the bullpen. Talk all you want about Kerry Wood and Mark Prior and Maddux, but none of them is the ace of this staff.

With the Cubs still struggling to grab the league's last playoff spot, it is 23-year-old right-hander Carlos Zambrano who is set to start twice in the critical final week of the season -- Monday against Cincinnati and Saturday against Atlanta. And it is Zambrano who, should the Cubs wrap things up by Saturday, would be their probable choice to start Game 1 of the playoffs.

"You know he's not afraid," Cubs Manager Dusty Baker told reporters last week. "He's exuberant in how he goes about his business. He's already an all-star, and he's 23 years old. He has a chance to be one of the best in the league."

Zambrano's 71/3 scoreless innings in a 1-0 win over Pittsburgh on Wednesday was his latest triumph, and the Cubs are now 20-9 in his starts this season. A year ago, Zambrano nearly lost his rotation spot in September, then got shelled by Atlanta in his first playoff start.

This year, no one wants to face him. "He's the toughest guy on that staff right now, no doubt," said one scout who saw Zambrano on Wednesday. "I had his fastball as high as 95 [mph] and his curve as low as 63. The only question is whether he can command [his stuff]."

There may be questions about the Cubs' rotation behind Zambrano -- Wood is suffering from a balky back, Prior has not been himself since returning from injury and Clement has strung together three straight shaky starts -- but they go deeper with potential stoppers than any other team in the league.

Is Bonds Thinking 800?

The Giants' announcement this week that they will exercise Barry Bonds's option for 2006 came as little surprise -- once he said publicly he wanted it done, the Giants had little choice, given his immense stature and the likelihood of his breaking Hank Aaron's all-time home run record that season.

What is more interesting is Bonds's stated desire for the Giants to extend his contract through 2007, something Giants ownership said it will take up after the season. What could Barry be thinking? Do the math: It appears he is taking aim at another big number three years from now -- 800.

Yes, Bonds will turn 43 in 2007. But he has made a mockery of age concerns the past few seasons, hitting 135 homers (including 44 this season) since signing his current deal prior to the 2002 season.

At this rate -- and don't think for a minute he can't keep doing it -- he will break Aaron's record in 2006 and become the charter member of the 800-homer club in 2007.

The only questions are whether Bonds's body will continue to allow him to play left field for the Giants (as opposed to switching to an AL team, such as Anaheim, where he can DH), and whether teams will still be walking him 200-plus times per season at age 43.

Last Call for Collins

Baseball's expected decision to move the Montreal Expos to Washington for next season might spell the end of William L. Collins III's long and laudable quest for baseball in Northern Virginia.

Although the NoVa crowd still professes optimism that their site -- which would be a more palatable option for Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos -- will win out, the District's plan, with its $400 million stadium, is the clear leader.

Of course, nothing would prevent Collins's group from bidding on the D.C. team once it goes up for sale. However, Collins this week said his group is unlikely to bid for the team if it goes to the District, citing surveys the group has commissioned that, Collins said, show the D.C. franchise would lose copious amounts of money.

"Ten years of surveys have so scared my partners about the potential success of a franchise in the District, that there's probably very little likelihood we would even bid on the team," Collins said. "They've never anticipated making money -- no one gets into this game for that. They just don't want to lose their shirts."

After all these years, Collins's closest call remains his 1995 flirtation with the Houston Astros, when he and Astros owner Drayton McLane agreed to a deal for Collins's group to purchase the Astros and move them to the Washington area. However, the deal fell through after McLane was urged by baseball's leadership to seek a stadium deal in Houston, and voters approved a new park for the Astros.

Don't Blame Washington

We can appreciate Angelos's argument about a team in Washington harming the Orioles. However, consider this: If the Los Angeles Dodgers make the playoffs this season -- they were leading the Giants in the NL West by 11/2 games through yesterday -- all eight teams in baseball's so-called two-team markets will own at least one postseason appearance in the last five years.

Those teams are the New York Yankees and Mets; the Anaheim Angels and Dodgers; the Chicago Cubs and White Sox; and the Oakland Athletics and San Francisco Giants.

If the Orioles fail to make the playoffs in the years following the Expos' move, it will be for the same reasons they have failed in each of the last seven years with no team in Washington.

Carlos Zambrano, left, has put together a better season for the Cubs than his more heralded fellow starters Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, Greg Maddux.