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Now That's Baseball
by Derek Smart
In what has become the standard late-season Greg Maddux outing, The Professor gave up a run early, struggled a bit with his command, then settled down after the first inning to shut down the opposition, throwing seven solid innings in a measly 70 pitches on his way to a very satisfying 4-1 victory over the Astros.
I love these sort of games, even more than blowout wins. There's something about winning a game and winning it handily without having to get a ten run spread that just feels better. Feels more like baseball.
Perhaps my favorite moment of the night came in the top of the second. Both Matt Murton and Corey Patterson had struck out to seemingly strand Aramis Ramirez at third, and Greg Maddux came to the plate with the bases loaded and two out after Andy Pettitte walked Henry Blanco. The Professor wound up hitting what was essentially a swinging bunt up the third base line, scoring what was, at the time, the game's tying run.
The play itself was great simply because it saved an otherwise unbearable situation - once again failing to score a man from third with less than two outs - but that wasn't what I loved. It was the moment directly afterwards, as the camera focused on Maddux's back after he'd run through the base. The shot stayed with Mad Dog as he turned around and started walking back toward first, at which point he asked Gary Matthews if the ball had gone foul. When Matthews told him it was fair, Maddux' face lit up and popped a big, surprised smile as he laughed out a "Yeah!"
It was wonderful on multiple levels, but the two things about it that really stood out for me were these:
When Maddux asked Matthews if the ball was foul, it was obvious from his body language that he thought it was. That means he was busting his butt up the line even though he felt the ball would eventually be dead. It's refreshing enough to see from any player, but especially so from a pitcher. That it's impossible to ever question the effort of Greg Maddux is reason enough all by itself to love the guy.
The look on The Professor's face when told he was safe, the way he said, "Yeah!" after discovering he'd just driven in a run can be seen on any playlot during any Little League game. That the nearly 40 year-old man can still channel a 10 year-old kid is almost more fun than I can stand.
After last night's dinger, Aramis Ramirez has 22 home runs against the Astros in his career, more than he has against any other team. That's what I call having your priorities straight.
Speaking of Ramirez, you have to love the quote from Andy Pettitte about the two doubles and home run Aramis hit off the Astro's lefty:
"I couldn't have thrown him three worse pitches," Pettitte said. "All three were just terrible. He must have thought I was Santa Claus after throwing those pitches. It was just sickening, especially the homer."
The funny thing is, the homer was nearly a ball Pettitte got away with. Ramirez certainly didn't get all of it - it was one of those long balls peculiar to the Juice Box, where a hitter can get under a pitch in a way that's an out in nearly ever other stadium in the league, yet still get to round the bases because of those proximate left field stands.
There were instances Monday night where the Cubs were hurt by the ballpark, but last night they got a leg up. I don't know if these things really do even out (I suspect that's one of those things people say when things are going wrong to give themselves hope), but its come pretty close so far in this series.
A little correction on Patterson and his "new swing." After hearing it on a couple of broadcasts now, it's safe to say that Corey has, indeed, raised his hands, not lowered them as I faultily recollected. This makes more sense, since one of his bigger problems was a tendency to pop the ball up a lot.
Raising his hands gets them above most balls, making it more difficult to get under pitches, and easier to hit it on the ground or on a line - something Corey has been doing since his return, if one is willing to forget his attempt at a sacrifice bunt. I stand corrected, and I've learned something to boot.
I loved seeing Wood throw last night, not because he was super-human, but because he looked a little off yet still owned the men he faced. Out of his nine pitches, seven of them were strikes, however, only one of those strikes was looking. One was a lineout, one was a foul ball, and the other five were swings and misses.
I point this out because, other than the called strike, I'm not sure Wood got any of his other eight pitches in, or even near, the strike zone. Instead, he just threw his slider and made guys look silly. That he can come in, look like he might not be able to locate his fastball, yet still get the goofy hacks he got is....well....it's just fun.
Remember last year when the Cubs were playing the Astros in late August at their home park, winning the first game to put Houston seven games back in the Wild Card standings? Remember how in the following game, one the Astros won to start their long march of dominance that eventually landed them in the postseason, the Cubs displayed the high levels of whining and petulance that seemed to inspire Houston and win the Cubs so many enemies, even among their own fans?
It was in this spirit of recollection that I took a certain amount of satisfaction in watching both Brad Ausmus and Morgan Ensberg having protracted arguments with home plate umpire Larry Vanover over called third strikes that both served to end an inning.
I'm certainly not implying that the Astros are headed for the same kind of meltdown the Cubs endured last year, or that the Cubs will take inspiration from this show of dudgeon to go on a run of their own - Ausmus didn't choose to make an ass of himself by confronting Greg Maddux on his next trip to the plate, after all - nor am I trying to say that Vanover's strike zone was perfect.
It's just nice to know that sometimes, even members of solid, successful teams turn into whinging nippers under the right circumstances. And nice to know that it's not the Cubs doing it anymore.
It's the big matchup tonight, with Z going up against Ultimate Cub Nemesis, Roy Oswalt. To say that winning this game would be tasty doesn't quite do the concept justice. Go get 'em, boys!