Write Derek at drksmart @ gmail.com
Write Phil at phil.bencomo @ gmail.com
by Derek Smart
The Cubs got it completely backwards, but I'm not complaining. They may have lost the game when Wandy Rodriguez was on the hill, but when confronted with two-thirds of the Astros' Troika of Dominance, Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt, they got the job done.
The formula: score four runs and hope for the best. That's what they did all three nights, and against an Astros' offense that's inconsistent in its happiest moments, it worked to near perfection. So to celebrate a fine series victory, here's a few congratulatory shots in the air.
My wife enjoys going to see live baseball, but it would be stretch to call her a "baseball fan." This, however, does not stop her from having opinions about the game, and one of my personal favorites is her take on pitchers and hitting.
She absolutely despises it when a hurler can't hack it with the stick. "He's a Major League ballplayer," she'll say, "he should be able to hit." And don't get her started on the DH - "Where I work they call that job sharing."
So when I reported to her that Carlos hit a dinger off of Roy Oswalt, I was a little surprised at her simple, "Good for him." It was a very matter of fact thing, like it was to be expected. I suppose I thought she'd show a little more enthusiasm, but as I thought about it I realized that there was nothing extraordinary to celebrate. It was just a guy doing his job.
"He's a Major League ballplayer. He should be able to hit." Carlos Zambrano, you are a Major League ballplayer.
One of the things that has been a consistent problem with this team, even during stretches where they were playing winning ball, is a tendency to execute poorly. In other words, to play bad fundamental baseball.
We saw more instances of this in the top of the 5th last night, as not only were there two examples of bad execution, but two examples that wound up being interconnected.
First, we had Carlos Zambrano, who otherwise played a near flawless game, unable to get a sacrifice bunt down after Michael Barrett got on base to start the inning. Z dropped the head of his bat and popped the bunt up, making it impossible for Barrett to advance. For a pitcher, even one with Zambrano's hitting prowess, this is a basic skill the execution of which should be automatic.
This gaffe eventually led to the second problem play, which was Matt Lawton missing a hit and run sign. Had Zambrano done his job in the first place Barrett would have been on second, and Lawton would have been free to conduct the at bat as he saw fit. It's safe to say, a hit and run with a man on second and nobody out is beyond even Dusty's repertoire.
But the bunt didn't get down, which opened the door for Lawton to miss his end of the bargain, leaving poor Barrett - slow to begin with, and slower still after the season's grind and beating out an infield hit - completely hung out to dry. Z's missed bunt was bad, but failing to execute a hit and run, particularly with an easy target like Barrett on the paths, is inexcusable.
There was a lot to like about this ballgame, and I don't mean to act the buzzkiller, but this is an issue this team has had for years, and while getting on base, hitting for power, and dominating pitching are the big things you want on a club (and one could argue, the Cubs still don't have all of that right), getting those items doesn't have to mean sacrificing crisp play. The sooner the Cubs organization realizes that, the sooner we'll see a consistent winner on the field.
As a counterpoint to the treatise above, it was refreshing to see the Cubs get, not one, but two runners home from third with less than two outs. In the first Aramis Ramirez got it done, hitting a sacrifice fly to center, and in the seventh it was Michael Barrett hitting the sac fly to right.
I've done a lot of complaining about this, so it's a pleasure to be able to acknowledge the successful conversion of these opportunities. Despite allowing four runs over seven innings, Oswalt didn't throw a bad game, striking out six, walking no one, and allowing eight hits. Fail to get those men in and you've got a tie game late that could go either way. Making these chances count, particularly against a pitcher of Oswalt's calibre, can be a tremendous difference maker.
Putting Carlos even further up on the "Major Leaguer" pedestal was his great play in the eighth on the Willy Tavarez bunt. Remember in 2003 when any throw a pitcher had to make to first gave you a case of the cold sweats? We've come a long way, baby.
You don't see it called very often, but Neifi! was the victim of an umpire actually enforcing the rules, saying that the "neighborhood" wasn't good enough for an out on Mike Lamb's ground ball in the ninth. The call was made less on where Neifi!'s foot was relative to the bag than it was on how far and how fast he was moving away from it.
The truth is, while it had the potential to hurt the Cubs, I liked the call. The rule says you should touch the base for the out, and while I realize there's some fudging in the accepted practice, part of which has to do with injury prevention, I'm always bothered a little by this being let go. After all, they don't let catchers phantom tag a runner heading for home because he might be hurt by a collision at the plate.
Of course, had Neifi! managed to not look like he was a good ten feet away from second as he was throwing the ball, the call likely goes his way, which actually infuriates me more. Honestly, I don't know where I'm going with this, other than to say that intellectual inconsistency drives me insane. Which means I should probably never watch another baseball game.
It's a day off today, followed by a trip to "The Land That Gravity Forgot." What interests me most is to see how this team responds to playing a sub-par club. They've been responding to challenges and folding before mediocrity, so this weekend is a chance to finally buck the trend. I'll have my fingers crossed.