Monthly archives: June 2005
If I Were...
If I were a Major League ballplayer, I'd want to be a pitcher. I wouldn't overpower hitters, but I'd be sneaky. Hitters would bounce grounder after grounder to the keystone combo, and I might snag a few comebackers myself. I wouldn't walk anyone, ever. I wouldn't even go to three balls on many hitters.
If I were a Major League ballplayer, I'd want to be Greg Maddux. My fastball would only hit 88 mph on the radar gun, but I'd still throw my heater more often than any other pitcher in the game. I'd use whoopee cushions, Ben Gay, and fake dog turds to excellent humorous effect in the clubhouse. I'd obsessively hit in the batting cages even though it wasn't part of my primary job description. I'd let everyone think I was the nerdiest nerd of baseball's pitching elite, and I wouldn't give a damn.
Greg Maddux, in a Tom Boswell interview for Playboy Magazine, August 1996. (And, by the way, I can legitimately claim that I do read Playboy only for the articles):
You don't have to throw hard, because people can't judge speed anyway. We can go out on the freeway right now and we can't tell 80 miles per hour from 70 mph unless one car is passing the other. And if we stay there long enough, 70 mph starts to look like 40 mph. Your eye adjusts if it sees the same speed over and over. It's the same to a hitter. If he sees 95-95-95, it starts to look like 50 to him. Eventually, he can time it. You can be more effective throwing 90 to 80, and changing speeds with good location. In fact, you can be almost as effective working between 80 and 70.
If I were a Major League ballplayer, I'd want the confidence to know that how hard I threw the ball didn't matter as much as how smartly I varied my approach. I'd want my life to be simple, and my philosophies to lack pretension. Change speeds. Throw it somewhere else. Do what I can with what I've got.
If I were a Major League ballplayer, I'd want to be Greg Maddux. Who would you want to be?
Threads of Optimism
I have a confession to make. Despite being an obviously obsessed fan of the Chicago Cubs, I've never owned a Cubs jersey. I have multiple hats (although, I only ever wear my original, twenty-year old cap anymore), but somehow I've never been able to justify the expense of a big 'ol striped shirt.
That doesn't mean I haven't given it thought. There have been times I've nearly pulled the trigger, only to back away at the last moment for any number of reasons, not the least of which was an inability to decide whose number should be on it.
A friend and I have a running joke that if we ever bought a jersey we'd get one with someone wonderfully obscure emblazoned on the back - "Now playing left field, number 29, Doug Dascenzo!" - but when push comes to shove, that's an awfully pricey joke. I suppose one could get a blank one, but if I'm going to make that kind of commitment, financial and otherwise, it needs to be for a player I really care about.
Sometime during the 2003 playoffs I realized that, for me, that player had become Kerry Wood, and I made a promise to myself that if I ever took the plunge on a shiny uni, that it would have that '34' sewed to its back. Now all that was left was for me to make a purchase.
Fast forward to last week. I have some Pappy Day cash burning a hole in my pocket, and no idea what to do with it. There isn't much that I want beyond, say, total financial independence, and sadly, what I had wasn't going to get that done by a longshot. But, I realized, what it would do is get me most of the way to that bit of fan paraphernalia I was so sorely lacking - the elusive jersey.
Like every time before I started to balk, but this moment was different. I was determined to get it done, and when I finally ran across an online merchant who was having a pathetically humorous "DL Sale," I knew my moment was nigh.
I ordered my Kerry Wood jersey, and hoped against hope that it would arrive in time for his return to the team. It's one of those things where I can convince myself that certain events are not merely disconnected occurrences in a wide and complex universe, but rather indicators of a larger plan. Signs. Omens.
By the time I had finished placing the order I was certain that the day of the shirt's arrival would determine Wood's fate for the remainder of the season: arrive before his start, and all would be roses and gold. Show up after the fact, and nothing could salvage his year, if not his career. I am nothing, if not dramatic.
I received an email from the merchant on Monday evening that the billing information had been given to the shipping company, and that's where the status remained throughout Tuesday. I know this because I checked at least every ten minutes. By the end of the work day I knew here was no way it could get to me in time. I was despondent.
But things are not always as they seem, and when I got home Tuesday night, I found a small box awaiting me, begging to be opened. Inside was a lovely, weighty, white jersey with blue stripes, and two big Cub patches - one on the left breast, and one on the left sleeve - and on the back were the clean, blue numbers three and four. No name, just the number, all alone and gorgeous in their simplicity.
The jersey had come, and in plenty of time. I wore it all Tuesday night while watching Carlos Zambrano pitch his gem, bouncing around my living room like a five year-old on Christmas morning who's eaten a pound of sugar for breakfast. I'm not ashamed to say I was giddy.
I couldn't wear it yesterday while Kerry pitched - I think I would have gotten some stares at the office - but I knew I didn't need to. Its timely arrival was symbol enough for me, and plenty for the universe as well.
Mr. Wood more than got the job done yesterday, and while he didn't get the win himself, the team did, and his performance was not only a huge part of the victory, it seems, at least in the optimistic light of morning, to be symbolic of a new direction for the club.
I don't know if the team has truly turned a corner. So much can happen over three months, it's impossible to say. But for now, my jersey and I feel good about things. We hope you do to.
Where Have You Gone Joe Borowski-o?
I could see it coming, and hell, I even advocated it, but it doesn't mean I can't be sad that the Cubs designated Joe Borowski for assignment today.
I've always liked and rooted for Joe, but as much as I wanted him to come back this year and succeed, it's been clear from the outset that what he had back in 2002 and 2003 was simply gone.
I fear it has disappeared forever, but I sincerely hope that wherever he ends up, be it in the Cubs' organization or somewhere else, that he can beat the odds and find it again.
But barring that, I hope he can at least find peace with his fate, which if you think about it, isn't so bad. After all, how many folks get a chance to be on a Chicago Cubs playoff team, while making some good money playing the best game in the world besides?
Good luck Joe. Thank you. You did good. And if we don't see you again, know that you are missed.
Looks like someone was listening to their own advice.
Carlos Zambrano threw first ball strikes to 16 of the 28 hitters he faced, while consistently keeping it down in the zone and mixing his pitch selection, leading the Cubs to their second consecutive shutout, throwing what was for him, an efficient eight innings of three-hit ball.
It was exactly the kind of outing Cub fans, and even Big Z himself, have been waiting for, and if it isn't used as a roadmap for success in future turns, there aught to be hell to pay.
In the third inning Doug Davis made a mistake - he threw to Derrek Lee like he was human. After falling behind 2-1 to Lee with pitches outside, Davis tried to keep him honest by coming inside, and he got to be a souvenir donor for his troubles.
At some point this season pitchers are going to stop coming inside to Lee altogether. They've already stopped pounding him there the way they were early in the year, as those pitches wound up deposited in the stands. What used to be a glaring weakness for The Savior has become a major strength, and while the league has adjusted to a point, they haven't done so in the drastic way Lee's dominance dictates.
Of course, after a period of never seeing a ball on the inner half, Lee will start sending the ball out of the park to right - he's always had good opposite field power - but it's in the best interests of National League pitchers to make that extreme adjustment soon, even if it only buys them a couple weeks of mortal play.
Speaking of Doug Davis, if you ever wanted some circumstantial evidence that the Cubs have trouble with "crafty" pitchers, look no further. His career high for strikeouts is nine, and after doing it again last night, he's accomplished the feat four times in his career - three of them against the Cubs.
I want Corey Patterson to hit, I really do. But if he continues to make plays in the field like he did in the eighth inning last night, he'll buy himself a hall pass from me, at least for a while.
His defense and concentration on the field and basepaths have seemed to suffer during his offensive struggles (conjecture on my part, of course, but that's what it looks like to me), so it was important that he get his head in at least part of his game. If you can't get it done with the stick, do it with the glove, and while that won't be good enough forever, it'll be good enough for now.
I've made my fears of bunting with men on first and second clear, so as you can imagine, it was fun to see another team succumb to the dangers of the play. Trent Durrington came up for the Crew trying to sacrifice the runners over to second and third, and after fouling off his first two attempts, was forced to push the ball further into the field of play than he would have ordinarily cared to.
The result was a ball that seemed to be laid down specifically for the purpose of giving Derrek Lee an easy shot at the lead runner at third. Lee made the play easily, and illustrated why I get jittery when it's my guys trying the ploy. Again, it was the right play to attempt, but it's a tough one to get right, and thankfully for the Cubs, the Brewers couldn't.
Kerry Wood returns today against Ben Sheets. I'm excited in a way that I can only describe as unreasonable. It may not be clear at times in this space, but I'm an unabashed fan of Wood, and as much as he disappoints me at times, I can't help but love him. Despite being flexible as a titanium bar, I'll have every available appendage crossed this afternoon. All I have to lose is the feeling in my extremities.
Firing Strikes - With Your Synapses!
It's a slow morning after an off-day, so for the moment I'll direct your attention to an article in this morning's Sun-Times that touches on the recent struggles of tonight's starter, Carlos Zambrano. Here is, to me, the most relevant passage:
"For some reason I become a thrower in the first two innings and not a pitcher," [Zambrano] said. "I want to be a pitcher and not a thrower. When you throw 94, 93 [mph] and locate your pitches, it's better than when you throw 98 and put the ball right down the middle."
This is an important point for Zambrano, and one he obviously hasn't implemented consistently in games yet. His stuff is so good that he's been able to get by many times without putting much thought into what he was doing, simply letting his velocity and movement get the outs for him.
Having that kind of stuff is wonderful, and it can be the difference between being good and being great, but when you already have that fantastic stuff, it's the thought process behind the pitches that makes the difference, and that's what we're waiting to see from Carlos.
On Sunday Mark Prior showed how pitch selection and execution can lead to easy dominance, and we saw the same thing from Greg Maddux after the second inning on Saturday. These are the sort of performances that Zambrano can watch and learn from, and hopefully he has.
When you use your brain on the mound and implement a sound strategy for each hitter, you don't need that wicked stuff to get outs. Location and pitch selection keep your opponent off balance, while velocity and movement become a fallback position of sorts, there to bail you out on the occasions when you miss your spot, rather than the thing you rely on pitch after pitch.
Zambrano is the filthiest of all the Cubs' dirty, dirty pitchers. The difference for him is that he hasn't put his mental game together yet, and until he does, he'll be a very good pitcher instead of the great one he can become. So the lesson here is to use your melon, Carlos. Use your melon, and own the league.
Know Your Enemy 2005 - Week 12
Everyone except the Astros flailed about in a soup of mediocrity this week, posting no more than four wins and no more than four losses. Bo-ring.
St. Louis Cardinals
Cardinal Little: The sky is falling! The sky is falling!
Henny Penny: How do you know?
Cardinal Little: We lost a series to the Reds!
Henny Penny: Well, that's hardly proof.
Cardinal Little: We split a series with the Pirates!
Henny Penny: That's still not a lot to go on. Did you actually see some of the sky come down?
Cardinal Little: No, but did you see Abraham Nunez on the basepaths on Sunday?
Henny Penny: Okay, point taken. But one mediocre week doesn't tank a whole season of effortless dominance.
Cardinal Little: But Mark Mulder is inconsistent and expensive!!!
Henny Penny: Stop being alarmist. Look at the teams you're competing against? Even if you stumble, who's going to overtake you?
Cardinal Little: All of them! Allllllll of them!!! I have to tell Prince Albert! The sky is falling! The skyyyy is falling!
Rickie Weeks and Prince Fielder showed the Twins what the NL Central has to look forward to for years to come, as they both hit their first Major League homers in the same game. They may not be in line for the postseason this year, but if getting a glimpse of what those two gents will bring doesn't put a chill in the hearts of their division-mates, nothing will.
Despite bookend victories against the Cardinals, the Pirates look to be settling toward the bottom of the division like sediment toward the riverbed.
Six consecutive games at home, three of them against the Rockies, helped fuel the Astros' second week of surging. It also doesn't hurt when three of your starters combine for 30.1 innings of 1.19 ERA ball while your normally anemic offense posts only a single game where they score fewer than five runs.
It's doubtful they can keep it up, but then again, Houston always seems to find a way to make things interesting.
Freed at last from the emotional tyranny of Barca-terrorism, the Reds went out and did a fair imitation of a Major League baseball team this week. Unfortunately, even Rich Little can't remain Ronald Reagan forever, so like the images in an oft-watched VHS edition of One's A Crowd, this run of competence, too, shall fade.
Even Up - Moving On
I was blissfully unaware of Friday's happenings as I was trekking to retrieve my auto from the body shop during much of the game (note to you drivers out there - apartment buildings and cars don't mix).
However, the rest of the weekend brought time and opportunity for observation, and for the most part, I was pleasantly pleased and surprised by what I saw. I'd never be one to say that there's no such thing as momentum between games in baseball, but there's certainly a diminished relationship compared to other sports, and thank goodness, really.
There's something wonderful about these little capsules of self-contained competition. That's why we keep watching even when our favorite team is painfully bad - there's always the chance that they could break through, at least for one day.
Hey, that's starting to look like philosophy, cowboy. Knock off the blabbin' and start shootin'!
I was afraid for Greg Maddux right from the first inning on Saturday. His pitches were floating high in the zone with the words, "Hit Me!" etched deep into the leather, begging the man with the bat to give them one more tattoo.
Thankfully, only two White Sox saw fit to lend a hand, and when Joe Crede tried to oblige his spherical buddies, Todd Hollandsworth had the gall to get in the way and steal the dream of a poor hunk of rubber, twine, and cowhide. "No tattoo for you!"
Luckily for the Cubs, once Hollandsworth made his grab The Professor managed to find his changeup, started keeping everything else down, and promptly began making the White Sox look silly for the rest of his time in the game. Hopefully he retains the feel of the pitch for a while, because that slowball is the difference maker for Mad Dog.
I was sad to hear of Todd Wellemeyer's demotion, but it was the sensible move. Not only had he been woefully ineffective of late, but after throwing 2.1 innings of 56 pitch sacrificial lamb-ball on Friday, he wasn't likely to be available for the rest of the series - one in which six innings was all one could reasonably expect from the next two starters on tap.
The call went to Roberto Novoa, both to come from Iowa and enter the game on Saturday, and it was refreshing to see him throw two innings of dominant ball. He was locating his stuff precisely, and besides getting plenty of heat on his fastball, his breaking pitches were sharp and deceptive.
It was the sort of outing that helps you understand why he keeps getting opportunities despite fairly frequent failures. The promise of harnessing that type of nastiness on a regular basis is simply too tempting to pass on lightly. I only hope he can deliver on that promise in a way that his trade-mate, Kyle Farnsworth, never did during his time in Chicago.
I'm not normally put at ease by single outings - my motto being, "Anything can happen in one game" - but let me tell you, the way Mark Prior threw yesterday was enough to make me rethink that credo.
It was the sort of performance that Cub fans were dreaming of, and that it came a month or two earlier than most of us would have expected a few short weeks ago made it all the sweeter. I don't know what The Franchise is feeling on the mound or in the training room, but I was unable to detect anything that looked remotely like deleterious effects.
What I hope Prior takes from this turn, more than anything else, is how effective he can be while being efficient. Sure, he only struck out three, and but for some seemingly fortuitous weather conditions, might have coughed up a couple of dingers, but he still only let one man reach base and got through six innings on 71 pitches.
For those of you who don't like math, that would put him on pace for about 107 pitches over nine frames, which I think any of us would take from him in a heartbeat. Mark Prior back and healthy is a force to be reckoned with. Mark Prior back, healthy, and efficient is a plague o'er the National League.
There was a decent amount of kvetching and uh-ohing from the Cubs' broadcast booth when Dusty Baker made Will Carroll's idea of a modified tandem start a reality by bringing Jerome Williams out of the bullpen in the seventh on Sunday.
I understand why they were concerned, after all, Williams has done very little bullpen work and there's a danger that he might not be able to get his rhythm in what could be an altered warm-up routine. Besides, you'd hate to see such a beautifully pitched game by Prior lost because of some *gasp* unconventional usage.
Still, the move made all kinds of sense. The regular bullpen options were unappealing, but that wasn't the most compelling reason to do what was done. That comes, not necessarily from the circumstances of Sunday's game, but from the way the schedule maps out over the coming days.
Sunday was Williams' day to start if he was to pitch on normal rest. Another option would be to throw Williams during the following game, but that doesn't come until Tuesday, and that's a day that Carlos Zambrano is scheduled to pitch, already on an extra day's rest.
Besides, you don't want to bump Zambrano to Wednesday because that's Kerry Wood's day to pitch on his normal rest, and with his return fresh from the DL, you ideally want him to be getting into a rhythm and getting his strength and stamina back.
That would mean that if Zambrano got bumped, he'd go all the way to Thursday - three extra day's rest now - which would mean that Maddux gets bumped to Friday, which is actually Prior's day to pitch on normal rest, and you'd ideally like to keep him on his normal schedule, so that moves Maddux to Saturday with two extra days off, which we all know he doesn't like.
That's a ginormous mess, but if the Cubs keep everyone but Williams on their regular schedule, that leaves poor Jerome going ten days between game action, and that's not very fair either.
Therefore, since the pen's been shaky of late, and Williams was in need of a couple innings of work to remain on a semblance of his normal schedule (he'll be going with an extra day of rest on Saturday), he was used in relief, and thankfully, to good effect. It was a move with risks, but it was the right move, and Baker should be applauded for making it.
It's a good day to have an off day, with the weather in Chicago as sticky and disgusting as a hot vat of Caro syrup, and the taste of sweet, sweet victory still on our lips. Now that this Interleague silliness is behind us, the season can really begin, but until then, relax and enjoy!
1200 (Or So) Angry Words
As Sergeant Schultz so aptly put it, "I see NO-THING!" But just because I wasn't a direct witness to yesterday's dreadful proceedings doesn't mean I'll remain comment free. Thanks to the wonder of the World Wide Interweb-o-tron, I was able to follow the appalling sadness live, so naturally, I have a couple things to say, but be wary: the lousy baseball we've seen of late is starting to get to me, so this could turn ugly:
Neifi! was down 1-2 to Ben Sheets in the first inning, yet he managed to buckle down and draw a walk. Damn near fainted.
Three things that drive me crazy, in no particular order:
Yellowjackets around the picnic table.
Those flat, wooden spoons that come with ballpark ice cream.
Tagging the opposition's best pitcher for two runs in the first on 19 pitches, then going down in order over the next two innings on 16 pitches.
My vote for most hilarious sequence of the game goes to the top of the seventh, when after Ben Sheets had given up a tie-breaking double to Michael Barrett, a pinch-hitter was called upon. The man brought to the plate was Jose Macias, but that's not the funny part.
What left me in stitches was when Macias sacrificed Barrett to third. This puts Barrett in a position, with one out, to score on any number of balls in play. All the next hitter needs to do is make contact. The next hitter was Corey Patterson. Who had already struck out three times. And promptly made it four. Comic. Genius.
Which brings me to the Corey Patterson Leadoff Experiment, which is going about as well as walking naked and honey-slathered into the Grizzly Bear habitat of your local zoo - which is to say, about as well as expected.
It's bad enough that the Cubs are starting to leak their theoretical interest in a deal for the A's Mark Kotsay. Whether Kotsay's the right man for the top of the order or not, it at least show's that the club understands there's a problem with men getting on base ahead of the big bats in the lineup, and that there may not be a proper solution in house (besides batting Todd Walker in the two spot, that is).
Glendon Rusch has made an excellent case in his last three starts that the best use of his skills might be as a long man out of the pen and occasional spot-starter. It helps that, even if Sergio Mitre and his Magic Groundball Machine aren't to be counted on in the long term, Jerome Williams is around to pick up the slack.
My desires at this point are likely contrary to what the team will actually do, but here's my admittedly ire-induced idea of how to arrange the staff once Wood and Prior return:
Move Rusch to the pen to mostly be the long man, but face the occasional tough group of lefties.
Move Mitre to the pen to handle some longer duty as well, but also to come in for situations where a groundball is needed. The issue here is whether he gets enough work to keep the sinker sinking, but I'm willing to experiment given the other available option.
That other option being Joe Borowski, God love him, who should be evacuated for his own safety. I fear the man is simply done, and it would be best to let him try to figure some stuff out in Iowa or go to another team rather than continue to get tagged the way he has of late.
Allow Williams to be the fifth starter. I have an irrational liking for the kid, but something tells me he's the best choice to permanently install in that spot.
Up to this point, I think the club and I might actually be on the same page - I imagine a lot depends on Mitre's start against the White Sox today - but I have a feeling that this next point is where the Cubs and I part ways:
Mike Remlinger should just go away. Not only has he been lousy of late - allowing runs in three of his last four appearances, while in the one game where he wasn't charged with a run, allowing two inherited runners to score when he gave up a double to the first man he faced - but he's been mediocre and unreliable during his entire tenure with the Cubs.
If there is a poster-child in the organization for why Jim Hendry's original approach to bullpen building was a bad idea, it's Sling Blade and the uninspiring work he's done during his time in Chicago, all while getting paid ridiculous sums for simply being old and left-handed.
What will happen instead is Rich Hill will be sent down to Iowa - perhaps as early as this Sunday when Prior's likely activated - and really, that's not such a bad thing. If he gets more time to work on his stuff - particularly learning to spot his fastball better so that hitters can't simply ignore his vicious curveball - that's a net positive for him, as I'm not sure he's ready to consistently face Major League hitters, and he may not get much work in The Show anyway.
However, at this point I'm just sick of the ache I get in the pit of my stomach every time I see Remlinger trot out from the pen. He's a constant reminder that you can't buy bullpen competence, and I've simply reached the limits of my patience for what he brings to a game.
Yes, it's probably better long term to stick Rem in the back of the pen and let Rich Hill get his work in down on the farm, but I still rankle at Remlinger being allowed to remain with the team when he so distinctly lacks the merits to stay.
The real answer is, of course, to do both - cut the staff back to a more reasonable eleven pitchers, send Hill to Iowa and Remlinger wherever, and bring up another bat - say, Ben Grieve - to bolster the bench. But not even I am delusional enough to think that would ever happen.
I've distinctly moved from writing to ranting, so I'll stop now and spare you further grief. Say your prayers, folks, because it's the Big Bad White Sox for the next three days, and much as I hate to think it, I smell a whuppin', and not the kind the Cubs would enjoy.
A Snowman? In June?!?
Last night was rough, and these things happen, so rather than make a big stink at the top, I'll just head straight for the shooting gallery.
If you're looking for a turning point in that fateful, eight run second inning, I think there are two distinct candidates:
After two pretty hard hit balls to start the inning, it's now men on first and third with nobody out. Carlos manages nicely initially, striking out Geoff Jenkins looking on a call Jenkins likely had a legitimate beef with (it sure looked outside to me, but the camera angle at Miller Park is funky, so it's hard to say).
Now he's got Rickie Weeks up, who looks like he's doing his best Gary Sheffield in the box and hoping that his production will follow (as a side note, Alex Belth has appropriately dubbed Sheffield "The Punisher", so if Weeks is a younger version of him - after all, in addition to jerking the bat around like Sheff, he's also an infielder coming up through the Milwaukee system, just like the early career of the man he appears to be imitating - what should he be called to honor the similarity, while giving a nod to his youth and inexperience? Little P? The Paddler? The Knuckle Rapper?), and after getting him down 1-2, jams him up and in. It was a good pitch, and Weeks didn't hit it well at all, but he got it up in the air enough to drop for a single and drive in the first run.
If outs were assigned based on quality of contact, Weeks was out all the way, but unfortunately for Zambrano and the Cubs, this was an instance where luck did not smile on them, and instead of the weakly hit ball resulting in two out, men at first and third, and no score, it was 1-0 with only one out and men at second and third. Sometimes the hard hit balls get caught, and sometimes the dribblers go for safeties, and the latter was the case here.
The other critical juncture came two batters later, after Zambrano had walked Damian Miller to load the bases. Now to the plate comes Doug Davis, as bad a hitter as you're likely to see in the Majors - so bad that other pitchers cringe and complain about his besmirching of the profession when he approaches the dish.
A couple of things go wrong here, and first on the list is Zambrano being overly careful with Davis early in the count. It was fairly obvious that, especially with the sacks juiced, Davis was willing to make Carlos throw him two strikes before he offered at the ball - if you're unlikely to get a hit anyway, why not try to walk a run in? Z got the first one easy enough, but began trying to get Davis to swing at borderline pitches before he hung that second strike on him.
The result was that, when he did have him down to his last strike, he also had two balls on him, meaning that he had to come a lot closer to the plate than he might otherwise care to in order to avoid walking in the run. Had he gotten Davis down 0-2 - easy enough to do when the man has his bat glued to his shoulder - he could have toyed with him until he struck out. As it was, he had to make a little better pitch.
That's when the other thing goes wrong, and it's less about a bad play than an illustration of the dangers that certain situations present. Because it was a pitcher at the plate - an extra weak hitting pitcher, at that - Derrek Lee needed to play in at first.
This isn't so much because Davis might bunt - that could easily result in a double play if executed poorly enough - but because if he does make swinging contact, there's a very good chance that it could only be hit as hard as a bunt, and if Lee were playing back, could result in a run scoring on a putout, or even an infield hit.
What happened instead was that Davis got a ball on the outside corner - which, as I've mentioned, wouldn't have had to be such a good pitch if the count weren't 2-2 - and was able to somehow shoot it up the first base line. Since Lee was in, he couldn't react fast enough to it, and the ball went for a double and set the stage for the rest of the inning.
Ironically, I'm pretty sure from watching the replays that if Lee were playing a normal first base, that he not only would have gotten the ball, but would have been able to start a fairly easy 3-6-3 double play, thus getting the Cubs out of the inning with only one run tallied against them. Little tiny things can make big differences in ballgames, and last night these little things bit the Cubs in the ass.
The good thing about the night was the work by Rich Hill - a young man about whom I said in the comments just yesterday, should unequivocally be spending more time in the minors.
Well, he looked a lot less like a minor leaguer last night while he was throwing 4.1 innings of scoreless, no hit, six strikeout ball. I still don't think he's ready - his fastball isn't a great pitch, and he needs to be able to spot it more consistently to set up that wicked yakker he's got - but I can certainly see what makes him interesting. When he eventually gets sent back down, as I believe he will, I'll be keeping a close eye on him.
It seems that Corey Patterson has decided he should be a leadoff hitter, and the Cubs are pleased as punch to accommodate him. I see two ways of looking at this:
Dear God, now we're giving His Hackselency an extra plate appearance every few games. Somebody please shoot me.
Well, what do you know, Corey can change.
I'm probably somewhere in the middle of the continuum. Asking to lead off doesn't necessarily signal the change in approach that Patterson so desperately needs to adopt, but it does show a willingness to adapt his attitude - albeit, after literally months of thought - in order to attempt to meet the needs of the team. For a man who has shown a remarkable stubborn streak in his early career, this is an encouraging step in the right direction.
Still, that's only half the battle. Now that attitude change has to extend beyond his mere place in the batting order, and become something that he applies to what he does at the dish - being more selective at the plate, swinging less from the heels in two strike counts - these are the sort of things he needs to do in order to be more than a pleasant volunteer at the top of the order, and while I have serious doubts about whether he's truly willing to make those adjustments, the fact of his enlistment as a table-setter is the best indication yet that he might be.
The Cubs have to go through Ben Sheets to win the series this afternoon, but if there's good news to be found in that statement it comes from the fact that as soon as Sheets began dominating the rest of the league, the Cubs seemed to get his number.
Last season over five starts, Sheets went 1-3 with a 4.50 ERA against the Cubs - by far his worst performance against any team in 2004. A little of that with some good work from Glendon Rusch, and the Cubs can put this series in their pocket.
Of Bombs And Blunders
Congratulations to Jerome Williams on a very nice outing, one marred only by the inability to understand in consecutive turns at bat that Bill Hall isn't a guy you throw a straight fastball to down and in (by the way, when looking at Hall, does anyone else see Shawon Dunston without the Howitzer?).
It would be going too far to say that one turn on its own makes the Hawkins trade a win for the Cubs, but considering that poor LaTroy is now on the DL and was pummelled spectacularly while in a Giant uniform, it's sure a step in the right direction. Here's to seeing some more big steps down that same road.
A quick quote from yesterday's game post:
I like being on the right side of blowouts as much as the next guy, but I've reached the point where a run of good, solid pitching, and good, timely hitting, with games that end 4-2 or thereabouts would be an extremely welcome sight.
Wow. Ask and ye shall receive, indeed.
With Mark Prior looking like he could go on Sunday (Hooray!), and Kerry Wood on the verge of returning himself, the Cubs are looking at a very interesting set of decisions, especially considering the fine work they got out of Williams last night.
I suppose a separate post will have to be dedicated to this subject soon, but if one is inclined to count Sergio Mitre among a group of "legitimate starters" (I'm still a bit reluctant myself, but I'm not sure the club shares my trepidation), within the space of about a week and a half, the Cubs are going to have seven of them to choose from.
That's a hell of a good problem to have, so I'm not complaining - just curious to see who stays, who goes, and who, if anyone, shifts to the pen. Let the speculation begin!
One of my best friends is a lifelong A's fan, and in discussing the Oakland teams of the early Billy Beane era - the ones with high-OBP and power numbers - we started referring to the offensive strategy they employed as the "Walk and Sock" method.
Which begs the question: what do you call what the Cubs did last night? In the seventh inning there was an error, then a homer, then another error, then another homer, so I think there has to be a good name for that "strategy" somewhere. Is it the "Flub and Club?" The "Drop and Pop?" Perhaps even the "Clank and Crank?"
Whatever the term, it worked like a charm last night, as the Crew made mistakes in front of the exact wrong guys, assuming, of course, that their intent was to win. Santos seemed genuinely flustered by the miscues behind him, and as a result, missed badly with two pitches to two men you'd best not miss badly to.
I came to the conclusion last night that I'm not entirely unbiased (Shock! Surprise!). When Derrek Lee tried to tag up and move from first to second on the Jeromy Burnitz flyout to center in the fourth, my initial reaction was, "Gee, that's too bad. It was a good idea, though."
The truth is, I think it was a good idea - Brady Clark doesn't throw particularly well, the ball was deep, he was back on his heels, and there were two out in the inning, so trying to go to second isn't a terrible risk when all those things are considered.
The problem is, I realized that if I saw someone I think less of - say, oh, I don't know...Jose Macias - try the same thing and get thrown out, I'd immediately start spouting off about how he was an idiot and a jackass, and doesn't he know any better than to try a stunt like that. I'd like to think I could see the play for what it was - a good idea that simply didn't work - but I'm far too human to not be influenced by the number on the uniform.
Jeff Cirillo's going to be happy when Ryan Dempster's out of town. Nothing like being the last out in a tight game to the same pitcher two nights in a row to make you wish a fella would just get gone.
It's another guy who seems to own the Cubs going for Milwaukee tonight, as Doug Davis takes the bump against the recently control-challenged Carlos Zambrano. The Fuzzy Bears really need another strong start tonight, as Davis is exactly the type of junk-baller who gives Cub hitters fits. Besides, it would clinch a series victory heading into tomorrow afternoon, and I'm all for that sort of thing.
Taking The Day
I missed nearly the entire game last night, instead enjoying an evening out with my wife while a babysitter chased our daughter around until the little one was too tired to stay awake. It was a lovely respite, however short, from responsibility, and a welcome break from the Cubs.
So, wouldn't you know it, the boys went out and got the job done. If I'd known that all I had to do to ensure a Cub victory was ignore the game while enjoying an excellent meal in one of Chicago's many fine dining establishments, I'd have been making the rounds of the steakhouses all season.
Of course, I'd also be on the verge of a heart attack and in hock up to my ears while eliminating any opportunity to establish a healthy relationship with my little girl, but if that's the price of success - well, screw it, I'll take my family, thanks.
And now, a couple quick shots over the bow.
There's something refreshing about a good old one-run, 5-4 victory, particularly in light of the epidemic run of crazy win margins and run totals in recent Cubs' games. To put it in perspective, it was the first time since the Cubs' 2-0 triumph over Roy Halladay and the Blue Jays on June 8, that neither team in a contest featuring the Cubs scored six or more runs.
That's nine consecutive games where either the Cubs or their opponent saw at least a half-dozen gentlemen touching the plate in glee, a feat accomplished only seven times in all of May, and thirteen times in April (there are already thirteen such games the Cubs have been involved in thus far in June, with nine games left to play).
I like being on the right side of blowouts as much as the next guy, but I've reached the point where a run of good, solid pitching, and good, timely hitting, with games that end 4-2 or thereabouts would be an extremely welcome sight.
Seems like every time I say something derogatory about Neifi! he responds with a solid game, and last night was no exception, as the sarcastically punctuated one went 2 for 5, scored a run, and made the defensive play of the night in the eighth, turning what could have been a weak base hit up the middle into an inning ending, rally killing double play.
I was actually home in time to see it, and it was, indeed, a wonderful piece of glovework by all parties involved, greatly helped, of course, by Damian Miller's slothlike gait. It was the kind of play that the Cubs just missed making all weekend long - for example: if Neifi! isn't covering second on a hit and run Sunday, the Cubs get out of the fourth with their 2-1 lead intact - which just goes to show how games can turn on seemingly small moments.
On the other side of that coin, if Brady Clark doesn't muff Derrek Lee's seventh inning single, Geoff Jenkins' eighth inning RBI single would have tied the game. Naturally, one can't make the assumption that if the game was 4-3 instead of 5-3 that all future events would transpire in a similar fashion - maybe a different pitcher is in the game, or different pitches are thrown by the same pitcher - but those little breaks in tight games can make all the difference, and they certainly did last night.
I'll admit concern when I saw Dempster enter the game, not because he would be trying for a five-out, one-run save (if he's your best reliever, it was the exact spot he should be used in), but because I feared that his lack of recent work might adversely affect his already spotty control.
I love it when my pessimism is proved baseless, and Dempster did exactly that, throwing nasty stuff to four hitters, and best of all, putting it right where he wanted to. That's the guy the Cubs want to see more of, and that's the guy that can be a dominant relief ace.
I'm looking forward to seeing Jerome Williams make his Cub debut tonight, but he'll need to be lights out, as Victor "The Cubs Couldn't Bloody Well Hit Me With A Cricket Bat If I Was Sleeping" Santos takes the hill for the Crew. Look for a tight game, as Santos has only given up more than three runs in an outing twice, and Milwaukee has only faced Williams once in his career (6 IP, 3 ER on April 12, 2004).
Know Your Enemy 2005 - Week 11
Take away the mighty Cardinals, and it was a lousy week for the division. Shoot, leave 'em in there and it still stank, with the Centralistas going a pathetic 12-25. We know how sad the Cubs were, but how did the rest of this group contribute to this display incompetence.
St. Louis Cardinals
Up is up again, black is black once more, cats are back to hating dogs, and the Cardinals gained ground on the entire division. Oh, and Scott Rolen's back, so even if their closest competition wasn't a whopping 9 1/2 games back, it would take a disaster for St. Louis to lose the Central.
Their offense had carried them through their recent run of competence, but it's abandoned them now, as they were only able to score 13 runs on the week while getting shut out twice. Of course, it didn't help that their opponents scored at least six runs in five of their six games on the week. Gee, with a total team collapse like that you'd think they were the Cubs.
The Prince Fielder/Rickie Weeks era has begun, and while they aren't All-Stars yet, they've certainly held their own early on. Fielder might not stick around for much longer (after the last DH series against the Twins this coming weekend, he'll likely be sent back to Indy to play everyday), but it won't be much of a wait for fans of The Crew to see these gentlemen sharing the field daily.
Their season-high five game winning streak ran into the Baltimore offense on Monday, and after three days of getting knocked around, they were fortunate to meet up with the Kansas City Patsies, where their series win improved their road record to 9-27. That's right, I said "improved".
They became the first NL team to allow 400 runs this week, beating even the Anti-Gravity All-Stars to the dubious mark. For those who might mention the taterific tendencies of their home park, I would point out their 6.28 staff road ERA - 1.05 runs worse than their work at home. Like it or not, these guys just can't pitch.
Mystique and Awful
Remember what it was like to be in ballgames for nine innings? Maybe even win some? Ah, those were the days. Shoot, even during their struggles in early May the Cubs were at least close enough to engender some hope of recovery, futile though it often proved to be.
Now they've lost six of seven, and during those half-dozen defeats have been outscored by a shocking 55-17. That's getting whupped, folks, but even though the first three of those six provided the majority of the margin (the Marlins and Red Sox took those three from the Cubs by a combined score of 32-7), the team didn't truly look awful until they stepped into the House That Ruth Built this weekend.
I don't normally get into the intangible side of things, because, really, how can I possibly know what goes on in someone else's head, and how it affects them? Yet, I couldn't help noticing that the Cubs, nearly down to a man, looked intimidated and a little bit frightened. Not so much scared of who they were playing, but rather, cowed by where they were playing.
That could all be so much mumbo jumbo, though, and really, such observations are the sort of thing I usually scoff at. It's the worst kind of ex post facto fitting of previously held perception to outcome - I think Yankee Stadium could be intimidating, so therefore when the Cubs performed poorly there, that must be why. Still, as humans, we look for things to explain our experiences, and that's the best thing I can come up with for what was, as far as Cub baseball was concerned, a truly lost weekend.
Either that, or they just stank.
For those of you who didn't hear Tim McCarver gushing all over Derek Jeter during Saturday's game (and this was before the slam, mind you), take a peek here for the transcript. It was an amazing display by a man already famous for his Jeter-worship, and believe it or not, was over the top by even his standards (although, reading the transcript, the text doesn't convey the love in quite the same way). Truly, I needed a towel and a shower afterwards.
When I saw Joe Borowski coming in to face Derek Jeter with the bags juiced on Saturday, I could have sworn I heard his arrival on the scene at Yankee Stadium accompanied by that famous Metallica hit, "Enter Gascan".
I don't mean to be glib about Borowski's recent struggles, and you have to believe that I root for him like crazy - anyone who busts his butt to make it back to the Majors after being in the Mexican League has earned my respect - but at this point, with the way he's throwing, I'm happy for him that he got his money when he did.
The Cubs can afford it, and he earned what he's getting with his work in 2002 and 2003, but from what I've seen thus far, I don't know that he'll ever truly be effective again. Sure, there's a lot of season left, and I'm no pitching coach, but I've yet to see anything that gives me hope for his future, and no fastball and no slider make Joe a very hittable boy.
Since the end of the famously successful west coast road trip, Neifi! has apparently reached the end of his contract with that fella whose home is spelled with double hockey-sticks, hitting an appalling .130/.149/.152 over his last 47 plate appearances. This is the gentleman who has been given the responsibility of leading off the game and thus getting the most plate appearances of any Cub player, so since he has been entrusted with so much offensive responsibility, it is my duty at this time to declare the Non-Sarcastic Exclamation Point Era officially over.
Would I be more forgiving of another player struggling in a similar manner? You bet. Especially if that player hadn't inflicted a historic amount of damage to Major League offenses over the course of his career. The problem with Neifi!, of course, is that he has been that rough on his teams' run scoring chances in his previous nine years of play.
In his case, the anomaly isn't these recent 46 bad at bats, but the 205 good ones that went before, and knowing that's the case, it's time that something be done. I don't think there are any legitimate trade options out there, so it's time to either bat him eighth, or if you're in a gambling mood, call Ronnie Cedeno back up. The ride has come to an end, and as such, it's time to get off.
It's news good enough to deserve its own post, but with all this unfortunate weekend hoo-ha, I have to mention here that hearing how Mark Prior might be back before the end of the month is music to my ringing ears, food for my starving stomach, manna from heaven itself. Add that to Kerry Wood's eminent return, and hope still springs eternal here in Cub Town.
Jerome Williams is getting the start on Tuesday. I don't mean to gloat, but I called it.
Back to more familiar foreign climes tonight, as the Cubs take on the Brewers in the House That Bud Built On The Backs Of Milwaukee Taxpayers. It's Maddux versus Ohka, a matchup of pitchers whose previous starts couldn't be more different - Ohka's a complete-game shutout, Maddux's three and two-thirds innings of seven-run suckitude. How about a little reversal of fortune, gents?
It's been a common enough scenario this baseball season.
scene: Ciepley at his work desk in the morning, groggy and a bit grumpy.
The phone rings.
Ciepley (picking up): Helloooo...
Belth: Yo dawg, what's going on?
Ciepley (still groggy. it's 9:30 am!): Not much.
Belth (softly, a confession): Dude, they're killin' me. The Yankees suck.
The New York Yankees have had a disappointing season so far. This is normally a cause for great celebration, but my joy at their failures has been tempered a bit in recent years. I'm a New Yorker now, after all, and as a New Yorker you get to know and like a lot of Yankee fans. It isn't much fun to throw Hate the Bronx Bombers parties when all the guests are gloomy Jeter fans. In particular, the season's been less than kind to my friend and Bronx Banter scribe Alex Belth, and it's phooey to see your pal bummed.
But while my public displays of vitriol are going by the wayside, I'm not becoming too much of a softy regarding the Yankees. They're still Enemy Number One in my baseball book, and I'm eagerly anticipating heading to the Bronx tonight with Belth and his brother to witness Zambrano tearing the Pinstripers a new one.
In anticipation of this weekend's lovefest between the Cubs and Yanks, I asked Alex a few questions about the squad he follows:
Ciepley: Tell me how much the Yankees suck this year. Then answer me this: How much is it getting you down?
Belth: The Yanks suck pretty bad. They will be good enough to hang around but will suck enough not to make the playoffs. And yeah, it's bummed me out plenty. I've anticipated them falling off for years now, but that still doesn't make it much fun when it's finally happening.
But at this point, the worst is really over. I mean, I don't see them reaching the postseason, so my expectations are low. The thing of it is--and this has been analyzed thoroughly by guys like my partner Cliff Corcoran, Steven Goldman, Joe Sheehan, Jay Jaffe and Derek Jacques--the Yankees had a very poor offseason, and they are now paying for their mistakes.
Unfortunately, there is only so much satisfaction I can derive from saying "I told you so." I still like a lot of the guys on the team personally and that helps. But you know what? In the big picture, even if they do suck this year--and even for several years to come--they won't suck as much as some teams, and hell, they've been so great for so long now, I figure it's just part of how things work. What goes up has to come down.
Ciepley: You know I think A-Rod's a little b*tch. I know you think he's the bomb. What is it that you like most about his game?
Belth: It's funny, but I'm not crazy about him personally either. And I can totally see why some people hate him. In New York, he's unfairly compared to Jeter. Rodriguez is Winfield to Jeter's Mattingly. He's the better all-around player, but he'll never win any popularity contests. Recently, a friend of mine said that Rodriguez is like a professional wrestler that was cast as a good guy, but he's actually better suited as a good guy turned bad guy.
What I like most about him is that he's a great player and does everything well. He's got a cannon of an arm though he's far from a gold glove third baseman; he looks like a fat ass but can steal bases and is an excellent base runner. And he does strike out a bunch, but he's just a flat-out terrific hitter. I think what I enjoy most about his game is his swing. It's so fluid and seemingly effortless. The ball really jumps off of his bat in a way that is special.
Sheffield is more exciting to watch. His swings are violent and dynamic, the guy is completely visceral. He punishes the ball. Rodriguez is almost like a machine--and I think that's why so many people find him boring. His swing is easy, almost perfect. The fact that the ball carries so well for him seems almost unfair. He's an easy guy to dislike and in a way a hard guy to love. But with very few exeptions (Curt Schilling), I root for greatness, no matter what team a player is on. Rodriguez is no exception.
Ciepley: The Moose is my favorite Yankee by a mile, dumbass squatting-in-the-stretch and all. Who's your favorite among the current Cubs?
Belth: I'd have to say Maddux, easily. He comes across as such an appealing, unpretentious guy. I love reading interviews with him where he talks about pitching. It's a shame that Maddux and Mussina aren't pitching against each other this weekend. Aesthetically, that would be just a dream match up. Obviously, Mussina isn't in the same class, and both pitchers are past their prime. But when they are on, they change speeds and locate the ball so well, they are a joy to watch. However, their margin for error is that much smaller and when they are off, they get muderalized right quick.
Otherwise, I know he's Mr. Cub right now, but Derrek Lee seems like a good guy. I read the Sports Illustrated piece on him this week and he's one of those humble, hard-working guys that would have fit right in on the early Torre Yankee teams.
Ciepley: Last year, your gal pal Emily was all about Tony The Turtle Clark. Who's got Em all hot and bothered this year?
Belth: Nobody has replaced T. Clark for Em. Sure, she'll root for anyone who is an underdog--that's why she was drawn to Clark in the first place. That, and the fact that she thinks he's a class act all the way. So Em pulls for Bubba Crosby whenever he's up from Columbus for a minute. She feels badly for guys when they do poorly, like Giambi and Womack of late, but that doesn't mean she's got the hots for them. She likes Posada and Matsui and Ruben Sierra, but she isn't turned on by any of 'em especially this year.
I will tell you one thing, though. We had front row seats right in front of third base earlier this season and were right up close to these guys. And Em was really impressed with Rodriguez. Yeah, she found him attractive, but more than that she said she just responded to his energy. He gave off very powerful vibes she said. The beauty part about it was that she didn't mention this to me for weeks and half-hated herself for thinking it in the first place. She hates being attracted to the guy everyone else likes, but she couldn't help herself.
Ciepley: What's your prediction for this series?
Belth: I'll say the Yanks will win two of three. Either way, I doubt either team will sweep. Derrek Lee should put one out by the monuments, and Todd Walker or Jeromy Burnitz will hit one in the upper deck in right. Otherwise, I don't have much of a gut feeling one way or the other. I'm interested to see the wild man Zambrano pitch. You'll know early on if Mussina has got it on Sunday. No matter what happens, I know I'll have your wise-cracking ass to contend with. You'll be chirping about how much the Yanks suck, but even more about how much the Cubs suck, whether they win or lose. It's a no-win situation for a self-depricating bastard like me. Oh, well. May the suckiest team suck.
Marginalia II - Cub Style
A question came up in the comments regarding the difference between the Cubs' average margin of victory, and their average margin of defeat. Never one to back off from a challenge, I thought I'd take a peek. Here's what it's been like from 2000 to 2004:
ED NOTE: I forgot to mention that a "Blowout" was defined as a margin of 5 runs or more.
|Year||W-Margin||L-Margin||Difference||One-Run Record||Blowout Record||Blowout RS/RA|
Honestly, I'm not sure how to interpret any of this, but I present it to you nonetheless, if only to some other folks' opinions. In general, it appears that the Cubs trend toward having larger margins of victory than margins of defeat - in other words, they tend to win bigger than they lose - but how they arrive at it, or what the root cause is - well, I just can't be certain. I'd love to hear some theories, because my brain simply isn't making anything coherent out of these numbers.
Oh, and at the risk of further muddying things, here's how it breaks out for this year so far.
|Year||W-Margin||L-Margin||Difference||One-Run Record||Blowout Record||Blowout RS/RA|
Them's the figures, what the hell do they mean? Or do they mean anything at all?
In part one of what will be a concerted effort today to pretend that this didn't happen, I thought I'd take a very quick look at something I mentioned in yesterday's recap: average margin of victory.
Just to quickly sum up, I found that during Monday and Tuesday's games that the winning team scored an average of 7.22 runs, while the losing squad put up 1.74 runs, for an average winning margin of 5.48 runs. That seemed pretty darn huge to me, and it got me wondering about what the average margins had been over the last few years. Thankfully, Retrosheet exists, and with a little manipulation of their yearly game log files, the answers came fairly easily.
|Year||Avg Winning Score||Avg Losing Score||Avg Margin|
While I expected the average margins to be lower than what we saw in those twenty-three games I looked at, the difference isn't nearly as large as I thought it would be. My surprise comes mostly with the average winning score and how that impacts the victory margin - a whopping (to me, at least) 3.57 over the last five seasons.
I thought we'd be looking at an average margin somewhere in the mid-twos, but obviously, it's much higher. If I get some time I might take a look at how this era compares to seasons long past (unless someone's done it already, in which case, feel free to mention where to find it - I'm looking at this for kicks and because the Cubs got creamed yesterday, not for scholarly purposes, and I'd hate to simply be rehashing already completed work), because my guess is that it's historically high.
The Power of Negative Thinking
There's a reason why they play the games, folks, and while most people would look at the fine work done by Sergio Mitre in his last two starts as reason to stop doubting him, I'm not of the same mind. See, the more I've doubted him, the better he's pitched, so as far as I'm concerned, my negativity is an important contributor to the process, and I'd hate to remove a cog from the machine that is Sergio.
Therefore, not only will I continue to doubt him, but I will doubt him with a virulence heretofore unseen in the annals of man. I will call into question, not only his ability, but his desire, perhaps even his lineage. If it gets me more complete game shutouts, I'll do it gladly. Now get your head down: it's a hail of bullets!
That's Sergio Mitre's groundball to flyball ratio over his last two games - and all four of those fly outs came last night. In fact, before giving up a flyball to Damion Easley in the seventh, Mitre had a streak of 14 innings where he did not give up a fly out (he gave up some hits and run during the first inning of that streak in San Diego, but it still counts).
There were only a couple of times last night where I saw him get the ball up in a hittable spot, and the Marlins failed to capitalize on most of them. Whether that's a reflection on the Marlins' hitters or not, I don't know, but I would imagine when a pitcher only gives you a good pitch to hit every couple of batters at best that they start to take you by surprise.
Honestly, voodoo-like attempts to influence his performance aside, I don't know if this is a new chapter of effectiveness for Sergio or not, but the recipie for that effectiveness is certainly clear enough to everyone involved - it's just a matter of executing it consistently.
The first dinger Aramis hit looked like it might have gotten a little help from the wind. The second one needed no such thing. But the most impressive shot of the evening had to be the line drive off the bat of Derrek Lee in the sixth.
It was hit so low, that for a moment I wondered if it would clear the wall. But not only did it clear the wall, it cleared the chain-link fence behind the bleachers to go into the street. It takes a lot of mustard to get a ball with that kind of trajectory entirely out of the park, and Lee simply murdelated the thing.
I'm convinced in retrospect, that if it hadn't stayed high enough to get over that fence that it would have simply gone through it. When they showed the scramble on the street for the ball, I was curious where it first landed, so I began looking for a crater. Ladies and gents, that thing was launched.
One of the things that made the first homer by Aramis (wind-aided or not), and the blast by The Savior so impressive was the fact that, not only had Beckett only given up three homers all year, but he had yet to cough one up to a right-hander. When power meets power, and that power meets a strong wind out of the southeast (okay, it came from pretty much everywhere last night, but I figured "southeast" had some nice music to it), things can get ugly very quickly.
Alright, I'll admit I'm a softie. I like puppy dogs and sunsets and long walks on the beach, so it should come as no surprise that I just felt awful for Chad Bentz last night. In case you missed it, he's a lefty reliever who has a severely malformed right hand, similar to Jim Abbott.
It's the sort of thing where I can't help but root for the fella, as I can only imagine his struggles to get where he is, and for the love of Pete, it was already a blowout. I mean, the guy threw four pitches last night and he'd given up three runs, and by the time he was done, he's only managed to get Enrique Wilson out while giving up five runs on six hits.
I know you're not supposed to let up, even when you're ripping a team to shreds, and I'm sure Mr. Bentz has no use for my sympathy or pity, but there was a part of me that wished the Cubs would back off just a little, if only to let the kid catch his breath.
As further evidence that I'm a softie, I'm starting to feel bad for Corey. Even last night, when the team was coasting to victory, you could hear some discontent from the fans when his at bats came up short. He was the only starter not to get a hit on the night, Mitre included, and honestly, it looks like it's getting to him.
At some point there's a treatise on booing that I'm going to write, but for now, I'll tell you that the gist of it is that (and I think I've said this before) intrasquad booing should be reserved for slackers and jerks.
Near as I can tell, Corey is neither of those, and while I understand that fans get frustrated when players don't perform up to their perceived expectations - hell, if you could hear the invective I hurl at the television, it would burn your nose hair off - there's nothing constructive to be gained from booing a player who's trying his best, especially if you want him to improve.
Do fans have a right to boo their players? Sure, they bought their ticket, they can do what they like within reason and the law, but to my way of thinking, there's a level of restraint that fans should exercise. Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should, and for me, booing a member of your favorite team because he tried hard but failed is one of those things you can do, but shouldn't.
Teams have been getting the stuffing knocked out of them over the last two days. Since Monday, there have been twenty-three games played, five of which have seen a team score in double figures, and fourteen of which saw a team score seven or more.
What's extra odd is how lopsided these games have been, as none of the high scores have been on the losing side. In fact, of the teams that lost those games, only three scored four or more runs (only one team scored as many as five), and fifteen teams were held to two or fewer runs, with six shutouts, all of them coming last night.
The average margin of victory in those twenty-three games was 5.48 runs - 5.50 Monday and 5.47 yesterday, remarkably consistent - with the average score being 7.22 to 1.74. I have no idea what an average margin of victory or average score might be this year, or even in recent years past, but at first glance, this seems like a big outlier. How's that for fun at the old ballpark?
It's another matchup of finesse versus power this afternoon, as Greg Maddux goes up against A.J. Burnett. It looks like the wind is howling again today, and if those conditions hold up through the afternoon, we could have another blast-fest on our hands.
What a dog.
I can't say I didn't expect exactly the sort of result we saw last night, but that doesn't make it any more bearable. When the Cubs endure two consecutive blowouts, it tends to put me on edge, which is never good when you're working so closely with bullets:
Based on his work last night, and really, for the entire time he's been with the club, I'm going to say that barring major disaster (something one should never discount with this team), we've seen the last of John Koronka this season. Here's how it goes over the next week:
It's Mitre and Maddux for the next two games, with a day off on Thursday. This allows the Cubs to skip Koronka's spot that would ordinarily come up during the Yankee series, and throw Mitre there instead. Maddux can then throw on his normal rest on Monday in Milwaukee before a fifth pitcher is needed again.
Jerome Williams has been throwing very well in Iowa (18.1 IP, 18 H, 3 BB, 13 K, 2.95 ERA in three starts). His last start was on the 10th, and he's scheduled to throw again on Wednesday, which would put him in a good position to throw for the Cubs on the 20th or 21st. My guess is, the Cubs would keep Maddux on his normal rest, give Williams the extra day, and send him to the bump next Tuesday night in Milwaukee. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.
His last two outings, Joe Borowski has been getting results more indicative of what I've been seeing thus far. As I've said a couple of times, his stuff just looks über-hittable, and what I'd been witnessing when getting the chance to see him throw was far different from what his statline implied.
I don't know if the film has finally made the rounds, or if his luck's just run out, but if he doesn't find that old snap on his slider, he's going to be good and done very quickly. Much as I wish him the best, and goodness knows I root like crazy for the guy, his obvious struggles make me that much happier that Ryan Dempster has taken so well to closing out games.
One of the extra rough things about facing a tough lefty like Dontrelle Willis at this particular point in the Cubs's season, was having to sit two of the clubs hottest hitters in the Todds, Walker and Hollandsworth.
Since the last game of the Toronto series, Walker has gone 6 for 14 with a double and a triple, while Hollandsworth has been even more productive with his 7 for 14 with three doubles and a homer. With a right-hander on the mound tonight for the Marlins, they'll be around to, hopefully, provide a much needed offensive boost.
I hate carrying twelve pitchers - even with the club's current situation in the rotation I think it's generally a waste of a roster spot that only serves to limit what you can do in critical pinch-hitting situations. The problem, of course, is that there's very little in the way of solid bench bats immediately available in the system.
The guys smokin' the ball in West Tenn need to stay down there to play every day, and the only guy on the Iowa roster I'd like to see come up is Ben Grieve, and truth be told, I like the concept of Grieve considerably more than the reality. Still, if I had to choose between keeping Cliff Bartosh around, who's been supplanted by Will Ohman as the primary LOOGY, and lost the confidence of management besides, as evidenced by his recent appearances - poor ones, at that - in mop-up only situations, I'd go with Ben Ben in a heartbeat.
It's another ugly matchup in what's shaping up to be a series full of such things, with Sergio "Don't Tell Me I Can't Beat Roy Halladay" Mitre against Josh Beckett. The former World Series MVP just got roughed up by Seattle, so I'd expect him to come out of the gate a little testy, which could be good or bad, but the key, as it was last time, is whether Mitre can keep that sinker down. If he does, the Cubs have a shot, and if he doesn't, it's time to hope for a Beckettian meltdown.
Know Your Enemy 2005 - Week 10
The division acquitted itself very well in this recent stretch of interleague play, going 21-11 versus their AL nemeses, with the Cubs having the hardest time, posting a 3-3 record against those DH users. So the NL Central fared well, but how did each team do?
St. Louis Cardinals
Here they go again, expanding their lead in the division for yet another week. With the Cubs' recent run of success the race isn't over yet, but as the weeks creep on, and their lead slowly expands, we're likely to look back at any moments of doubt regarding the divisional race's outcome and laugh and laugh and laugh.
Truth be told, I don't know how to plotz in print, so you'll simply have to believe me when I say I've been making with the plotzing all weekend long.
The Bucs have gone 9-4 since I declared that they wouldn't be within fewer than 3 games of .500 on a Monday for the remainder of 2005, and it's been the offense that's taken them this far. Since May 30, Jack Wilson, Rob Mackowiack, Daryl Ward, Jason Bay, and Matt Lawton have combined to hit a robust .350/.447/.561.
Surely they won't keep that pace up, but if they can meet somewhere between their early incompetence and this joyously excellent outburst, they could be considerably more trouble than I had anticipated for the remainder of the year.
Boy, they sure looked promising for a bit, didn't they? It's been a near total failure in the last couple of weeks, with no one besides Carlos Lee able to hit, and most of the pitching staff falling on hard times. The good news is, not everyone who's been this bad is this bad, the Prince is coming, and Rickie Weeks
may be on his way any day now is already there. They're still a legitimate threat to reach .500 and spoil someone else's October plans.
"Zoicks and Holy Whuppins, Batman, was that a dominant week from the Astros I just saw?"
"It sure was old chum, although it was just a strangely successful version of the same no-offense/other-worldly-run-prevention scheme they've been trying all year."
"Gee, Batman, you sure know how to take the fun out of the old ballgame."
"Just doing my job, Robin. Just doing my job."
Just like the Astros, the Reds stuck to the same thing they've been doing all year - giving up runs by the bushel while beating the hell out of the ball themselves. Just like the Astros, they came out of the week with a 5-1 record, and just like the Astros, this run of success won't last long.
I'll be brief, as my viewing was limited by circumstance, and my office is currently sans AC, which if you've followed Chicago weather of late, is likely to cause my fingernails to melt and thereby permanently adhere my fingers to the keyboard. On to the liquid-lead-fest!
I have to apologize for last night, as I think I might have had something to do with it. See, in one of my fantasy leagues, I own both Bronson Arroyo and Wade Miller. I was trying to decide what to do with them going into the weekend against our boys, and in pondering I realized, particularly with my rotten luck thus far, that I'd have to play them.
Had they been benched, I would have expected an excellent game from them, as most of the time when I've let a pitcher sit fallow they've responded with a lights-out performance. So I took it upon myself to take one for the team and hope these men further ruined my already appalling team ERA, which they did beautifully.
Unfortunately, I don't own Tim Wakefield, and had I been thinking ahead, I would have tried to work out a deal with his owner so that I could put the full voodoo whammy on the Red Sox pitching staff. I was slow on the draw, and for that my friends, I am deeply sorry.
However, even if I were his owner, I would have had a bad feeling about the Cubs facing Tim Wakefield, and every last bit of what I thought would go wrong did last night, with a little extra on the pitching end for kicks.
The Cubs are a team that is particularly ill-suited to perform well against a knuckleballer, as the lineup is not only chock full of hitters whose first real love was a good hard fastball, it is a singularly impatient group of batsmen, most of whom couldn't wait back on a pitch if their bat were tied to an anvil.
This is less a criticism than a simple fact, as the club's ability to jump on bad pitches early and send a good heater over the wall can come in awfully handy at times. Granted, I'd love to see them work more counts against a guy like Wakefield (well, against most guys, really), but it just isn't in their nature, and that fault just means that when these type of men come to the bump the Cubs are at a distinct disadvantage. Luckily, the league isn't exactly boiling over with good knuckle-heads.
While it didn't necessarily seem so at the time, I think the Cubs caught a break of sorts when Carlos Zambrano couldn't keep going because of a sprained toe in the sixth inning of Saturday's game. After five frames he'd thrown 98 pitches, and while the potential of him throwing in the 1-teens was pretty high if he got through another set, his potential pitch total wasn't the root of my concern.
My worries came because the first two innings were frames in which Z was forced to throw 32 and 27 pitches respectively - a huge early load, and most of it under duress. Add in that it was a brutally hot day, and the potential for Zambrano to use enough energy to impact his next start, strong as he might be, was higher than I'd like.
Yes, Carlos had settled down, and yes, he was throwing much better since those first two frames, but after such a rough start, simply holding the Red Sox down for the next three innings until the bullpen could get involved was enough work for one day, and to my mind, it was better for him to save his strength for his next time out and let the relief corps that's been so solid of late do their jobs.
It's another of those pitch and pray nights for the Cubs, as John Koronka lines up against that crazy, mixed-up former Cub farmhand, Dontrelle Willis. The good news is, the Marlins offense has been atrocious of late. The bad news is, despite showing recent signs of fatigue - giving up 9 of his 20 earned runs and 27 of his 75 hits over his last three starts - Willis is still very capable of making the Cubs offense look like it belongs in Florida.
Today, on the Cubs' day off, I take a long look in the mirror and realize that I don't have the discipline to maintain The Derrek Lee.
Playing By Instinct
When I saw on that interweb thingy I've heard so much about that Sergio Mitre had managed to retire the Jays in order in the first inning, the first time they had gone down so meekly at a game's start in the series, I started to get my hopes up that this contest would diverge from the script as much as the other two of the troika.
When Mitre got through the entire Jays lineup in 33 pitches without allowing a baserunner, then drove in Todd Hollandsworth with a double to score the first run of the game, giving the Cubs their first lead of the series, I was nearly sure of it.
When Corey Patterson - whom I lately excoriated for failing to learn anything at the plate - singled off the illustrious Roy Halladay to drive in run number two, I was finally positive that today would be the Cubs' day, despite what my instincts told me beforehand.
My instincts said, "Sergio Mitre has been very hittable in nearly every outing he's had at the Major League level. The Cubs will be lucky if he holds Toronto to four runs over six innings, like John Koronka did on Monday."
The reality was, while I didn't see him throw a single pitch, I can deduce that he was, in fact, not very hittable, by noting the small number of hits he gave up - two, to be exact. He also managed to only walk one man, and in the process of all this, let only a single baserunner get as far as second. That, my friends, is good work. Far better work than I expected.
My instincts said, "Roy Halladay throws strikes and keeps hitters off balance. The Cubs will be lucky to score at all on him, let alone score enough to support an outing by Mitre."
The reality was, that while the Cubs certainly didn't light Doc afire, getting seven hits in seven innings off a pitcher of his caliber is far from shame-worthy. True, the two runs they scored were a less than insurmountable obstacle - even tinier looking when Ryan Dempster put the tying run on base in the ninth - but it was enough to get the job done, thanks to the outstanding work of Mr. Mitre.
Looking at what my instincts were up to, I think I owe Sergio an apology on their behalf: I'm deeply sorry, Sergio, for allowing my instincts to doubt you. Sometimes they can get carried away, thinking everything that can go wrong will, and in this case, you were the target of their thoughtless negativity.
However, in light of today's result, I must inform you and the rest of the Cubs organization that my instincts have once again seen their way to divine a sad and miserable fate for the lot of you. I'm told at this time by my gut (the instincts' official spokes-organ), that the Cubs are about to embark on a historic losing streak spanning the remainder of the season, which is 104 games.
Not only that, but despite their obvious failure to make the postseason after such a disastrous run, the team's luck will be so bad as to actually lose another 11 consecutive contests in October, even though they will not be participating in a single game. I have no idea how such a thing will come to pass - seemingly impossible as it is - but my instincts say it, and so I believe it.
I'm saddened to be the one forced to reveal such a dismal future, but please bear in mind that I am merely the messenger. My instincts have no hidden agenda, and only report what they know, so blame in this case is fruitless. All that remains is for you to submit to your destiny and bow before the powers that dictate such events.
Or you can rage, rage against your fate and teach my instincts just how worthless and pitiful they truly are, showing them with every hit, every strikeout, every victory that they are the fools and you are masters.
Yeah, that could work, too.
The Revenge of Morris
Nothing like a poorly played game heading into a matchup against one of the league's elite pitchers to make the day a little brighter. And when I say brighter, I mean light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel-is-a-train, brighter.
I can't dwell on the big picture, it's simply too depressing. So let's spend some time wallowing in the pain of lead-based detail.
If you're looking for an example of the ridiculous degree of sway the metaphysical has over the coverage of this team, look no further than this morning's papers. All three fishwraps make prominent mention of the cat that ran on the field during the game, drawing parallels to the infamous incident at Shea in 1969 as if it meant something. Well, judging from this quote in the Daily Herald, Dusty's not buying it.
"It wasn't all black," Baker said of Tuesday's cat. "It was black and white, so that don't mean nothing."
I'm not sure which is more disturbing: the fact that the Wrigley Field press contingent felt it was necessary to ask Dusty Baker about the random wanderings of a poor, lost kitty, or that, judging from Baker's response, a feline's color pattern is the sole determinant of its level of evil mojo. Oh hell, why choose? They're both unspeakably sad.
I'm not a broadcast critic, and as such, I like to keep quite about the quality of what I see on my television during the games. Besides, in general, I think the gentlemen in the booth are doing a solid job, and there's little to talk about in that regard.
That is, until someone made the ill-advised decision to spend nearly an inning and a half carrying on an embarrassingly awkward conversation with a man who we shall only know as "Mike the Souvenir Vendor". It's not that Mike didn't seem like a nice guy, or someone worthy of engaging in conversation, but the men in the booth appeared to, quite literally, have nothing to talk to him about.
For those who didn't see it, I doubt I can do the floundering justice, and for those whose eyes and ears were so cursed, there's no point in putting you through such torture again. So I'll leave the discussion of this matter with the following three statements: "Ow!" "Stop it!" and, "Don't you ever do that again!"
Sometimes, the right thing gets done despite a manager's best instincts. There's no doubt Todd Wellemeyer has been the best pitcher out of the Cubs' bullpen for several weeks, and if there were any justice, he'd be getting used consistently at a game's most critical juncture. As it stands, he's been anointed the "seventh inning man," if not through official proclamation, then through his being used in the seventh inning during his last four appearances, last night's included.
As it so happened, you can make an excellent case that, with Glendon Rusch being lifted for a pinch hitter in the bottom of the sixth, the seventh inning of the then tied game was exactly where you wanted to see your best reliever make an appearance. Bullpen roles don't always sync up with situational reality, but luckily for Cub fans, the two meshed beautifully last night, and Wellemeyer did his job during that inning with the same dominating aplomb he's displayed in nearly all his outings since returning from his mid-April banishment.
So, naturally, it figures that when Dusty consciously made the right call - willfully defying the convention of roles that he had laid out for himself by leaving the bullet-throwing Wellemeyer in to face the Jays in the eighth - that it backfired terribly. Previously unhittable, the Jays figured Todd out, roping balls to left, and eventually knocking him out of the game in what wound up being the contest's decisive frame.
It was a situation where all the right buttons were pushed, but as will sometimes happen even in the best of circumstances, the execution simply didn't come. When these unfortunate things do happen, we can only hope as fans that it doesn't discourage those in the position to make decisions from making those same smart calls in the future.
It would have been easy, and actually quite fair, to prepare to label Corey Patterson the goat of an eventual Cub loss after seeing his errant throw allow the Jays' third run to score in the fifth. But while he blew his chance to even things up on the offensive end in the bottom of the seventh, his great throw to get Vernon Wells attempting to stretch his hit into a triple in the fateful eighth could have been a game-saver, had more effective pitching followed.
The problem is, Patterson's been so bad at the plate of late (.167/.231/.250 thus far in June) that any defensive mistake gets magnified tremendously, since his work in the field is likely to be his only positive contribution. Even when he's been hitting better, it's had more to do - to my eye at least - with his capitalization on incredibly poor pitches, or taking unintentional advantage of his natural speed on slowly hit grounders that he'd meant to crush.
There were times last year when I thought Patterson was growing as a hitter, finding things he could do differently at the plate to help himself. I haven't seen the faintest glimmer of this all year, and I'm beginning to doubt if I ever will.
The truth is, the Cubs' work in this game didn't merit a successful result. Anytime you give away enough runs to wipe out your possible margin of victory and hand the win to the other side (three runs swing this game, and with Patterson's bad throw in the fifth, Will Ohman's failure to cover first in the eighth, and the combination on one play in the ninth of a bad throw by Neifi! and a poor pick by Lee, you need look no further for Toronto's triumphant tallies), the loss is well deserved.
This team has come back from their excellent road trip looking like the hapless bunch that left, and after tasting the sweet, sweet nectar of conquest, I'm gagging ever harder on the foul dreck being dished out now.
In a way, I'm happy to be stuck at work this afternoon while the final game of this series is played. I don't anticipate a happy result, and it will be easier to bury myself in tasks on the cubicle farm than to ignore the magic box of the warm glowing warming glow.
And yet, things haven't gone as I thought they would during the first two games of the series, so who's to say I can't be surprised again? You know, besides that stupid cat.
In the first segment of MLB's First-Year Player Draft, held yesterday, the Cubs chose 3 shortstops, 2 catchers, 1 third baseman, 2 outfielders, and 587 pitchers. The team is apparently blissfully unaware of antitrust laws, having attempted to create a monopoly of the mound tossers.
"We have an army," the Cubs front office declared yesterday, "And they are all 6'4", 235, and throw leather balls really, really hard."
Pal and resident goober Alex Belth yesterday asked me if it was tough to see a team with consistent minor league riches not being able to translate that talent into big league wins. My first thought was, "No, goober." The Cubs have done a great job recently of using their minor league talent, especially the pitching, to either fill major league roles (Prior, Zambrano, Wood, Patterson) or trade for big sluggers (Lee, Aramis, Nomar).
Maybe drafting 587 pitchers is the way to go, especially when your team has a pretty good track record with identifying and developing good pitchers. The Cubs have their fair share of pitchers floating around the majors who once toiled in the Cubbie's minor league system. Some of the best:
- Greg Maddux career: 309-177, 2.97
Unfortunately, the Cubs missed out on around 200 of those wins, because they were really, really dumb in the early '90s.
- Jamie Moyer career: 197-147, 4.17
Moyer was traded early in his Cubs career, along with future HOFer Rafael Palmeiro, for... Mitch Williams. Another really, really dumb move.
- Kerry Wood career: 68-51, 3.69
He's been Kerry Wood Good so far in his career, just not Kerry Wood Good, which is what everyone expected.
- Jon Garland career: 55-53, 4.57
It's amazing, but Garland is still only 25 years old. So far this year he is 9-2, 3.40.
- Carlos Zambrano career: 38-32, 3.21
The popular opinion when Zambrano was coming up was that he'd end up in the bullpen. Maybe a closer, maybe just a maniacal middle reliever. The popular opinion was flat-out wrong.
- Mark Prior career: 34-17, 3.07
Maybe when Prior gets off the DL this time, he can strain his ass. Or get a crippling case of hand acne. Or develop blinding neon green eye boogers. All of which would land him back on the DL... again.
- Dontrelle Willis career: 33-19, 3.37
Before too much gnashing of the teeth, it's good to keep in mind that when the Cubs included Willis in the deal for Mr. Clement and Mrs. Alfonseca, Dontrelle was actually the Marlins' fifth or sixth choice among the Cubs' pitching talent. In other words, neither the Cubs nor the Marlins knew he'd be this good, this quickly.
As far as the new crop of pitchers goes, first round pick Mark Pawelek heads the charge. He's a youngster, a lefty, and a high schooler. Baseball America
gives the poop:
Pawelek topped out at 94-95 mph this year with an effortless delivery. Scouts say his feel for pitching, presence and composure are so advanced for his age that he's the equivalent of a college sophomore. He has command of four pitches and knows how and when to use his curveball and changeup. Pawelek is the only high school player in this year's draft who is being advised by Scott Boras and that could have a profound impact on where he is picked.
All that stuff about Boras? Phooey. The Cubs announced they'd signed Pawalek before five rounds had passed. No Prior-esque or Brownlie-iffic delays in getting this Boras client on board.
You Snooze, You Lose
I have no idea how a game as plodding as this one came in under three hours, but the Cubs and Jays managed to finish this lackluster contest in two hours, thirty-nine minutes - and not a moment too soon, if you ask me. Sure, there was the requisite attempted rally by the Cubs - too little too late, as such things often are when Jose Mesa isn't part of the equation - but it was the one spark of life in an otherwise dreary game, and it left me wondering where that bounce had been during the previous 150 minutes.
Of course, I didn't have to fly in from California the night before, like both of these teams did, so I should keep my mouth shut. Naturally, I won't. Time to lock and load!
After two innings I was ready to point to my post after Koronka's first start where I basically said the Cubs should quit with him while they were ahead, but the young lefty settled down nicely and managed to keep things close. There was never a moment when he looked in control to me, and danger seemed around every corner, but he did what he needed to do, even when his defense was busy making things harder for him.
I still think he's a start or two away from being replaced by Jerome Williams (who has given up a solid 11 H, 3 BB, 4 R, and 7 K over 12 IP in his two starts for Iowa), but he deserves kudos for keeping the game winnable, which is all you could possibly ask of him.
Winnable, that is, if there was even a semblance of offensive production on the night. Double plays absolutely killed the Cubs last night, and while I find dealing out opprobrium therapeutic at times, it would be unfair of me to not toss some credit Gustavo Chacin's way. After all, if a Cub pitcher had wriggled out of trouble with similar aplomb, I'd be lauding him to the treetops, so while the Fuzzy Bear's sticks deserve some blame, Chacin deserves some praise.
There was a moment in the ninth inning before Jose Macias grounded into the double play that so appropriately ended the contest with the game nearly entirely on the bases when I didn't understand why Todd Walker hadn't been brought in to pinch hit for him. After all, Macias is who he is, and Walker is who he is, so why wouldn't you get Jose out of there at th earliest convenience?
That was before I realized that if Walker was used then, the only men left on the bench to pinch hit for the pitcher due up next were Enrique Wilson and Henry Blanco, who you could argue are actually worse than Mr. Macias. I might have argued that Walker's power potential and less virulent out-making were reason enough to bring him in, the rest of the bench be damned, but I don't think it's a big enough deal to make a stink about. If Macias only makes one out, Walker still comes up able to tie things with a bomb, so the gain in that situation is marginal.
So, I was prepared to let it go, until I looked closer and saw where the real culprit lie - the use of Corey Patterson as a pinch hitter for Jerry Hairston at the start of the Cubs' half of the eighth. Using Patterson for a perfectly useful hitter struck me initially as foolhardy, and in retrospect, might have been the thing that finally bit the Cubs in the ninth.
Of course, when I look closer at that situation, I see that Vinnie Chulk, the pitcher brought in by the Jays, eats right-handers for lunch. Runs needed to be scored as early and often as possible, and Hairston would have likely had serious problems getting on base, so using Patterson then makes sense as well. It's arguable, but again, not to the point where I'd stand up and go toe to toe with Dusty on his thinking.
In the end, the problem is roster construction. Todd Hollandsworth had to pinch hit against a left-handed pitcher in the seventh because there wasn't a legitimate right-handed bat on the pine, and there was little point in bringing Walker in for Macias because the option that would follow him off the bench was so bloody useless.
Even when they go deep in their pen, Dusty Baker almost never uses his twelfth pitcher, so I'd suggest that someone decide which of the extra hurlers should entertain the troops in Des Moines and get another useful bat with the big club, even if he's a lefty like Ben Grieve.
If you're for something to make you feel better, take the performance of the Cub bullpen as a palliative for that nasty case of offensive ennui. Todd Wellemeyer in particular looked great, making the Jays' hitters look downright goofy. As he grows more confident, and management starts to share in that feeling, there will be reason to howl if he's not used in more and more critical situations.
However, I'm still not sold on Joe Borowski. Again, he seemed to be getting away with some awfully bad sliders, either hanging or toothless, and the hitters he faced appeared to be swinging at where they thought the ball would be if the pitch were thrown well.
Still, deception is deception, and if those pitches consistently look like they'll do one thing but wind up doing another, I suppose that'll do just fine. I'm just not convinced that's what's really happening, and I'll be waiting fearfully for the day when teams have seen him more than once and can recognize a yummy hanger for what it is.
Hopefully, both clubs will have gotten their rest last night, and we can witness two teams going at it who look more ready to play. The matchup is better for the Cubs this evening, as Glendon Rusch goes up against Josh Towers. This is the game the Cubs must win in order to avoid the sweep. With Roy Halliday ready to carve some bear meat tomorrow, our boys had best come to get it done.
Running the Gauntlet
As we await the beginning of this main bout of interleague play, I thought it would be interesting to see who in the National League was getting helped and hurt by this June's slate of games. Below is a quick table of the NL teams and the winning percentages of their prospective June AL opponents through yesterday's games. Read it and weep.
For those of you thinking in terms of the NL Central race, it's bad enough that the Cubs are at the top of the list, but look at where the Cardinals sit. Of course, it would only get worse if I tossed in the winning percentages of the AL clubs these teams played in May, as the Cubs spent three games battling the team with the best record in baseball while the Redbirds feasted Royally.
Much as I love our boys, I still think St. Louis will wind up taking the division handily. However, if the Cubs lose the crown to the Cardinals by a skinny game or two, I'll be looking back on this aberrant practice and cursing the day the schedule-makers were born.
Know Your Enemy 2005 - Week 9
The Cubs saw their second straight week of excellent play start to pay dividends as the Cardinals gave a quick glimpse of their mortal side. How did the rest of the division fare?
St. Louis Cardinals
It's the first time they haven't gained ground in the standings since Week 4, and their first slip backwards since Week 1. That's less about these seven days being bad than about the previous ones being so darn good. They still have a healthy lead, and it's taken a Herculean effort by the Cubs to reel them in this far, so don't think the Cardinals are looking over their shoulder just yet.
Timing isn't everything, but it sure helps, and playing the Marlins and Braves while both were reeling made things a whole lot easier for the Buccos this week. The good news for the week to come is that half of their games will be against the hapless D-Rays. The bad news is, the other half are against the Orioles, with Boston and the Yankees to follow.
They mirrored the Cubs' west coast swing, with nearly opposite results. If only they'd been swept by the Padres, the reverse image would have been complete.
Here is the Astros' record in during two types of Roger Clemens starts:
|Clemens' Runs Allowed||Astros' Record|
Irony: learn to love it.
Dave Miley has to be on the short list of managers in danger of losing their jobs. Adam Dunn's chair shall be avenged!
Lazarus Ain't Got Nothin' On Us
Never expecting to take three of four from the Padres, let alone win six of seven on a west coast trip, I'm sort of speechless now that the Cubs have managed to play themselves back into relevance. Sort of. Bulletman, to the Pointmobile!
It had to end sometime, and it seemed fitting that the game that ended the Cubs' winning streak also brought a close to Derrek Lee's streak of consecutive hits and times on base. If fact, Friday night was one of the few times all year I've seen The Savior look utterly helpless at the dish, seemingly unable to recognize any pitch that came his way.
That counts as a prolonged slump for Derrek these days, and he summarily broke free during the next two games, going five for ten with three doubles, two runs scored, and two RBIs. As David Cassidy once squawked in a voice full of teenage fervor, "I think I love you!"
A couple of weeks ago, I was fairly certain that we were seeing the end of the non-sarcastic exclamation point era, but that was before his recent hitting streak which now stands at fourteen games. Thanks to David Pinto's nifty Day-by-Day database, we can see that since the beginning of the streak on May 23, Neifi! has been stroking an impressive, if odd, .422/.415/.625 (no walks and a sacrifice fly will do that do a guy's OBP).
During that span, he's also hit four doubles and three home runs while knocking in eleven and scoring twelve himself. Over the season thus far, he is 53rd in the Majors in VORP, putting him ahead of names like Vladimir Guerrero, Jose Guillen, Cliff Floyd, Hank Blalock, Aramis Ramirez, Brad Wilkerson, and Carlos Beltran.
Granted, VORP is adjusted for position, and in the case of a player like Guerrero, he's been hurt relative to Neifi! by time off due to injury, but that's still an impressive feat for a man who, before he joined the Cubs last year, was consistently putting up VORPs in the negatives. Us Cub fans have moaned a lot about our lousy luck over the last couple of years, but this is a case where the Lady deigned to smile.
Speaking of luck, how about facing a very good team in the Padres while nearly their entire club is fighting off various forms of a respiratory illness. Not only did it ensure that Ryan Klesko was unavailable for the last two games, but Geoff Blum (who besides being a designated Cub Killer had been hot in general of late) was out on Sunday, as was, most importantly of all, Jake Peavy.
The Cubs didn't do a whole lot against Woody Williams, despite his being fresh off a month on the DL, but the shortness of his outing that his recent return necessitated certainly helped matters. Besides, any day you don't have to face a man who just might be the best pitcher in the National League, is a good day, indeed.
Carlos the Fist is going to be wild, that's just what you get when you have the type of movement that he does. While this can certainly be a bad thing (see: three first inning walks), you'd rather have the crazy zips and dips than nothing at all. Sometimes they can be downright helpful.
Take, for instance, his sixth inning strikeout of Phil Nevin. Blanco set up for a ball on the outside corner, and in watching the replay, that's exactly where Z threw it. At least, that's where it started to go. That was before it took a hard right about halfway to the plate, busting in on Nevin's hands when he was already tossing the head of the bat out to the far black.
What makes a pitcher like Mark Prior great when he's on is the ability to hit the catchers glove at will. Had he been on the hill on a good day in a similar situation, he would have stuck the pill right where Blanco asked him to, and while Nevin might well have struck out on it, he would have at least been swinging in the vicinity of where the ball was, giving him a chance to put it in play.
What Zambrano's ball did - begin by heading for the requested spot, then veering sharply away from it's intended target - gave Nevin no chance, and even that might be overestimating things. Missing wide was Z's theme for the day - his sinker appeared to be moving laterally rather than vertically, but I'm not bright enough to tell you why - and when he finally understood that, he began to take control of the game.
All that late movement can be both wonderful and terrible for a pitcher, but you'd rather have it than not. What separates Z from other hurlers with late action on their pitches - besides that fact that almost no one has the degree of movement that his tosses have - is his burgeoning ability to adjust to what the ball's doing for him during a particular game. The more consistently he's able to recognize what the day hath wrought at an early stage and make it work for him, the more he'll have days like yesterday.
Despite only sporting a batting average of .200 since his return, Todd Walker looks pretty solid at the plate. I'd liken the stage he's at to where Michael Barrett was at the end of April, and Aramis Ramirez was in the middle of May - hitting the ball hard, but having an inordinate number of those balls fall for outs. This will be ending soon, and I think we're on the verge of seeing The Shadow start to darken the lives of opposing pitchers once again.
It's the return of John Koronka tonight, and he'll be facing Gustavo Chacin of the Only Team in Canada Blue Jays. Both teams will have a long flight in from the west coast, so I don't expect that to be as much of a factor as Koronka's hittablility. With Roy Halliday facing poor Sergio Mitre in game three (geez, he's been getting the tough assignments of late), tonight could be the contest that decides the series.
I was born in the seventies. I was born on the seventh day of the seventh month, and I like to pretend that I was born at 8:17 am. Which of course, could also be written as 7:77.
When I was seven, all I cared about were art supplies and Legos. My dad was an artist, so there were plenty of paints and chalks around the house, and my older brothers had passed on their Lego collections to me. I was in seventh heaven.
I don't know about you, but there are seven days in my week. There are seven seas in my ocean, seven continents on my earth, and seven heavenly bodies visible to my naked eye (Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, and the Sun). There are seven colors in my rainbows, give or take a few hues.
I've indulged in the seven deadly sins throughout my life, but I've also witnessed the seven blessings of a Jewish wedding.
I like Sprite, but I also like 7-up.
If I have a son, he will not be named "seven", but I do have an aunt that is named Nona, which means "ninth" in Latin.
I've seen exactly zero of the seven wonders of the ancient world, zero of the seven natural wonders of the world, but I have seen three of the seven wonders of the modern world.
I recently updated my match.com profile. Under "things I like", I included, "Greg Maddux's changeup, Mark Prior's fastball, and seven-game win streaks." I published this update exactly seven days ago.
There is no number better than seven.
One Could Get Used To This
Time is short this morning, so in the interest of brevity: Lighting Round!
The Savior is now 8 for his last 8, and has reached base in each of his last 10 plate appearances. I've run out of adjectives.
It was easy to see how Petco depresses home runs, as two first inning blasts, one from Aramis Ramirez and one from Phil Nevin, were corralled by the spacious dimensions. Then Todd Walker came up in the sixth, said, "This is how you do it boys," and launched a solo shot to the deepest part of the yard. I like Jerry Hairston, but boy it's nice to have Sir Scruffy back.
Mr. Glendon took full advantage of the ballpark's tendencies, posting a 6/14 groundball to flyball ratio on the night: before the game, it was 54/51. Have the Cubs ever made a better scrap-heap signing?
It wasn't the best defensive play I've ever seen, but the sixth inning Rusch to Lee retirement of Dave Roberts was one of the most fun to watch develop. Nice bunt in a tough spot, super fast runner sprinting up the line, Rusch hustles to the ball, scoops and tosses with his glove hand in one motion, and Lee picks it off the ground with his bare hand while finding the bag with his foot. It was wacky, it was exciting, it was backwards, and thank goodness, it was an out.
The ninth saw another nice play by Rusch (it was his night, after all), as he stabbed a line shot up the middle by sticking his glove behind his back. Lovely as it was, though, it's another object lesson in how great plays that get oohs and ahhs are often because the player made them harder than they had to be.
In his delivery, Rusch falls off the mound to his right. He's not in horrible position, but he's off to one side, and it's this follow-through that made the behind-the-back aspect of the play necessary. Had it been, say, Greg Maddux on the hill, you would have seen the same result, but more likely because The Professor would have casually flipped his glove open by his left hip and received the pill like he was having a catch.
I don't mean to denigrate the fine play Rusch made - it was a lovely feat of hand-eye coordination and athleticism - but the necessity for a play on that ball to be spectacular had everything to do with how he gets ready to field. It just shows that there's more to being a good defender than skills with the glove - understanding where to be and how to be ready is at least as important.
This seven game string of sweet, sweet victory is the longest for the club since winning twelve straight from May 19 to June 2 of 2001. Whoever wants to beat that, raise your hand.
If there's a game in this series that looks ripe to lose, it's tonight's, as Sergio Mitre takes the bump against Adam Eaton. The good news is, if Mitre can't keep the ball down as he couldn't in his last outing, there's a decent chance the park will swallow it. That, or there will be a series of Padre triples like the world has never seen.
The Cubs are now guaranteed to be over .500 at the end of this trip, and had you offered me that before Monday night, I would have jumped at it like a crack-addled frog. As it is, after all the trouble this season has been, I've become terribly greedy, and I want all the time-compressed joy I can get. So let's go get 'em!
Bleary-Eyed and Bushy Tailed
If there's a sign of old age, impending or firmly planted, it's when a Cub fan generously described as "moderately obsessed" goes to bed well before the Witching Hour while a game's outcome is still in question. While I am not terrifically old (there is still a respectable percentage of ballplayers at or above me on the post-fetal day count), I'm no longer young enough to last through two consecutive après minuit contests without horrific side-effects, including the mis-operation of heavy machinery I'm not even near.
Luckily, I regretted nothing, as I woke to the sixth Cub victory in a row, and their first three-game series sweep of the season. Now, before I start falling asleep again, let's get to the good stuff. You may fire when ready, Gridley!
Congratulations to John Koronka on his first Major League victory, although in the interest of full disclosure, I found his outing less than inspiring. His early success looked to have more to do with the Dodgers' lack of familiarity than with any great show of competence on Koronka's part, and it showed the second time through the order as the Dodgers started to get after him more consistently.
His fastball was sans giddyap, and his breaking pitches didn't have the sharp bite of effectiveness. The change-up was his most effective pitch, although it wasn't the sort of ball that gives hitters fits. It was a solid turn, good enough to keep the team in the game, which is the most anyone could hope for, but it wasn't the type of work that would give me confidence enough to request a return visit.
Koronka's is the sort of stuff that is destined to be overmatched with prolonged Major League exposure, and barring abject need, it's a game that he and the Cubs should refrain from questioning, put in their pocket, and walk away from post-haste.
I feel for Jeromy Burnitz. It's hard enough to hit Major League pitching without having to pick up a ball coming out of the concession stands beyond first base, and then when you do see it, reasonably fearing that it will burrow fiercely into your posterior, but that must be exactly what he's felt the last two nights when going up against Kelly Wunsch.
Really, those two at bats are an excellent case for allowing hitters to simply take the out and have a seat. It would save time on pitching changes, save pitcher's arms, and most importantly, save the hitter's egos. Tracy points to Wunsch, Burnitz points to the bench, inning over, let's get a beer.
The top of the sixth - my last half-inning of consciousness - saw one of my worst nightmares come to life: an inning where the scheduled hitters consisted of the Murderless Row of Jose Macias, Neifi!, and Enrique Wilson. To be fair, Neifi! has really ceased to be in the same category of ineptitude as Macias and Wilson, so it wasn't the perfect storm of incompetence that I would have considered it to be before The Groinening, but it was awfully close (in this post-sarcastic Neifi! era, Our Boy would be replaced in that mix by Mr. White).
Of course, my horror at the impending offensive doom was unfounded, as Our Boy Neifi! hit a solid double to right field, and eventually scored on one of The Saviour's 18,000 hits on the night (Lee is truly getting ridiculous, folks, and if I'd been awake when he hit his eighth inning bomb, I mightn't have believed my own consciousness). It was a pleasant surprise, like the victory, and while I'm not always a fan of surprises, a fella could get used to this variety.
It didn't mean anything in the end, but boy was I steamed when that fan interfered with Todd Walker's double in the fifth. While far from certain to score Burnitz from first, it sure looked like it had a chance, and missing a run like that is one of those things I tend to subconsciously focus on for the rest of a game.
Again, it's the overactive sense of irony kicking in, except instead of thinking that lightning will strike my airplane because I'm on my honeymoon, I become certain that no matter how large a lead the Cubs manage that the game will be decided in the end by a skinny run, and it'll be the one that got away that spells doom for the Snugglies. It didn't play out that way last night, and I choose to take that as another sign that things have turned to the better here in Cub Town.
It's the red-hot Padres tonight, and a shot at the first winning streak of more than six games during the Dusty Baker era. Break down that wall, and I'll be believing for the rest of the year. Or, until I stop.
Late, But Fashionably So
The game was late, later than intended even, and as a result I was up later than intended, and this post is late as well. Still, better late than never, as they say - a phrase that's applicable both to this little ditty and the Cubs' recent surge toward relevance. They aren't there yet, but with every win comes the feeling that it might just happen, and I'll take the hope over the despair any day.
Let the lead fly!
There are few uglier swings in the game than the one Our Boy Neifi! trots out there every night - it's a Little League cut, where the bat is too heavy for the user, making the head dip below the hands as it's dragged through the zone like a sack of dike-bound sand. It's too sad for comedy, too hilarious for pathos, but in the tenth inning last night it was a funny, happy, beautiful thing that made this morning's bleary eyes worth the price.
I know his run of seeming offensive competence is likely to end sooner rather than later, and perhaps that adds to the enjoyment - like when you're eating that last bite of your meal at Charlie Trotter's, or sipping the dregs of that Highland Park 1958, knowing you'd better savor it for it's like won't come around again soon. Therefore, I resolve to relish these moments of excellence from unlikely places, and while expecting no more, still hope that I haven't seen the bottom of the glass.
Even though he was almost scored on - and would have been if Jeromy Burnitz could bunt, or someone besides Corey Patterson had come up with a man at third and one out - Eric Gagne is still one of the scariest pitchers around. That change-up is so good, I was swinging from the couch.
Only Burnitz and Ramirez weren't made to look foolish by it, Burnitz because he was busy looking foolish bunting, and Ramirez because he's locked in like Jody Foster hiding from Forest Whitaker. He may be looking a bit mortal thus far, but there's still no pitcher I'd like to see less with the game in the balance.
Yet, I'm starting to get used to this idea of Ryan Dempster as closer. His wildness still gives me the shakes (although, I'd imagine, not as much as Antonio Perez), but I'll admit it's nice to see a man go to the bump with a late lead and look like he wants the ball.
I don't talk much about intangibles here because...well...they're not tangible, and too many assumptions need to be made when discussing the ephemeral. But while it's not rational, and there are reasons to remain skeptical, I'm liking the cut of Dempster's jib, and until he starts to cough up leads with regularity, I'm going to do like Stanley Kubrick once did, and learn to stop worrying and love the bomb.
We'll know tonight if this streak has legs, as John Koronka is set to make his debut for the Cubs. He's ripe for the kicking, posting an ERA over five during his stint in Iowa this season, so if the Cubs manage to pull this one out, you just might have me believing this turnaround is more than just a quick flash of joy before the lights go dim.
About the Toaster
Baseball Toaster was unplugged on February 4, 2009.
Write Derek at drksmart @ gmail.com
Write Phil at phil.bencomo @ gmail.com