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Weekend in Birdland
by Derek Smart
While I acknowledge that, once it was returned to its original, naturally grassy state, Busch Stadium is actually quite a nice looking ballpark, and almost certainly the loveliest of its vintage, I will cry no tears when it is finally imploded at some point during the month of October, for it has been, particularly of late, a graveyard for the Cubs.
However, despite their best efforts to the contrary, the Cubs managed to win a series in Busch for the first time since October of 1999, winning one of the two one-run games, and one of the two extra-inning affairs, beating aside their occasionally clumsy play with the heft of their sticks.
Both teams have reason to be steamed (quite literally, what with the weather) that they didn't pull out a sweep in this set, as any of the games could have turned out differently had Fate turned her head a bit in either direction. As it stands, however, our boys took the skirmish, and as a result, lead the season matchup by a skinny game.
But eleven games remain between these two, so it's far, far from over (the season series, I mean, not the division race, which I have conceded for what seems like decades, now), so in honor of the battles yet to come, let the bullets fly!
Zambrano's start on Friday was probably his most dominant of the year, and but for his first inning mistake to John Rodriguez, International League Man of Mystery, he might have had a complete-game shutout win on his hands.
As it was, the Cubs failed to score in the couple of chances they managed after their lone run in the third, and an excellent performance was rendered useless. The Cubs can't afford to mix offensive incompetence with pitching excellence too many more times this year if they have any intention of staying competitive.
Let the record state that it was on July 23, during the ninety-seventh game of the season, that Derrek Leon Lee tied his own personal season high of 32 home runs. I've come at how impressive this improvement is a couple of different ways, but here's a new one: in 2000, when he was 24, Lee set a personal mark for AB/HR at 17.04. As of last night's game, Lee's 2005 AB/HR ratio is 11.25.
Not only is the degree of Lee's personal betterment worth noting, but if he continues on this pace, he'll be among some elite company historically as well. An AB/HR rate of 11.25 would make Lee's season the 55th best all-time among players with at least 350 AB, squeezing him between Cecil Fielder's 1990 and Jimmie Foxx's 1938. Enjoy this, folks, because this kind of work doesn't come along very often.
Todd Walker went through a gradual metamorphosis in this series, being at least half of a goat in Game One as he failed to bring home tie-breaking runs from third with one out on two separate occasions; being a goat-in-waiting by contributing to the tightness of Game Two with his run-scoring error in the top of the third; and being at least a partial hero by leading off the top of the tenth in Game Three with a double, eventually being one of the four men to cross the plate on the big blast from Neifi!
If the transmogrification continues at this pace, Walker should be busy owning Jason Schmidt later tonight, and by Wednesday afternoon he'll be hitting five or six balls on Sheffield to the delight of the Wrigley faithful, proceeding to lay waste to every record in the book by season's end.
Speaking of Neifi! and his bomb, part of what makes this game so much fun to watch are the times when all a manager's machinations bring the desired confrontation, only to have it backfire like a sugar-tanked Model-T.
With all the walking and bunting it was hard to see exactly what each manager envisioned as his end game, but if after Walker's double, a little baseball fairy had come down to Tony LaRussa and given him the opportunity to let the game play out without any moves on his part, or to fast forward to a point in the inning where the score was still tied with the bases loaded, two out, and Neifi! at the dish, you have to believe TLR would have jumped at Tink's second offering like a cat on tuna.
Of course, it would have been impossible to envision the outcome as rendered before the fact, and as it was, it was nearly impossible to envision it afterwards. The confrontation as it came was one devoutly to be wished for by the Cardinals and their fans, but while sometimes you get what you want, sometimes what you want turns into a steaming pile of dung.
By the way, did anyone else get a flashback to Kirk Gibson's 1988 World Series home run swing when Neifi!'s bat pulled through the zone? Not so much for the magnitude of the feat, or even the drama - goodness knows, there are few plays in the history of baseball that can match that moment - but more for the mechanics of the swing.
Like the nearly legless Gibson, Neifi! simply dragged his bat behind his body like a lead weight, completely disengaging his lower body, attempting only to make contact, yet managing to get the ball on the exact spot on the bat that would send the thing out. It was a nice piece of hitting, but a better piece of luck, and one the Cardinals couldn't hope to prepare for.
While I think Phil Cuzzi missed the call at second, Hector Luna's stolen base was one of those plays that no one deserved to get anything positive out of. Luna got a lousy jump, Mr. White made a lousy throw on a fairly easy pitch to handle, and to wrap it all up, the umpire blew the call. It was an artless moment for everyone, and pretty much equally so.
Had the throw gone into center field, or Luna fallen on his way to the bag, then you'd at least have a clear winner in the race to bungle the play, but since the shankings appeared to be of approximately equal weight, I think this was one of those times where if there were do-overs in baseball, one should have been declared. We can all do better than that, boys.
Back home tonight for a series against the Bondless Giants, and it's Jason Schmidt against the young curveball specialist, Rich Hill. I'm anxious to see what Hill can bring in his second trip to the Bigs, and with Schmidt being an entirely different pitcher than the one who has routinely owned the Cubs, I have no idea what to expect, beyond the unexpected.