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Rubber Game, again
by alex ciepley
FRIDAY: PIRATES 2, CUBS 1
I debated whether or not to actually watch this game, or just check the score from time to time. It was a slow summer Friday at work, I had MLB.tv at my disposal, and it was Mark Prior's first start of the year.
As I've mentioned before, I have a lot of trouble watching Prior pitch. I get fidgety, slightly nauseous, and am generally weird to be around when he's on the mound. Part of me didn't want to jinx Prior by watching him, and part of me, of course, wanted to watch him pitch more than anything else at that moment.
I let the first inning go by unwatched, and then I couldn't resist. Picking up the game with Prior on the mound, freezing a batter with a sweet breaking ball, I realized that my worries were for naught. Prior was awesome, awesome, awesome on the mound, and I don't think his first start back could have gone better. He did look pooped at the end of his outing, but this was to be expected. And in addition to being dominating, Prior was pretty efficient, throwing 85 pitches to get through six innings.
Couldn't have gone better, except for the end result. My subconscious was eating at me as the game went on and the Cubs still hadn't scored. Even after the Cubs went up 1-0 I had a bad feeling, so I left work just before the top of the ninth (it was now after 5:30, and I had dinner guests coming). Bummer, that bullpen.
I remember thinking that the bullpen was going to carry the greatest grief for this loss, but it was a game that showed the weaknesses and strengths of the Cubs all rolled into one package. Starting pitching, amazing. Hawkins, awesome. Rest of bullpen, shaky. Offense, a problem.
Joe Borowski has quickly transformed from folklore hero to Alfonseca's Heir. Christian had a great discussion of Borowski's save situation/non-save situation splits, asking the question, "Are the Cubs using their best relief pitcher at the right time?" Without doing any research, I'd say that it's pretty obvious that La Troy Hawkins is the best reliever on the staff, and that he is being used pretty well. I'd hate to see Hawkins moved into the closer role, not because I don't think he'd be effective at that, but because I think it would lessen the impact he's had on the bullpen. My question is, "Does Joe Borowski deserve to be on the staff at all?" For now, the answer is "yes", based on the last two years' performance, but I think he needs be dropped down in the pecking order. Like, way down. Like, Cubs winning 6-1, in the top of the ninth...
SATURDAY: CUBS 6, PIRATES 1
About a week and a half ago I wrote an ode to Carlos Zambrano and his excellence. He promptly went out and fouled up a game that evening. That made me feel like an ass. After yesterday's performance, though, all is right in the world. Zambrano was up to his usual tricks, despite allowing more fly balls than grounders. Most of the game was another nail-biter, though, and things looked bad in the top of the seventh when Jason Bay dumped one in the basket. Christian's little note prior to the game, "Jason Bay is 4-5 again Big Z with two doubles and two homers", turned out to be prophetic.
The Cubs then scored the next 6 runs, thanks to a sloppy throw home from Randall Simon and a big homer by Derrek Lee. In watching the highlights, I chuckled seeing a fan in the stands behind Derrek jump up and down just as the ball left Lee's bat. You'd have thought it was a walk-off homer, based on this fan's reaction. It was a big blast, though. In the bigger scheme, the Cubs desperately need Lee's lumber to wake up. And on a smaller scale, it put the nail in the coffin on the game, allowing Dusty to go with the easy decision of replacing Zambrano with Francis Beltran in the ninth.
Beltran is a work in progress, but it's pretty obvious why he's considered a good relief prospect. He's nasty out there, striking out guys in bushels (10 K/9 ratio), and he's difficult to hit as well (peeps are hitting .183 off him). The problem areas are unfortunately equally obvious: five home runs in only twenty innings, eleven walks. Still, the results have been pretty good to this point, and Beltran's fantasy stats (3.05 ERA and 1.16 WHIP) are looking nice. Unless he stops with the free passes and dingers, he'll have some problems, but he's looking like a keeper to me. By the end of the year, he may be a bigger piece of the Cubs bullpen than we imagined.
Maddux-Vogelsong this afternoon. The matchups are below.