Write Derek at drksmart @ gmail.com
Write Phil at phil.bencomo @ gmail.com
by Derek Smart
The Astros' lineup is less than imposing, and starter Taylor Buchholz came into the game having been lit up in his two previous outings, but even knowing that the contest was ripe for the taking, particularly with the Cubs' best pitcher on the mound, that doesn't make the domination that came to be any less satisfying.
To be honest, the near miss on the no-no was something of a relief, even if I would have loved to see it. Zambrano wound up tossing 126 pitches on the night as it was, mostly because his movement was so pronounced that he was going deep into a lot of counts, and only started with strike one on 12 of the 26 batters he faced (only 57% of his pitches were strikes). He also looked less sharp in his last two innings, and honestly, I don't know that he could have finished the game even if he hadn't given up the knock.
Still, it was a completely dominating performance, and only a couple balls, including Preston Wilson's single, were hit with any sort of authority. He may not have ended up with a historic performance last night, but if forced to lay a bet on who will throw the next no-hitter in the Majors, you could do a lot worse than putting your money on Z.
I was concerned after the first inning that Buchholz had found the form that helped him sport a 2.16 ERA over his first 33.1 innings this season. His fastball was zipping, and he had a nice breaking pitch, so worry that he could effectively shut the Cubs down was not unfounded.
Turns out, I had little cause for consternation. As good as Buchholz looked in the first - and one could see why the Astros wanted him in the deal with Philly for Billy Wagner - he looked horrible from then on, leaving all his pitches in the zone, and often up where a fella could really get a hold of it. Certainly, one can see the potential, but the lack of polish is apparent as well.
Was anyone else kinda waiting for Big Z to belt that dinger in the second? I'm not going to say I called it, because I didn't, but I wasn't surprised either. Carlos seems to hit very well in that ballpark, and there was something about the at bat that looked ripe for the dramatics to come. He kept fouling off fastball after fastball, and one could just sense that a breaking ball was coming and that, more likely than not, it was going to be a cookie. Then on pitch seven of the at bat: frisbee time.
By the way, it's not often you can look at a homer that bounces off the top of the wall to get over and declare that the fella got all of it, but my goodness, Z hit that ball hard. The only ball you could legitimately make a case for being hit harder on the night was Michael Barrett's laser shot to left, and that's saying something.
Just to expound on this idea of the failing Astros' offense, since the beginning of May, their best hitter has been Mike Lamb, and it's not even close. His .364/.412/.545 line leads everyone on the team with more than 40 plate appearances in the span, besting the nearest competitor in AVG (Eric Bruntlett) by 68 points, the nearest in OBP (Bruntlett) by 45 points, and the nearest in SLG (Morgan Ensberg) by 87 points.
Of course, the fact that you could make a reasonable case that Eric Bruntlett has been the team's second best hitter over that period is even more damning. Much like the Cubs over that stretch, the Astros are a least a little better offensively than they've been, but also much like the Cubs, they may not be better enough to matter.
Speaking of hitting since May, here's what Jacque Jones has done since his horrid April mercifully ended:
Zoicks! That's raking, my friends, and while I'm still not a fan of his signing, the bad contract isn't his fault, and a month of that kind of production is good enough for me to declare an end to any cheap shots at his expense for the time being. A few weeks of April-style work and it's back on, but for now, in my eyes, Jacque has earned a reprieve.
It got mention on the broadcast, but the play was good enough to get further notice here: in the top of the fifth, Todd Walker's baserunning was as perfect as can be. One isn't often presented with the sort of perfect storm of placement of struck ball and proximity to the base given to Todd in that situation, but kudos to him for recognizing that he had an opportunity to not just go down meekly, but force the fielder to make a decision.
By stopping in the basepath, yet not backing up too far, he forced Biggio to go for the sure out at first, and for the play on him at second to be a tag rather than a force. Like I said, you have to have a lot of things go just so to have the opportunity to react the way he did, but he saw it was there and made the right choice, and in doing so left me with the question: what would Jerry Hairston have done?
One of the pleasant side-effects of Zambrano's work last night, is that the bullpen comes into tonight's Kerry Wood start well-rested. Even if Wood throws well, they're likely to get three inning or more of work, so the timing couldn't have been better. If the Cubs can get to Wandy Rodriguez - and he sported a 6.09 ERA against the Cubs last year over 24.2 innings - the Cubs could clinch their third consecutive series victory, and there's nothing wrong with that.