Baseball Toaster Cub Town
Monthly archives: August 2005


I Like This Feeling Better
2005-08-31 05:32
by Derek Smart

The Cubs have gone from tight and formidable to sloppy and foolish then back to tight and formidable again, all in the course of three days. We might have even more of this yo-yo ball coming our way as some young guns finally get some much deserved work, so just be prepared to take the good with the bad. In the meantime, enjoy these fine, hand made bullet points in celebration of last night's victory.

  • He may not have gotten any deeper into the game than he has in his last few starts, but it was sure nice to see Mark Prior get through six innings in under 100 pitches. Despite his good control, efficiency has been a big problem for Prior throughout his young career, and the truth is, even calling last night's outing efficient is a stretch.

    I firmly believe that for The Franchise to reach his potential he has to find a way to consistently get through at least seven innings without having to max out his arm. If this means pitching to contact more and losing the occasional strikeout, so be it, but having to throw 120 pitches to finish the sixth isn't going to cut it long term. And in other news of the obvious, war is hell, night is dark, and puppies are awfully, awfully cute.

  • While he looks a long way from running like he used to, Nomar appears to be rounding into shape with the bat, and watching this recovery has been bittersweet to say the least.

    I always liked him when he was with the Red Sox, and the feeling has grown since he's been with the Cubs, so I very much want to see him succeed. Yet I know in my heart that any progress he makes will be fleeting, and that his attempts to make a case for his return are futile. I just can't see the club re-signing him, much as the organization might appreciate all the hard work he's put into coming back this year, because the risk is simply too high.

    The Cubs can't afford the possibility of being hung out to dry again, and so while I wish him well and wish he could be a part of this team if they were to eventually reach the promised land, it's clear to me that it was simply not meant to be. And that makes me sad.

  • I've said so before, but I love Matt Murton's approach at the plate. He just does a hell of a job getting himself into good counts, and even when he doesn't, he's got such a quick, clean stroke that he needn't fear hitting with two strikes.

    However, the goal for him over the next month has to be making more solid contact, because while it's nice that he has the speed to get infield knocks, corner outfielders are paid to hit the ball with authority (Cub left-fielders in 2005 apparently haven't been subject to this condition), and unless he starts showing that side of his game, he'll do his chances of making the big club next spring some serious damage.

  • My new favorite for "Most Surreal Moment of the Year," is the snippet of seventh inning conversation that occurred in the Cubs' television broadcast booth as Len Kasper and Bob Brenly began by talking to Ron Cey about his nickname, "The Penguin," and then veered into a discussion of the film, "March of the Penguins".

    The thing is, it wasn't so much the fact that they talked about the movie that was strange, it was the enthusiasm that Cey himself brought to the deal. If you're not just a little bit amused by Ron Cey talking about what a hardship it would be to have to walk seventy miles across Antarctica after sitting on an egg and starving for four months, you don't have a sense of humor.

  • While he never left his feet, when Derrek Lee leaned backwards into the stands to snag Jeff Kent's foul pop-up, I couldn't help but think of a pop idol being carried across an arena on the hands of his audience. I don't think stage dives are a recommended activity at Wrigley (drunken trixies make a poor support system), but if anyone's been enough of a rock star to pull it off this year, Lee's the man.

  • The Cubs pulled off a suicide squeeze, and perhaps the greatest miracle was that I didn't faint immediately afterward.

  • Congratulations to Scott McClain for getting his first hit in the Majors since 1998 in last night's game, which also happened to be his first career extra base hit. Add on Monday night's ground out RBI - his first career run batted in - and you have to believe it's been a fun couple of days for the journeyman. He's the kind of guy you can't help but root for, and if he managed to use this opportunity to play himself into a bench spot next year, I'd be the first to give him a cheer.

It's the rubber game this afternoon, and hopefully Glendon Rusch can get things turned around. A series win wouldn't heal this year's wounds, but it could act as a welcome dose of morphine as we lie on the season's death bed.

Next Year is Here
2005-08-30 05:30
by Derek Smart

The changing of the guard. Taking out the trash. The purge. Whatever you want to call it, the process that began with this weekend's dealing of the disappointing Matt Lawton to the Yankees continued last night as Todd Hollandsworth was sent to Atlanta in exchange for two A-ball pitchers, Angelo Burrows and Todd Blackford.

As is the case with many of these type of trades, the interest that's generated for me has less to do with the prospects acquired than it does with the impact on the team's plans for the immediate future.

For the Cubs, the combination of space created on their 40-man roster by these two deals and the extra space on the regular roster created by Kerry Wood's move to the DL in anticipation of his shoulder surgery on Wednesday make it possible to do two very positive things: bring Matt Murton back up, and finally add Jermaine Van Buren to the 40-man and give him the look he's deserved for a while.

I'd anticipate seeing a lot of Murton down the stretch as the organization tries to figure out if they can count on him to capably man the post next season (I think the answer will be 'yes'), as well as seeing Van Buren in some high pressure situations out of the pen, testing him for what, if his 1.98 ERA and 65/22 K/BB ratio in 54.2 AAA innings are any indication, could be a very prominent role with the Cub relief corps next year.

Think of this as the beginning of preparations for next season, as that's what it really is: an opportunity to see exactly where the holes are and what issues need to take priority this winter. That said, I don't think we're done with deals yet, and what goes down over the next couple of days will tell us a lot about what Jim Hendry is thinking.

Mind the Gap
2005-08-29 13:51
by Derek Smart

The broadcast of Saturday's game was on Fox, and when the Cubs are having their images sent out to a national audience via a national network, one can nearly always count on various painful subjects being broached - the "curse", Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS ("the Cubs were five outs away from a World Series"), the existence of Jose Macias - but this time they trotted out one of the truly standard warhorses of the genre: the number of third baseman who have played for the Cubs since Ron Santo left.

The first thing that bothers me is that with the emergence of Aramis Ramirez, it seems that this subject has played out. He's easily the best third baseman to play for the team since Santo, and has a legitimate shot to be an All-Star for years to come. Even if the Cubs wind up losing him due to financial factors after next year, I think a case can be made that the matter has been resolved.

Of course, that's not the way Fox saw it, and since Ramirez is currently on the DL, and Nomar was newly christened as the latest to play the position in the post-Santo era on Friday, in the minds of those fine gents, this was cause to bring the beast back out for another turn around the park.

Item #2 sticking in my craw is the question of whether the numbers they present are as bad as they seem. In other words, while the Cubs have had a lot of men manning the hot corner since Number 10 held down the job, is this period of flux unique during the time in question?

Naturally, I had to take a look, so for your enjoyment, here's a short list of the teams who have had the most different players at a particular position since the beginning of the 1974 season. I've left out pitchers and outfielders for obvious reasons, and DHs have been excluded as well, since it's a position often used to give position players with big bats a partial day off. These numbers are good through this weekend's play.

San Diego1B112
San Diego3B108

So not only do the Cubs not have the most different players at an infield position since '74, they don't even have the most different players at third base. Oakland has the single position title - and interesting that it would be at first base where they've had men like McGuire and Giambi in recent years - but the overall title goes to the Padres who have fielded a total of 220 different players at their infield corners over the last 31+ seasons.

I understand why they keep harping on the Santo Gap, not only was he a Hall of Fame calibre player, but he was there nearly every day for most of his 14 seasons in blue, and these other teams on the list don't have a similar player whose shoes they've trying to fill since then.

Still, while I recognize Santo's contribution to Cub history, now that the team can finally say they have someone at the hot corner who is potentially worthy of sharing in his legacy, I would hope broadcasters could stop talking about this former wasteland and get back to telling us how we're cosmically screwed.

Know Your Enemy 2005: Weeks 20 & 21
2005-08-29 12:15
by Derek Smart

So, it seems I skipped a week. Again.

I'm all out of excuses, so let's just get down to business.

  1. St. Louis Cardinals

    Season Record83-48
    Week's Record9-4
    Games Back--

    They may be limping down the stretch, but they sure have a funny way of showing it. Still, over the next few days activity on Cardinal cell phones may have as much to do with their postseason chances as anything that happens on the field.

    Even with all of their injuries this is still a good team, but without at least one more bat, this is a club that is one bad start away from not making it to their second straight World Series.

  2. Houston Astros

    Season Record68-62 63-54
    Week's Record5-8
    Games Back14.5

    Sunday's 1-0 loss was the eighth game this season where the Astros were shut out with Roger Clemens on the hill. In six of those games Clemens himself was not scored upon, and in five of them the winning team tallied only one run.

    Say what you want about The Rocket and how this affects his Cy Young chances, but when this season is over, if the Astros haven't won the Wild Card, the players who failed to generate even the tiniest bit of offense will have all of these fantastically pitched games that resulted in losses floating above their beds, haunting them like the Ghost of Christmas' Past, reminding them of the opportunities for happiness and redemption they let slip through their fingers.

  3. Milwaukee Brewers

    Season Record64-67
    Week's Record7-6
    Games Back19.0

    The push for .500 continues, and despite a pretty bad offensive two weeks, they still gained some ground toward their goal. It just got a lot harder, though. With Ben Sheets likely done for the year, it'll be up to the bats to step up and wash the bad taste of twelve straight seasons of futility out of the city's collective mouths.

  4. Cincinnati Reds

    Season Record62-68
    Week's Record8-5
    Games Back20.5

    Despite being a franchise as thoroughly without direction as any in the game, the Reds have managed to post a 26-15 record since the All-Star Break, and stand tied with the incredibly disappointing Cubs for fourth place in the division.

    How have they done it? With a bludgeon. True, they've held their opponents to 4.56 runs per game - not great, but in Cincinnati, a big run-prevention treat - but the real secret has been the nearly six runs they've scored per game themselves (5.93 for you sticklers). Impressive? Yes. Sustainable? No.

  5. Pittsburgh Pirates

    Season Record54-77
    Week's Record3-10
    Games Back29.0

    While it's a small one, there is a possibility that the Pirates could end up as far out of fifth as the Astros are out of first, and considering the continuing dominance of the 2005 iteration of the Cardinals, that's a scathing indictment.

Of Scylla and Charybdis
2005-08-29 07:56
by Derek Smart

There was a juxtaposition over the weekend between what is and what might have been.

On Saturday, we saw the team we've seen nearly all year. Failing to deliver in key situations, making mistakes in the game's most important moments, they sat back and hoped things would be different next time they were at bat, or next time they threw the ball.

What we were treated to on Sunday was an aggressive team. They played good defense, went after hitters in the zone, ran hard on the bases, and attacked good pitches to hit.

It's what Dusty has been preaching all year – aggressiveness – but we've rarely seen it properly applied during this lost season. This, I believe, is because while Dusty might be after the sort of play we saw yesterday, he hasn't the ability to properly define what he craves, to communicate his desires to his players.

It seems from a distance that there is an assumption from Dusty that his players will know what he means, that they won't twist his instructions into something that resembles his directions in part, but as a whole fails to meet the mark.

It is a classic form of mismanagement, where the leader in question issues instructions which are perfectly clear to him because they formed in his mind, yet neglects to elucidate the details to those who haven't the benefit of being inside his head. What follows is misunderstanding, defeat, and frustration - a primary theme of the Cubs' season.

The breakdown of what's not brought to light goes something like this: Dusty wants his players to be aggressive, which means playing in a style that puts pressure on the opposition. He wants the other team back on their heels.

This is something that you'll notice good teams doing, teams that always seem to be sharp and tight on the field. Think of the Cardinals of the last couple of years, and you'll know what I mean.

It isn't simply that St. Louis has had great offensive players, or that their pitching and defense have been solid or better, it's that you know in the back of your head that if an opportunity to do something positive presents itself, if you let your guard down for just a moment, they'll sneak in there and get it done.

This means that there's a certain amount of intellect in being effectively aggressive – an ability to recognize true opportunity and act quickly to capitalize - and this seems to be the principal issue for the Cubs. Most times I believe they are sincerely attempting to bring this aggression to their play, but they fail to engage their minds along the way.

What occurs then is aggression for aggression's sake – futile attempts to make things happen as a mindless reaction to stagnation. It is flailing. It is thrashing. It is what animals do in a state of panic.

In removing the thinking component, the team has taken Dusty's instruction to be aggressive and transformed it into an edict of recklessness.

The issue isn't just that recklessness leads to bad things, but that there is a natural reaction that follows after one is consistently burned by throwing oneself headlong into failure – it is passivity.

So, because the Cubs don't instinctively understand what Mr. Baker wants from them, and because Mr. Baker is incapable of clarifying his entreaty, the team bounces between extremes doomed to disaster – alternately raging and cowering - always knowing they aren't getting it right, but never knowing what needs fixing.

There is plenty of blame to spread between the players, coaches, and front office for this problem, and what the club must do over this final month of the season is figure out what needs to happen in order to make days like yesterday the norm, and days like Saturday the exception. I don't envy their task.

Diversionary Tactics
2005-08-25 07:14
by Derek Smart

I suppose I could spend this time re-hashing another Cubs loss. I could bemoan the most recent injury to Aramis Ramirez and the possible uptick in playing time for Jose Macias. I could even rail against the 132 pitches thrown by Mark Prior in an essentially meaningless game. But I haven't got the stomach for it.

Instead, I'm going to divert you towards something fun. I got an email this weekend from a gentleman named Dan who is a beer vendor at Wrigley Field. He and his brother Pete (also a beer vendor) have developed a site that profiles all the beer vendors at the Friendly Confines on virtual baseball cards.

Whether you're in Chicago and are familiar with some of these faces, or outside the city and just looking for some flavor of the ballpark, the site's a kick. And on a day like today, where the alternative is wallowing in the mire that is the Cubs' 2005 season, I can't think of a better baseball related diversion.

Doin' Pappa Proud
2005-08-24 07:43
by Derek Smart

What a night for Jerome Williams. Not only did he pitch his finest game as a Cub - not allowing a hit until the fifth, which also accounted for the lone run he allowed - but he had his first career multi-hit game and his first extra-base hit as a Cub. All while performing in front of his father, for whom he had missed most of Spring Training, caring for him after kidney and liver transplants.

It was a storybook night for a kid who's had a lousy year - not so much as a player, but as a human being - and I couldn't have been happier for him, or happier for the Cubs, who finally broke through against the Braves. A lovely time was had by all, and so in celebration, I think I'll fire a few shots in the air.

  • There I was, reveling in the warm glowing warming glow of Jeromy Burnitz' fourth inning grand slam, enjoying the offensive outburst even more than usual since it's seemed to be such a rare occurrence of late, and then they had to go and mention that the pitcher who'd thrown the gopher ball, Joey Devine, had just become one of the few pitchers, if not the only pitcher in the history of the game to give up a salami in each of his first two Major League appearances.

    Now I feel bad. I mean, you want to win, and it's always fun to win big, but you don't want to hang that kind of thing on some kid just getting his career started. I suppose that's just baseball, and I'm still glad Burnitz hit the bomb, but I hope Devine is able to do some good things on the field to get beyond the ignominy. In fact, I'm going to assume that he will, because otherwise I'm such a softie that this is going to be a massive buzzkill.

  • One of my earliest baseball memories is of watching Reggie Jackson hitting his three homers in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series. If he wasn't my favorite player already, he was by the time that Series was through. There's something utterly captivating, especially to a six year-old, about the total abandon in Jackson's swing - the way he would go so hard that he nearly screwed himself into the ground, even when making contact.

    We got a look at Andruw Jones doing his impression of Reggie last night, though something got lost in the translation. Reggie went to one knee sometimes, but he wouldn't nearly fall down as Andruw nearly did. The Great Stirrer of Drinks might have been letting it all hang out, but he knew how to look cool doing it.

    The funny thing was, up to that point Jones was 0 for 7 versus Williams in his career, so not only did Jones break up what was to that point a no-hitter for Williams, but he ended a personal no-hit string against Jerome as well, sending the ball onto Waveland Avenue, all while barely keeping his balance. On the post-homer closeup of Williams it was easy to lipread the word, "Wow." It may not have been pretty, but it was awfully impressive.

  • I was all ready to write about how it was not only nice to see the Cubs win in convincing fashion, but lovely to see a crisply played game for once from our boys in blue. Then Matt Lawton kicked the ball Marcus Giles hit toward the gap in the sixth, and suddenly I had to reconsider.

    Of course, two innings later, Lawton got on his horse and made a fine catch on Kelly Johnson's liner to deep left, stretching tall for the ball running full tilt toward the wall. I decided to call Lawton's contribution for the night even, and having done that, I think I can get back to what I wanted to say in the first place, which is that it was not only nice to see the Cubs win in convincing fashion, but lovely to see a crisply played game for once.

  • Speaking of Lawton, one of the things being repeatedly mentioned during the last few broadcasts has been the fact that, despite a reputation as a patient hitter, Lawton only has one free pass in his 75 PA's as a Cub. When asked about it, Lawton said he's been seeing more strikes lately, so he's been swinging more.

    Here's the problem: if Lawton's seeing more good pitches to hit, which is how I'm choosing to interpret "seeing more strikes," then how come he's gone from hitting .273/.380/.433 during his stay in Pittsburgh to putting up a .247/.267/.315 line as a Cub?

    This is the man who's been hitting leadoff while the club has been scoring exactly four runs per game in August, and while others have certainly had their issues this month, it's impossible to escape the assertion that one of the bigger reasons for the club's recent offensive downturn is Lawton's lack of production. That they would have been better off with Jose Macias at the top is damning evidence, indeed.

  • It looks like Derrek Lee's struggles might finally be over. Over his last five games Lee has hit a robust .471/.625/1.000 with three doubles, two homers, and seven walks - none intentional.

    For a while it seemed as if Lee was pressing tremendously, particularly so with pitches inside, swinging at balls off the plate that he should have been letting go in hopes of driving them as in days of yore. Lee has seemed to relax, to back off and let the game come to him a little more, adjusting to what he's given instead of trying to impose his will. This will be an important skill for him, not just in the remaining season, but for the rest of his career.

Mark Prior goes this afternoon, and it would nice to win this series because....well, it's just nice to win. There's little else to play for the rest of the year but pride and the future, and since I think Mr. Prior has an abundance of each, let's hope we can see some of it come into play.

The Blame Game
2005-08-23 09:38
by Derek Smart

During the frustrating times of a season when loss piles upon loss and failure begets failure like a virus dividing and multiplying, there can be some comfort taken, cold and sick though it may be, in finding someone to blame.

The losses build animus, and that animus seeks a direction, a focus. It does not want to sit and be still, it wants action. It wants a target.

That's the gift of blame. It provides something at which to aim your malice, keeping the rancor from doing its damage to you instead, which it most certainly will, if only out of boredom.

Which is what can make a loss like last night's difficult, as truly, I can find no one to blame.

There were no glaring mistakes that should have been otherwise. True, Chipper Jones hit two homers, making him the generator of the entirety of the Braves offensive output, but while the pitches he hit weren't great, neither were they terrible. At some point the talent of your opposition is a factor.

Such is also the case with Tim Hudson, who held the Cubs to two runs during his fine complete game outing. Certainly there were a couple of moments when a big hit could have made a difference, but Hudson threw good pitches at those times and got his outs. The outcome of a game is not solely determined by the actions of your favorite team.

Often we as a community blame the Cubs' hitters for not scoring runs, much as we praise their pitchers when they hold the opponent down. However, we usually fail to acknowledge when the other guy does their job with aplomb.

This is a mistake, because sometimes you are beaten. Sometimes you do your damnedest and it's not enough. Sometimes, much as you try to affect the outcome, it's out of your hands.

In these situations there is no one to blame, so the malignance turns inward. Yet, having nowhere for the hostility to go isn't all bad. There is comfort, too, in simply being bested. In putting forth your finest effort, only to be outdone by your opponent. There is honor in that, and in a season so devoid of honor, it should be a nice change of pace.

I think it would be, had there not been so much that was blameworthy coming before it. If it weren't for all the poor play, all the times when dividing a single brain between the lot of them would have been a tenfold improvement, just being beaten would have been an acceptable, if unwanted, result.

But after a year of finding fault wherever I turn, blame has become my solace. I'm addicted to it. I need it like I need my coffee. In a year that has, once again, been defined by expectations unmet, it seems somehow fitting that now, when I want, desire, expect someone to blame, this team can't even give me that.

2005-08-22 07:43
by Derek Smart

This weekend's games put me in mind of a conversation my wife and I had a couple of weeks ago. We were preparing to leave the house for a morning excursion to the local playlot with our daughter. I was, as is usual for these type of trips, sporting my ancient Cubs hat, while our little girl had decided on a much smaller, much newer, pink version of the same.

My wife came out of our bedroom ready to go, wearing her own Cubs hat, but then looked at the wee one and I both already showing our colors, removed her cap and said, "I can't wear this while you guys are wearing those, we'll look silly."

"What do you mean?" I said.

"All of us going out wearing the same hat like that? Come on, we'll look stupid."

"I don't know. Think of it this way: It shows our deep family commitment to overwhelming institutional mediocrity."

She paused. Thought about it. "Good point," she said, reapplying hat to head, and out the door we went for a lovely morning at the park.

This exchange came to me because, once again, the Cubs displayed their own commitment to the concept in losing the final two games of a three game series with the lowly Colorado Rockies.

As we've seen time and again this season, the club managed to find the near perfect path to defeat against a lesser foe.

Are you facing a pitcher who's making his fifth start of the year and still in the process of building his stamina? Hack, hack, hack away so that he can get through 7 innings in only 81 pitches. He'll probably buy you a beer!

While your offense struggles are you still getting a very solid performance from your own starter? Be sure to muff multiple plays in the field. Free outs and runs are fun to give away!

Did your bats finally awaken in the last game? Don't let your sticks be the only potent weapons, give the opposition plenty of big fat pitches to hit. Sharing is caring!

In the end, this will be the story of the season, not that the team was necessarily bad, but that they perpetually put themselves in a position to win, yet were wholly unable to consistently do the last thing necessary to bring it home.

It is a team that walks a tightrope between two cliffs, coming to within a step of reaching their goal despite being buffeted by wind and rain, putting its foot out to finally achieve its end, only to be distracted by the cessation of the hurricane and emergence of the sun. What should be a help causes a misstep, and down into the chasm they go, all the while cursing their good fortune.

It's a maddening trait, and one I have no idea how to fix. But fixed it must be, and while it may be too late to help this year, there's no better time to start than now. No better time to build the foundation for next season so that 2006 can be the beginning of a deep family commitment to overwhelming institutional excellence.

Looking For A Breeze In The Windy City
2005-08-19 07:42
by Alex Ciepley

It's Friday morning, and I'm having a fashion crisis.

I'm in Chicago. For some reason, I neglected to check before leaving New York last night, and now I'm stuck in the city of broad shoulders and deep dish pizza on a muggy mid-90s day without a pair of shorts. Why did I assume that Chicago would be as cool as it's been in New York? Because New York is the center of the universe, didntchaknow, and I couldn't deign to believe that another city in the world would dare have different weather than my home town.

Not that I'd wear shorts if I'd packed them. I have the pasty legs that come with my eastern European heritage, and I have several reasons for hiding them on this day, reasons that go beyond the general altruistic tendency to not want to blind strangers while walking down Michigan Avenue.

Today I'm meeting up with two friends, neither of whom I've actually seen in person before. I want to look good--casual, but good--and that most certainly means hiding the pasty legs and suffering in my sweaty jeans.

The first friend is someone Cub Town readers know and love. Derek Smart and I are meeting for lunch downtown by Derek's office. We're in regular contact, of course, but have never met. I'm excited. I also have a series of important questions to ask him.

1) If the Cubs played as well as you write, would they have lost a game yet this season?

2) I go into spontaneous convulsions when Mark Prior loses, and I don't even live in Chicago. Does the entire North Side tremble with fear and loathing when he starts allowing homeruns to the likes of Todd Pratt and Mike Mahoney?

3) So, was it worth it to wear my jeans and spare you the pasty legs?

First things first: I have to figure out how to get to Derek's office. I'm staying with some cousins in be-A-utiful Hyde Park, and am trying to wrap my head around this whole Metro-to-the-Red Line thing that I apparently need to do. Where's the 1/9? How 'bout the N/R? Why is this subway thing above ground?

After lunching with Derek, I plan to wander around the Loop, do some shopping (maybe buy some shorts!), maybe visit the Art Institute. All before meeting un-met friend number two, the best friend of the new guy I'm dating.

Talk about wanting to make a good first impression. Meeting your mate's family is one thing. We don't choose our family, we stumble into them, so if the sister or great aunt has a problem with you, you can try to rationalize it away as some deep-seated familial angst that has nothing to do with you, a quirk of genetics. But the best friend is different. Our friends are, to a degree, an extension of who we are in life, a reflection of the choices we've made. I'm excited as all hell to meet the boy's main guy, but I'm sure the sweat running down my sides will be due to more than just the humidity.

I suppose I'll do what I do best. Smile, be myself, and frantically chatter my way through the afternoon. We're heading to Millenium Park, which I've never seen, and I'm optimistic that we'll have a grand time.

I'm in Chicago, after all. The Cubbies are out of town, but who better to fill that void than Mr. Smart? And I'm really digging the boy in my life, too, so who better to make up for his absence here than his best friend? Chicago folk are great people--mixing the sincerity and kindness of the Midwest with the worldliness of living in an international city--and I'm certain I'm going to be meeting two great people today.

Reverse Psychology
2005-08-18 11:11
by Derek Smart

The Cubs got it completely backwards, but I'm not complaining. They may have lost the game when Wandy Rodriguez was on the hill, but when confronted with two-thirds of the Astros' Troika of Dominance, Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt, they got the job done.

The formula: score four runs and hope for the best. That's what they did all three nights, and against an Astros' offense that's inconsistent in its happiest moments, it worked to near perfection. So to celebrate a fine series victory, here's a few congratulatory shots in the air.

  • My wife enjoys going to see live baseball, but it would be stretch to call her a "baseball fan." This, however, does not stop her from having opinions about the game, and one of my personal favorites is her take on pitchers and hitting.

    She absolutely despises it when a hurler can't hack it with the stick. "He's a Major League ballplayer," she'll say, "he should be able to hit." And don't get her started on the DH - "Where I work they call that job sharing."

    So when I reported to her that Carlos hit a dinger off of Roy Oswalt, I was a little surprised at her simple, "Good for him." It was a very matter of fact thing, like it was to be expected. I suppose I thought she'd show a little more enthusiasm, but as I thought about it I realized that there was nothing extraordinary to celebrate. It was just a guy doing his job.

    "He's a Major League ballplayer. He should be able to hit." Carlos Zambrano, you are a Major League ballplayer.

  • One of the things that has been a consistent problem with this team, even during stretches where they were playing winning ball, is a tendency to execute poorly. In other words, to play bad fundamental baseball.

    We saw more instances of this in the top of the 5th last night, as not only were there two examples of bad execution, but two examples that wound up being interconnected.

    First, we had Carlos Zambrano, who otherwise played a near flawless game, unable to get a sacrifice bunt down after Michael Barrett got on base to start the inning. Z dropped the head of his bat and popped the bunt up, making it impossible for Barrett to advance. For a pitcher, even one with Zambrano's hitting prowess, this is a basic skill the execution of which should be automatic.

    This gaffe eventually led to the second problem play, which was Matt Lawton missing a hit and run sign. Had Zambrano done his job in the first place Barrett would have been on second, and Lawton would have been free to conduct the at bat as he saw fit. It's safe to say, a hit and run with a man on second and nobody out is beyond even Dusty's repertoire.

    But the bunt didn't get down, which opened the door for Lawton to miss his end of the bargain, leaving poor Barrett - slow to begin with, and slower still after the season's grind and beating out an infield hit - completely hung out to dry. Z's missed bunt was bad, but failing to execute a hit and run, particularly with an easy target like Barrett on the paths, is inexcusable.

    There was a lot to like about this ballgame, and I don't mean to act the buzzkiller, but this is an issue this team has had for years, and while getting on base, hitting for power, and dominating pitching are the big things you want on a club (and one could argue, the Cubs still don't have all of that right), getting those items doesn't have to mean sacrificing crisp play. The sooner the Cubs organization realizes that, the sooner we'll see a consistent winner on the field.

  • As a counterpoint to the treatise above, it was refreshing to see the Cubs get, not one, but two runners home from third with less than two outs. In the first Aramis Ramirez got it done, hitting a sacrifice fly to center, and in the seventh it was Michael Barrett hitting the sac fly to right.

    I've done a lot of complaining about this, so it's a pleasure to be able to acknowledge the successful conversion of these opportunities. Despite allowing four runs over seven innings, Oswalt didn't throw a bad game, striking out six, walking no one, and allowing eight hits. Fail to get those men in and you've got a tie game late that could go either way. Making these chances count, particularly against a pitcher of Oswalt's calibre, can be a tremendous difference maker.

  • Putting Carlos even further up on the "Major Leaguer" pedestal was his great play in the eighth on the Willy Tavarez bunt. Remember in 2003 when any throw a pitcher had to make to first gave you a case of the cold sweats? We've come a long way, baby.

  • You don't see it called very often, but Neifi! was the victim of an umpire actually enforcing the rules, saying that the "neighborhood" wasn't good enough for an out on Mike Lamb's ground ball in the ninth. The call was made less on where Neifi!'s foot was relative to the bag than it was on how far and how fast he was moving away from it.

    The truth is, while it had the potential to hurt the Cubs, I liked the call. The rule says you should touch the base for the out, and while I realize there's some fudging in the accepted practice, part of which has to do with injury prevention, I'm always bothered a little by this being let go. After all, they don't let catchers phantom tag a runner heading for home because he might be hurt by a collision at the plate.

    Of course, had Neifi! managed to not look like he was a good ten feet away from second as he was throwing the ball, the call likely goes his way, which actually infuriates me more. Honestly, I don't know where I'm going with this, other than to say that intellectual inconsistency drives me insane. Which means I should probably never watch another baseball game.

It's a day off today, followed by a trip to "The Land That Gravity Forgot." What interests me most is to see how this team responds to playing a sub-par club. They've been responding to challenges and folding before mediocrity, so this weekend is a chance to finally buck the trend. I'll have my fingers crossed.

Now That's Baseball
2005-08-17 07:23
by Derek Smart

In what has become the standard late-season Greg Maddux outing, The Professor gave up a run early, struggled a bit with his command, then settled down after the first inning to shut down the opposition, throwing seven solid innings in a measly 70 pitches on his way to a very satisfying 4-1 victory over the Astros.

I love these sort of games, even more than blowout wins. There's something about winning a game and winning it handily without having to get a ten run spread that just feels better. Feels more like baseball.

  • Perhaps my favorite moment of the night came in the top of the second. Both Matt Murton and Corey Patterson had struck out to seemingly strand Aramis Ramirez at third, and Greg Maddux came to the plate with the bases loaded and two out after Andy Pettitte walked Henry Blanco. The Professor wound up hitting what was essentially a swinging bunt up the third base line, scoring what was, at the time, the game's tying run.

    The play itself was great simply because it saved an otherwise unbearable situation - once again failing to score a man from third with less than two outs - but that wasn't what I loved. It was the moment directly afterwards, as the camera focused on Maddux's back after he'd run through the base. The shot stayed with Mad Dog as he turned around and started walking back toward first, at which point he asked Gary Matthews if the ball had gone foul. When Matthews told him it was fair, Maddux' face lit up and popped a big, surprised smile as he laughed out a "Yeah!"

    It was wonderful on multiple levels, but the two things about it that really stood out for me were these:

    1. When Maddux asked Matthews if the ball was foul, it was obvious from his body language that he thought it was. That means he was busting his butt up the line even though he felt the ball would eventually be dead. It's refreshing enough to see from any player, but especially so from a pitcher. That it's impossible to ever question the effort of Greg Maddux is reason enough all by itself to love the guy.

    2. The look on The Professor's face when told he was safe, the way he said, "Yeah!" after discovering he'd just driven in a run can be seen on any playlot during any Little League game. That the nearly 40 year-old man can still channel a 10 year-old kid is almost more fun than I can stand.

  • After last night's dinger, Aramis Ramirez has 22 home runs against the Astros in his career, more than he has against any other team. That's what I call having your priorities straight.

  • Speaking of Ramirez, you have to love the quote from Andy Pettitte about the two doubles and home run Aramis hit off the Astro's lefty:

    "I couldn't have thrown him three worse pitches," Pettitte said. "All three were just terrible. He must have thought I was Santa Claus after throwing those pitches. It was just sickening, especially the homer."

    The funny thing is, the homer was nearly a ball Pettitte got away with. Ramirez certainly didn't get all of it - it was one of those long balls peculiar to the Juice Box, where a hitter can get under a pitch in a way that's an out in nearly ever other stadium in the league, yet still get to round the bases because of those proximate left field stands.

    There were instances Monday night where the Cubs were hurt by the ballpark, but last night they got a leg up. I don't know if these things really do even out (I suspect that's one of those things people say when things are going wrong to give themselves hope), but its come pretty close so far in this series.

  • A little correction on Patterson and his "new swing." After hearing it on a couple of broadcasts now, it's safe to say that Corey has, indeed, raised his hands, not lowered them as I faultily recollected. This makes more sense, since one of his bigger problems was a tendency to pop the ball up a lot.

    Raising his hands gets them above most balls, making it more difficult to get under pitches, and easier to hit it on the ground or on a line - something Corey has been doing since his return, if one is willing to forget his attempt at a sacrifice bunt. I stand corrected, and I've learned something to boot.

  • I loved seeing Wood throw last night, not because he was super-human, but because he looked a little off yet still owned the men he faced. Out of his nine pitches, seven of them were strikes, however, only one of those strikes was looking. One was a lineout, one was a foul ball, and the other five were swings and misses.

    I point this out because, other than the called strike, I'm not sure Wood got any of his other eight pitches in, or even near, the strike zone. Instead, he just threw his slider and made guys look silly. That he can come in, look like he might not be able to locate his fastball, yet still get the goofy hacks he got's just fun.

  • Remember last year when the Cubs were playing the Astros in late August at their home park, winning the first game to put Houston seven games back in the Wild Card standings? Remember how in the following game, one the Astros won to start their long march of dominance that eventually landed them in the postseason, the Cubs displayed the high levels of whining and petulance that seemed to inspire Houston and win the Cubs so many enemies, even among their own fans?

    It was in this spirit of recollection that I took a certain amount of satisfaction in watching both Brad Ausmus and Morgan Ensberg having protracted arguments with home plate umpire Larry Vanover over called third strikes that both served to end an inning.

    I'm certainly not implying that the Astros are headed for the same kind of meltdown the Cubs endured last year, or that the Cubs will take inspiration from this show of dudgeon to go on a run of their own - Ausmus didn't choose to make an ass of himself by confronting Greg Maddux on his next trip to the plate, after all - nor am I trying to say that Vanover's strike zone was perfect.

    It's just nice to know that sometimes, even members of solid, successful teams turn into whinging nippers under the right circumstances. And nice to know that it's not the Cubs doing it anymore.

It's the big matchup tonight, with Z going up against Ultimate Cub Nemesis, Roy Oswalt. To say that winning this game would be tasty doesn't quite do the concept justice. Go get 'em, boys!

Trade Offs
2005-08-16 08:58
by Derek Smart

I don't have a cohesive bone in my body today, so I'm likely to toss up quick vignettes like this as the mood strikes me.

We got a pretty good look last night at what the Cubs give up defensively when sporting their ideal offensive left side of the infield. The play that comes to mind in particular is Craig Biggio's base hit in the first inning, where a weakly hit ball found the exact spot between Aramis and Nomar that their range would not allow them to cover.

That play, along with a few others, was also a solid illustration of how a ballpark can affect a game's outcome. Had that ball been hit at Wrigley with its long, slow infield grass, it's not unreasonable to think that Ramirez might have made a play on the ball (no matter what, Nomar was going to be too deep in the hole to get an out). As it was, the little bugger scooted into the outfield and the ducks began to nibble away at Glendon Rusch.

Of course, the ugly truth is that, while it's a potent offensive group, the Cubs' infield as originally conceived and currently configured is at best a weak defensive unit - even considering Derrek Lee's excellence. Ramirez has been bringing that point home a lot lately (although, some blame goes to his quad and some goes to his brain), and seeing a direct comparison between Todd Walker and Mark Grudzielanek over the weekend was not without its pain.

Aramis isn't going anywhere - he could practically boot a ball a day and you'd still have to consider stomaching the incompetence in exchange for his bat - but I find myself wondering if there isn't a better idea to be found up the middle. The problem in this, for me at least, is twofold, because on the one hand I really like both Nomar and Walker, and on the other, there aren't exactly an endless sea of available free agent or in-house options.

It's going to be one of the big issues this offseason, but I have a feeling it will be resolved quickly in favor of what, at the moment, is the status quo. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, only that I hope all the options are appropriately weighed.

Know Your Enemy 2005: Weeks 18 & 19
2005-08-15 14:22
by Derek Smart

I wish I had a good story for why this feature didn't appear last week - something about three-headed devil dogs rising from a fissure in the earth, impeding my progress toward internet access with the rivers of acid drool flowing from their scarred black jowls - but the truth is disappointingly vanilla. I forgot.

Looks like I remembered this week, and barring any further distractions on the order of eight game losing streaks, I likely will for the rest of the year. So on to it, then!

  1. St. Louis Cardinals

    Season Record74-44
    Week's Record8-6
    Games Back--

    For a while there it seemed like the Cardinals would never miss the likes of Rolen and Walker. However, this recent fourteen game stretch where Abraham Nunez is hitting .224/.296/.265 and John Rodriguez is posting a .245/.302/.286 line put the lie to that idea. There's a reason these guys aren't starters, and after playing over their heads for a spell, they're starting to show exactly why.

  2. Houston Astros

    Season Record63-54
    Week's Record6-6
    Games Back10.5

    Apparently, juggernauts occasionally tread water. Had it not been for Jason Lane and Morgan Ensberg (if Tony Clark wasn't busy doing a Freaky Friday with Barry Bonds, Ensberg would be a shoo-in for Comeback Player of the Year), the Astros might have had no offense during these two weeks.

    True, Houston was able to score enough to get Roger Clemens victories in two out of the three games he pitched, but when you throw 22 innings of ball and allow only one earned run and two total runs, you should get the three W's you deserve.

  3. Milwaukee Brewers

    Season Record57-61
    Week's Record5-7
    Games Back17.0

    Take away Geoff Jenkins and Rickie Weeks, and you've got an offense over the last twelve games that no jury in the world would fail to convict of gross negligence. Add in that Victor Santos was the best of your three rotational lefties with a 5.40 ERA, and it's easy to see why The Crew slipped a bit.

  4. Cincinnati Reds

    Season Record54-63
    Week's Record7-5
    Games Back19.5

    Well, well, look who had the best two weeks in the division. It's less impressive than it looks, though, as five of the seven victories came this week against clubs in mid-swoon. Still, wins are wins, and if there's an extra bright spot to be found it's that not a single one of the Reds' starters posted an ERA over 5 during the span. Of course, that that's a demonstrable positive says something else altogether.

  5. Pittsburgh Pirates

    Season Record51-67
    Week's Record7-6
    Games Back23.0

    Most of the time when a team scores 84 runs in 13 games they'll have a record for the span that's comfortably over the .500 mark. But the Pirates aren't most teams, and while they managed to cross the plate a ton themselves, they sent the opposition scurrying home more often than they might have liked, allowing 73 members of the opposition to tally.

    Of course, the strangest thing might be that, after displaying all that offensive prowess, the game they're most likely to remember is the one where they were shut out for eight innings by Roger Clemens before Jack Wilson won it with a solo homer off Brad Lidge in the ninth. Score 84 runs in 13 games and the one you think about is the 1-0 victory. That's baseball, folks.

Good to See Ya Dr. Jeckyl
2005-08-15 07:27
by Derek Smart

It was an evening of home run firsts: Mike Mahoney's first Major League homer; Matt Lawton's first Cub homer; Corey Patterson's first homer since returning from Iowa, and his first multi-run homer of the season. It was all for a good cause, too, as the Cubs took last night's game 5-4, and the series 3-1.

I could say something about not being able to figure this team out, or how if they could only play this well against decent to bad teams that they would still be in it this year, but I'm not going to waste my breath. I'd rather just fire off a few rounds.

  • Mark Prior has now given up a career-high 20 home runs on the season. He's been missing up in the zone a lot, and it certainly cost him on the third pitch he threw to Mike Mahoney. Which is why it was odd that his biggest problem on the night might have been that he wasn't getting the ball up enough.

    It was an issue peculiar to left-handers, but time and again last night Blanco would set up to bust a lefty up and in, and the heat would be inside alright, just at around mid-thigh, tasty and asking to be smacked. That he didn't get completely murdelated on those pitches was more luck than anything else.

    The Franchise simply hasn't been sharp of late, and while he didn't get the kind of power rocking he's been the victim of in his last few starts, it's fair to say we've seen better. I'm not concerned - it's not like he's getting regularly annihilated - but I'll certainly feel better once we see a couple of more Prior-esqe starts in a row.

  • This weekend was my first look at the "new and improved" Corey Patterson, and at first glance there doesn't seem to be much that's different. There was a lot of talk about shortening his swing, but I have yet to see any evidence of that, and there's very little different about his stance - perhaps his hands are lower, but I'd have to consult old footage that I don't have to be sure.

    However, that doesn't mean that improvements weren't made, and the biggest one was evident after the multiple replays of his home run off Matt Morris.

    Perhaps the most prominent mechanical issue that Patterson had before being shipped out last month was that his front shoulder was flying open, and not just occasionally - on every swing. What that translated into as far as results were concerned was less ability to drive the ball due to reduced involvement of his lower body, and less ability to adjust to the pitch, as his hands were committed too early on.

    What we saw on his dinger was his hips rotating out nice and early while his upper body hung back, giving him that extra split-second to choose not to swing or to adjust to the ball's location that he didn't have when he led with his upper body, as well as generating torque and force that was then smoothly transferred through his torso until he finally snapped his hands through the zone.

    His swing is still pretty long, but fixing the flaws in his hips and shoulders should not only make him more able to drive the ball with authority, but allow him to be selective by delaying the moment when his hands are committed, which should also have the happy accident of reducing his strikeouts a bit.

    We'll see if this really helps him patience-wise - I'll admit some wishcasting and speaking from you-know-where on that score - but it certainly seems like it could, and I'm anxious to find out if it will.

  • If I didn't know any better, I'd say we might be in for some of that yummy "Spring Training Nomar" pretty soon. Already since his return he's hitting .344/.382/.469, and he's looking more and more comfortable at the dish every day. I still flinch every time I see him forced to do something athletic, like tying his shoe, but it's been a pleasure to see him back and doing reasonably well - ninth inning errant throws aside.

  • I'm going to say this again - I don't like it long-term, but for now it sure is fun having Kerry Wood come out of the bullpen. Talk all you want about the wasteland that was third base between Santo and Ramirez, there's been nearly the same kind of recent dearth when it comes to shut-down relievers.

    Randy Myers circa 1993 is the nearest I can come in my recollection to such a beast, and that seems like a stretch. More likely mid-eighties Lee Smith is the most recent version, and that's a long time to be without someone to come out of your pen and dominate. I'm not saying Wood should be that guy next season, but I'd sure feel better going into the year if someone like that was around.

It's the start of three at Houston tonight. Glendon Rusch will take the hill tonight, with the bad news being that he isn't likely to last very long since he's spent so much recent time in the pen. However, the good news is the Astros are sending Wandy Rodriguez to face him - a weak link in an otherwise deadly rotation.

While these games might not be meaningful in relation to the outcome of this season, that doesn't mean I don't want to spend the next three days pounding Houston into submission. If we can't get the Wildcard, why should they? Go get 'em, boys!

Fruits and Loops
2005-08-12 12:49
by Alex Ciepley

It was nice to see the Cubs finally put their losing streak behind them last night, though I missed it entirely due to an ending of another sort.

Last night, the mighty Bearcats played their final game of the year.

For those not in the know, the Bearcats are the super-scrubby softball team to which I belonged this season. We had some valiant moments throughout the year, but still ended up with a miserable record of three wins, eight losses, and one tie.

Two of our victories were due to forfeit, and the third victory came against the local Hooters squad.

We lost our last game, but the team played well, as we have in our last five contests or so. Since my debut on the diamond at second base/right field, I'd been wisely relegated to DH duties. Ideally, your DH is a big thumper who sucks in the field. In my case, I was a nonthumper who sucks in the field--I hit last in the lineup in every game I played.

Still, I like to think of myself as the secret bottom-of-the-order-leadoff-man, a la Adam Kennedy. I didn't really get many at-bats throughout the season, but I did end up a nifty 8-for-9 with a walk, 4 runs scored, and 2 RBIs. All eight of my hits were singles, usually dribblers I legged out, but hey, they're screaming line drives in my memory.

In the field, I finished the season with zero putouts and two errors. I think I'm a shoo-in to begin my streak of Gold Gloves when awards are handed out during the offseason.

But while I had fun playing with the Bearcats this year, I think I'm gonna use my mighty free agent status to wander towards pinker pastures.

I'm going to try out for NYC's gay softball league next year. Yeah, that's right: I have to "try out", because these folks don't mess around. There are five "tiers" of play, with six or so teams in each tier. I hear most people get to join a team, but these days it's popular enough that not everyone makes the cut. Like, the guys who make zero putouts and two errors when they take the field.

Hopefully I'll get in. I think it'd be a hoot. Fruity Softball, any takers?

Mental Health Day
2005-08-12 08:04
by Derek Smart

For starters, let me apologize for the down time yesterday. If you haven't already, you can see what was going on here. Needless to say, we here at the Toaster owe Ken a debt of gratitude. Or some scotch or something (okay, I'm projecting there).

It's important to note, however, that site issues or no, there was going to be no word from me yesterday. Recent goings on brought me to the point where I desperately needed a mental health day, and so I took it. Sometimes one needs to back away, gain a little perspective, and come at it fresh. I think it's clear from some of my previous posts that some perspective would do me good.

Of course, there's nothing so healthy to the mind of a suffering Cub fan than a big blowout win, and that's what our boys managed to deliver yesterday, scoring in every inning but the seventh en route to an 11-4 rout of St. Louis.

Really, it was a game that we all knew deep down had to come eventually, where the frustration and angst that had built up over more than a week of pathetic play came out in a beautiful explosion of run-scoring prowess, led as one would hope such things would be, by a suddenly re-energized Derrek Lee, taking his recent slump and breaking it over his knee like a balsa wood bat.

That the breakout happened to come against the Cardinals made it extra nice, especially since, even though I'd made a vow to myself before game time to focus as much as possible on the positives for the rest of the season, to cease the constant wallowing in the maudlin details of failure, I could still envision a losing streak that stretched out to twelve games by the end of the weekend.

It looked just like it would after the top of the first, as Greg Maddux struggled early once again and gave up a two-run bomb to Prince Albert. However, getting down early, looking like things were going to be the same old way, it seems like that's the most satisfying way to exorcise some demons.

It's what the Red Sox did in falling behind 3-0 in last year's ALCS, and while what the Cubs did yesterday was on a far smaller scale, the fact that they didn't fold after getting a strong sign that they could be in for another long day was a testament to their fortitude.

That doesn't mean that there's a month and a half long streak of stunning baseball on the way that will lead us to an Astro-esque promised land. What Houston did last year, and what they did for a couple of months this year, is extremely rare, and truth be told, I don't know that the Cubs have the personnel to achieve such a feat anyway.

What they do have is a chance to set a tone for next year. To say to the league, and to their fans, "Look, we blew our shot this year, but we are capable of more, and what you see now is a glimpse into the deadly machine you have to look forward to in 2006."

That's what I want to see. Derrek Lee finishing the year strong. Aramis Ramirez re-establishing his power. Nomar Garciaparra as "Nomar!" Matt Murton earning a starting spot. Corey Patterson proving that he belongs in the Majors. Carlos Zambrano harnessing his passion. Mark Prior dominating again. Kerry Wood showing he's valuable whether he starts or relieves.

This is what the final weeks are about. Establishing what this team will be in the year and years to come, whetting our appetite for the success that these men are capable of. But this time, instead of showing us what we could have and dropping it into a puddle of dung at the last possible moment, they will give it to us, finally give it to us from April to October.

Altered States
2005-08-10 06:59
by Derek Smart

This season, and in particular this stretch, is doing things to me. Things I don't understand and want to go away.

It's important to note, in order to bring home the full import, that I hate sports talk radio. Simply can't stomach the stuff. If the utter lack of discernable substance and spectacular displays of intellectual laziness didn't stick in my craw, the tone would.

Granted, that's painting with a broad brush as there are some smart, savvy folks on the airwaves who are worthy of my time (our own Mr. Carroll comes to mind), but as a general rule, the genre is one I can do without.

Yet there I was, after listening to the radio broadcast of the latest Cub defeat, craving sports talk radio. I wasn't after analysis. I wasn't interested in an intelligent breakdown of the day's proceedings. I wanted rage.

I wanted to commiserate, if from a distance, with others who felt my pain. To share the sense of betrayal and misery that has become my near constant companion of late. To wallow in this aggression that's burning in my chest.

But that isn't me. It's not what I'm like. I never want to do that. Never. This season is doing things to me.

I wasn't like that all day. There was a moment in the bottom of the sixth that lent me some hope, not just for the impact on the game itself, but for its symbolic significance.

Nomar Garciaparra, tragic hero, injured warrior, came to the plate after a solo homer from the Reds had tied the game, and grabbed the lead back with a bomb of his own.

It seemed like one of those moments of destiny where the spark you've been waiting for, that singular event that changes the direction of an entire season, finally reveals itself. It's happened. And you know it's happened.

Except it hadn't.

The top of the seventh began with a homer from Ken Griffey Jr. The top of the eighth with a shot by Jason LaRue. Then the top of the ninth saw a four run meltdown that sealed the deal.

Griffey's swing tied it.

LaRue's swing won it.

The rest was just piling on.

In other news, I'm channeling Bill Plaschke.

And I just can't stop.

That's what I've become: a second-rate writer morphing into a third-rate hack while covering a second-rate team devolving into the Washington Generals. That it's come to this doesn't meet my definition of a personal hell, but all things considered, I'd rather be on a picnic.

I wanted this season to be something else, something more. But then, I suppose I'm not alone in that desire. Not only did every Cub fan want more, but so did every Pirate fan, every Royals fan, every Devil Rays fan.

Okay, that last one was ridiculous, but you get my point. Twenty-nine out of thirty teams are disappointed every year, the only difference between them is the day they know. Today is my day, friends.

It doesn't mean I'll stop watching, and it doesn't mean I'll stop hoping - I'm…well…hopeless that way - but it does mean that even in those happy moments, even in those moments that I want to believe, there will be a part of me that knows better and isn't afraid to say, "I told you so," when things revert to form.

This season is doing things to me. I want it to stop. Too bad it just won't.

More Of The Same
2005-08-09 07:51
by Derek Smart

It was another rotten night for the Cubs, in what's seemed like an endless evening of horror. Still, for those of you willing to see silver linings, I think the solid ninth inning rally, and the fact that, for the most part, the severe beating the Cubs took last night wasn't self-inflicted are reasons to delay the cliff-jumping for another day.

Not that I'm entertaining post-season dreams at this point - decent play, a sense of respectability, and something to build on for next year are what I'm really after from here on out.

  • Was it just me, or did the Dunn, Kearns, and Griffey home runs (and, by the way, doesn't Dunn, Kearns, and Griffey sound like a really bad country/western group?) seem like they went farther than the solidity of contact implied?

    I'm not saying they didn't earn their dingers - it's not like the Cubs even got anything in the air against Brandon Claussen - but rather that they didn't seem among the hardest hit balls of the night.

    If anything, I'd say that Javier Valentin hit two consecutive pitches much harder than either of his trio of cohorts did. His were just line drives, one of them being foul. When platitudes like, "It's a funny game," get uttered, it's over stuff like this.

  • The broadcast team was dropping heavy hints about Corey Patterson rejoining the team soon - nearly always a sign that something is imminent, and confirmed as a near certainty by this article - and with the recent foibles in the outfield, Patterson's defensive contribution alone might make the move worth it.

    But there's reason to think he's due to return based on his recent offensive work as well. Over the last ten games Patterson has posted a .459/.512/.676 line, capping it off with last night's 3 for 3 performance that included two home runs.

    During that span he's reached base at least once in every game, and in the only contest he failed to get a hit in, managed to walk twice. Where he was batting .185 before this stretch, he's now sporting a .297/.366/.505 line for his month in Iowa.

    For those of you concerned about his whifftastic ways, I'll note that his K-rate over those ten games puts him on pace for 108 strikeouts over 500 at bats, which is consistent with the rate for the entire month, which would see him saWING and sit 104 times in 500 ABs.

    I'm not saying he's all the way back, or that he's even made changes that bode well for his Major League career - not only have I not seen him work, but I would hope that a man of his talent destined for even a modicum of success in the Bigs would be able to post his line for the month in AAA - but what's going on right now for Corey certainly looks like progress.

    Of course, I've been burned before on this score, so I'll wait to make any final judgments on any changes he's made until he's got a full season with his new tools under his belt. However, with what's happening with the Cubs right now, and the appearance of forward movement in Corey's game, I think it's reasonable to expect him to join the club sooner rather than later.

  • I'll admit, although I've only bothered to watch the one inning, I kinda like Kerry Wood out of the pen. I don't want it that way all the time, but for the short term, seeing someone like him come out to the mound throwing high-nineties heat with movement - I'd say a la Kyle Farnsworth, but his fastball never moved like Woody's - is awfully fun.

    Ultimately, I still think Wood's place is in the rotation if he can retool his mechanics to keep himself healthy, but at least we know that if worst comes to worst he can be effective in limited duty out of the bullpen. His durability in that respect is still to be tested, but it's nice to know that he's passed the first test - getting guys out.

Mark Prior's on the hill today, and I'd like to think that's a good thing, but his recent outings have been questionable at best. My pessimism is compounded by Aaron Harang taking the bump for the Reds, who last time he faced them made the Cubs look how they've looked for at least a week. Cross your fingers, folks. Every little bit helps.

1-for-two years
2005-08-08 09:42
by Alex Ciepley

I went to the Friday and Saturday Cubs games this past weekend at Shea, and had a great time at both games despite the product on the field. I'm beginning to get a bit concerned about my presence at Cubs games, however: since watching the Cubs pull out a nifty 2-1 victory last September 24th against the Mets, the Cubs have lost five straight games that I've attended. And, in general, they've been five absolutely miserable losses.

There was nothing fun about Friday's game. I'd been excited to watch Rich Hill live, and he actually didn't pitch nearly as badly as his line would indicate, but the endless second inning fiasco had me moping for the rest of the night. It would have been one thing if Hill was getting rocked by line drives, but the inning was a series of dinkers here and there, bizarre misjudgements, and horrible infield defense.

The non-Lee sector of the Cubs infield is a misery to watch on-field. I'm as pumped as the next guy that Nomar is back, but watching him just miss grounder after grounder isn't easy to stomach. And Aramis and Walker weren't exactly strutting their stuff in the series, either.

Saturday's game was more pleasant, but only because it was a day game, allowing me to work on my hint of a tan.

I hope I'm wrong, but the Cubs look dead in the water. There are many advantages to watching games on TV, but I think you get a better feel for the energy of a team when watching them live. And on that energy front, the Cubbies are sorely lacking. Going through the motions at the plate, losing concentration in the field--for the second year in a row, I feel that the Cubs' visit to Shea signaled a death knell for the team.


On a non-baseball note, I'm a bit mushy today.

Five years ago, I was hired by my current company in large part to work on a specific TV show--a show that ended its run last night. I've had a relatively minor role to play in the show's lifespan--I work on the website--but my work has become a defining part of my professional life. There will be plenty of new projects on my plate in the future, but finishing up this one provides a marker of sorts for me, a moment of reflection.

When I took this job five years ago, I was in my mid-twenties, and my life was a bit all over the place. I was desperately in debt, having clung to a job at a dot-com that was woefully past its expiration date. I was enjoying New York but was looking to leave the city and move abroad again, only I didn't have the means to get to where I wanted.

I was single, and while I've always had tremendous friends in my life, I'm not sure I really appreciated them. I was even living a relatively sexless existence in a city where you can practically walk out onto your stoop and pick up a one-night stand. I think, perhaps, I was a bit of a sad clown.

On the surface, my life doesn't seem all that different five years later. I'm still at the same job, even if my responsibilities are changing. I'm still no good with money. I'm still single, though my dating life has picked up considerably. But once I get past the easy identifiers, I realize how much I've changed. I love New York, with no plans to leave. No longer uneasy with the world, I'm a pretty happy guy, and the people in my life--new friends and old--are more appreciated than ever.

It's a good day. I'm a bit melancholy that my five-year professional project has come to an end, but it's nice to know that new experiences are just around the bend, the best is still to come. And isn't that, after all, one of the defining qualities of us Cubs fans?

Weekend Game Notes: If You Can't Say Anything Nice...*
2005-08-08 04:26
by Derek Smart

*Longtime readers will know I'm stealing from myself, as I posted the same thing on May 29 of last year when I was at The Big Red C. My sincere apologies for the repetition, but my disgust prevents elaboration.

The Power Of Three
2005-08-05 14:39
by Derek Smart

Since there hasn't been much on the field to celebrate of late, I'll have to take comfort in the little victories that occasionally show themselves in the form of solid roster management decisions.

Such is the case today, as the reinstatement of the Troika of Destiny has brought about the demotion of Sergio Mitre, and the DFAing of Mike Remlinger, while Ronnie Cedeno, the previous most likely target to round out the downwardly mobile class, was spared the axe by Jerry Hairston's DL trip.

A couple of things are clear here: first, that it was finally realized in the Cubs' front office just how done poor Remmy was. He hasn't been worth much of anything in his recent appearances, and even if he had been, the reluctance to use him in back-to-back games due to his relative fragility could no longer be tolerated with two more potentially breakable pen men coming aboard. Not that his presence should have been tolerated as long as it was, but I'll take late enlightenment over none at all.

The second item is a little more nebulous. That the Cubs are willing to essentially carry three shortstops and no center fielders speaks volumes about the organization's current attitude toward Corey Patterson, although just what that attitude might be is open for debate - they either have no confidence in his ability to be useful in the Majors at the moment, or are deeply committed to seeing this retooling through to the end, consequences be damned.

I tend to think it's a combination of both factors, although I couldn't hazard a guess as to the ratio. Frankly, I think they're a little too intertwined to effectively separate. He's down there to retool his swing, which needs to be done before he can come back to the Majors, because the Cubs don't think his old swing can be effective in the Bigs, which is why he was sent down to retool his swing, which needs to be done before he can come back to the Majors.......

The real question is whether the club is so committed to this idea of fixing Patterson and not playing him until he's fully ready that they'll make a waiver deal for someone's all-glove, no-bat, a la Tom Goodwin type of center fielder just to hold down the defensive fort. Of course, the other option is to use some combination of Jeromy Burnitz and Matt Lawton, which would be a defensive trade-off, but might be worth the offensive boost.

I don't know what the right moves are anymore, and this season has thrown us all a bunch of curves, but every time I open my mouth to say so, the excess saliva flies off the ball and chokes me. At least it never stops getting interesting, and if nothing else, we still get some little victories every once in a while.

Twilight Zone: Manager Edition
2005-08-04 13:26
by Alex Ciepley

This past week, featured a totally bizarre column from contributer Scoop Jackson, who virtually accused the Chicago media en masse of racism regarding their increasingly critical view of Dusty Baker.

Early in the article, Jackson outlines the basis of his premise, which is that there aren't any black sports columnists in Chicago's major media (something I can't verify, since I have no idea what most of the writers look like--and, frankly, have never really thought or cared about their race):

The media sets the agenda for how the public responds to nonobjective matters and to how the audience often forms an opinion on certain issues. In sports, in this town, those opinions are often -- if not always -- set by columnists. Sports columnists, not sports reporters. Reporters are nonobjective in this matter, although the editors do have 'angle control' over copy. Columnists, they are the ones who shape public opinion. Now ... how many black sports columnists do we have in this city? How many are at the Sun-Times? How many at the Trib?

Later, Jackson dissects a Jay Mariotti column, implying that Mariotti's true motive for his biting words were race-related.

Jay Mariotti wrote in the Sun-Times last week (before the L.A. Times piece dropped), "Just take your toothpicks, wristbands and perpetual pout and head to a nice, safe broadcast booth somewhere. Now." And he followed it up with, "[Baker is] causing citywide debates on whether or not he's emotionally equipped for the job... "

I read between those lines.

I noticed how none of the other above-the-fold columnists came to Dusty's defense. Not Rick Morrissey, not Mike Downey or Carol Slezak or Greg Couch, not even my good friend Rick Telander. Not that they're supposed to, but ... they ain't we.

They don't feel your struggle, Dusty.

Now, I'm not really one to defend Jay Mariotti, but Jackson's inferences to me border on lunacy. I'm guessing that Jackson might protest most to the idea that Mariotti thinks Baker isn't "emotionally equipped" for the job, but I don't see how this can be interpreted as a racial slur.

One of the biggest debates when Dusty took the Cubs' job was whether or not he would be comfortable with the often-harsh Chicago media. The question was whether or not he was too thin-skinned, not too dark-skinned.

I've never been a fan of Baker as a manager, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with his race. It's because I don't think he makes particularly deft in-game decisions, I think he abuses his pitching staffs, and I think his reluctance to break in position players and his insistence on having tried-and-true suckwads on his bench all lead to weaker Cubs teams.

I was pretty psyched to see Baseball America's Jim Callis, in a recent chat for ESPN, blast Jackson's article:

Shawn(Illinois): I was wondering what your response is to Scoop Jackson's article about the Chicago media and Dusty Baker?

SportsNation Jim Callis: I live in Illinois, and I thought it was garbage. Dusty Baker was what the Cubs needed in 2003, but since then he has not made his players accountable for anything, and it shows. To say that there's sentiment against Baker because he's black is ridiculous. That sentiment exists because people up here, fans and columnists, don't think Baker is doing a good job, not because most of the columnists and talk-show hosts are white. Also, if a white manager had made a comment similar to what Baker said about blacks being more suited to play under the hot sun, do you think that white manager would still have his job? Scoop Jackson's article was garbage.

Bravo, Jim, for taking someone who contributes to the same publication you do to task over an insulting article.

Yes, the Cubs have had more than their share of injuries cripple the team the past two years, but isn't this also true of, say, the Atlanta Braves? Bobby Cox has spent year after year managing a revamped roster on the fly, and this year his trust in unproven players will help lead the Braves to their 567th straight division title.

Speaking of Cox, I find it amusing that Jackson decided to close his article by comparing him with Baker:

If [the Cubs' manager] were Bobby Cox and not Dusty Baker, would I have ever had to write this column?

The answer, Scoop, is of course not. Because Cox more than likely would have found a way to turn both last year's and this year's Cubs teams into winners. And that has nothing to do with the color of his skin.

I'm Sorry, I Haven't a Clue
2005-08-04 05:24
by Derek Smart

No, I'm not referring to the classic BBC Radio panel game, but rather to my current state regarding yesterday's contest, as I was unable to/spared from viewing any of last night's debacle against the Phillies.

Of course, from the bit that I've read and seen this morning, the headline is equally applicable to nearly all of the Cub team, and that if I could have specifically chosen a game to be completely unaware of before the start of the season, that this one would have been it. Gee. Lucky me.

But what do I know? Didn't you read the headline? Don't listen to me, listen to each other, and take this opportunity to inform me about the horror that was August 3, 2005. Vent, spew, comment away, folks, because if I correctly understand how badly things went, I'll bet you all have some fine vintage vitriol to share.

I'm Just Asking
2005-08-03 07:55
by Derek Smart

Sometimes, I do requests.

Longtime reader Tom sent me an email this morning, recalling times past when, after particularly long stretches of nail-biting contests, I have offered up my considerable kingdom (watch those drips of sarcasm, they're pure acid) in exchange for a Cub blowout victory, and oddly enough, actually got what I asked for.

Tom thinks that it's time to offer up the treasure once again, and after last night's attempted boondoggle gone wonderfully awry, I can't say I have any reason not to. So here goes my best Dicky Three:

A Blowout! A Blowout! My Kingdom for a Blowout!

Alright, let me take a moment to engage in a little specificity for any of those deities willing to take me up on the offer. When I say "Blowout," I'm asking, in particular, for an easy victory for the Cubs.

I realize that merely yelling the word "Blowout" can be taken all sorts of ways (example: the Cubs get their hair cut by Jonathan), and that if you had a bit o' the mischief in ye, you might rain fiery brimstone-like offensive destruction upon the Cubs themselves, and I want to be very clear in this space that such actions would render my obligations in the exchange null and void. If you have a problem with that, speak to my lawyer.

As for "My Kingdom," to call it paltry would be insulting to all proudly paltry things the world over, so while it is not something to be treasured objectively, this is more of a subjective exercise anyway. So just know that you're getting what earthly things I've got (family and friends excluded of course), and that if some of the specific items in the collection aren't to your liking (mortgages, credit card bills, Duran Duran 12" singles purchased in the mid-eighties), the relinquishing party bears no responsibility. All items are as is, no takebacks.

So let me reiterate, subject to the conditions above, that I am offering My Kingdom for a Blowout. Deliver on point two, and point one is yours, ye gods.

  • The Matt Lawton experience officially began last night, and I liked what I saw. I was pretty sure I would, but then I hadn't watched him as closely as I should have when the Cubs played the Pirates, so it was great to see someone starting the game by taking the first four pitches he saw.

    A man unafraid to hit with two strikes is a crucial thing for a leadoff man, and to be able to put the ball in play once reaching that point is doubly so. Lawton will strike out, but he doesn't do it trying to murdelate the ball, and that is, indeed, refreshing. We'll see how I feel in a couple of weeks when the honeymoon is over, but for now, I'm quite pleased.

  • Last night's first inning double was the first extra base hit for Derrek Lee since he hit his 32nd homer on July 23rd. More of that, please.

  • Speaking of Lee, there was a piece of information I mentioned in yesterday's post, almost in passing, that I think has some larger significance concerning his recent mini-slump. Specifically, the mention I made of Lee having four intentional walks in the eight games previous to last night.

    Going into yesterday's contest, Lee had 14 IBBs, good for third in the Major Leagues. After being purposefully passed twice last night, he now leads all of baseball with 16 of the nasty things. Not so amazing, if it wasn't for the relatively recent nature of the phenomenon.

    As of July 8, Lee had only 8 intentional walks in 82 games. Since then, in the 21 games he's played, Lee has doubled that total. In fact, seven of those eight have come in his last eleven games. That's a tremendous increase in his rate of IBB, and it seems to be the harbinger of a new strategy - a very Bondsian strategy - of limiting the number of actual at bats Lee has, and doing everything possible to entirely eliminate his chances to drive in runs.

    Whatever this might mean for Lee and his personal opportunity to win a triple crown - something you never saw from Bonds during his recent period of dominance precisely because of the limits other teams placed on his RBI chances - what it means for the Cubs is that the men behind Lee must step up and get the job done.

    Right now, the main burden falls on the shoulders of Jeromy Burnitz, and while I've been pleasantly surprised by his usefulness, and I appreciate that his left-handedness makes for a nice opportunity to mix up the middle of the order, if this targeting of Lee continues, changing the order so that Ramirez is directly behind Lee may be the most prudent move. Jeromy is useful, but Aramis is deadly.

  • I can't wait for Friday. Not only will the bullpen hopefully get a shot in the arm from Scott Williamson and Kerry Wood, but even an early-Harry-Potter-series Voldemort-like shadow of Nomar's former self will be preferable to the black hole that Neifi! currently represents.

    It's not that I don't appreciate all that Neifi! has done, often times playing well over his head, but there comes a point where the bloom is off the rose, and Neifi!'s petals have been strewn on the clubhouse floor for a while now. Nomar might not come back and be Nomar!, but I can deal with life sans exclamation points.

It's Jerome Williams against Robinson Tejeda tonight, about whom I know little more than the fact of his existence. Anyway, I said what I wanted earlier, so let's see if we can't get it done.

The Inevitable
2005-08-02 07:27
by Derek Smart

Sooner or later, we all knew it had to happen. Some things are unavoidable, like death, taxes, or Aunt Maimie's kisses, and like all these things, we understood that, despite the ridiculously consistent prowess and seeming invincibility, no matter how hard we might wish it otherwise, Derrek Lee would eventually go into a slump.

We are officially in the midst of it, and not surprisingly, it has coincided with a sizable dropoff in the overall productivity of the Cubs' offense. Granted, there are plenty of other folks scuffling at the moment - since July 24th the team as a whole has hit a paltry .250/.321/.373 - but up until now Lee hasn't been personally party to any extended lack of stick-wielding ineptitude displayed by his mates.

This time, however, he's leading the way, as during his last eight games The Savior has finally looked human, hitting .233/.378/.233, and looking mighty uncomfortable at the plate while doing it. But while it's bad news when your best overall hitter and best slugger has only seven singles to his name over more than a week, comfort can be taken from the fact that he's continued to walk - although since four of the seven passes were intentional, it's not nearly as comforting as I'd like.

I can't say I'm concerned yet. It's only a few games, after all, and it's not like there was any reason to believe Lee would go the entire year without looking a little ragged at some point. Still, I sure hope the day off yesterday fixed what ailed him, and the rest of the team as well, because a little regression is understandable, especially as the grind of the season begins to wear a body down, this is a team that can't afford to have its best player less than his best, understandable or not.

Know Your Enemy 2005 - Week 17
2005-08-01 13:14
by Derek Smart

Some movement in the standings? Yes. Movement in the rosters? Very little, which makes any further shifting in the stacks beyond changes in the content of the foundation unlikely, to say the least.

  1. St. Louis Cardinals

    Season Record66-38
    Week's Record4-2
    Games Back--

    At precisely the moment they needed it most, what with so many important players missing because of injury, and others needing rest due to the same, the Redbirds met the struggling Padres and Dodgers, albeit on the road. Things get tougher next week as the NL East comes calling, but not even the streaking Astros and a schedule full of their former selves will keep this team from its October appointments.

  2. Houston Astros

    Season Record57-48
    Week's Record6-1
    Games Back9.5

    After May 27 they were 16-31, but since then they've gone 41-17 on their way to taking over the Wild Card lead, and while their offense has been more effective periodically, the real boost has come from their pitching staff progressing from excellent to ridiculously good.

    Thanks to the extremely useful Day-By-Day Database maintained by Dave Pinto over at Baseball Musings, I can tell you that, of the fourteen pitchers the Astros have used since embarking on their current run, half of them have ERAs under 2, and that those seven men threw 338.2, or 63.9%, of the 530.1 innings tossed by the staff as a whole.

    I'll put it another way: during this same period, when one looks at all Major League pitchers who have thrown at least ten innings during the span, you will find a total of thirty-six pitchers across the whole of MLB who have an ERA under 2. Those thirty-six men have thrown 1126.1 innings since May 28th.

    That means that not only do the Astros' have 19.4% of all such pitchers in the Majors, but that those Astro hurlers have thrown 30.1% of those sub-2 ERA innings. That's some truly remarkable work, and while one can be excused for wondering how sustainable that kind of dominance might be, one cannot be excused for failing to acknowledge just how impressive it is.

  3. Milwaukee Brewers

    Season Record52-54
    Week's Record4-3
    Games Back15.0

    As they ease their way through the rest of the year, playing solid baseball while giving their young studs the time and experience they need to develop, the Brewers are leaving me with little to note about them, except that we're not far from the day when this type of season - a good building campaign with an excellent chance of reaching .500 - will be a distinct disappointment.

  4. Cincinnati Reds

    Season Record47-58
    Week's Record5-2
    Games Back19.5

    Not only have they extricated themselves from the division's nether region, they came through the trade deadline essentially intact, and if you think highly enough of Edwin Encarnacion, improved.

    It would have been nice if they could have flipped some of their extra pieces (specifically The Mayor and his Rich friend) for some young pitching to go with all that thump, but since no one on the roster beyond, perhaps, Eric Milton (untradeable, one would think, due to his pricetag and a profound lack of talent), has a financial future so onerous as to demand immediate relief, refusing to deal for the deal's sake was a wise move, even if certain Matterhorn-sized holes still exist.

  5. Pittsburgh Pirates

    Season Record44-61
    Week's Record1-5
    Games Back22.5

    Since making me plotz back in June, the Pirates' descent from the .500 mark has been speedy and merciless, with the Bucs sporting a 14-31 record after their flirtation with competence. Absolutely everything has gone wrong of late, and with Dave Littlefield's inability to get anything of great worth out of their non-building block flippables, it's difficult to see an end in sight.

Lawton Redux
2005-08-01 07:47
by Derek Smart

So, Matt Lawton is now a Cub, filling a need the club has sported, really, since the end of the 2003 season when Kenny Lofton played his last game in blue pinstripes - the role of leadoff man.

I've had a chance to sleep on this deal some, and the more I think about it the more I like it. Not only does it put someone at the top of the lineup who will get on base enough to take true advantage of the power of men like Lee and Ramirez, but Lawton adds speed on the basepaths and above average defense.

True, he's not a prototypical corner outfielder, hitting more like a very good up the middle player than anything else, but take a look below and see how he fits in with the current roster.


As things stand, he's becomes the third best hitter on the team when looking at Equivalent Average (EQA), and if one takes in all of his on-field contributions over the season thus far via WARP1, his defense in the outfield makes him the second most valuable player in the Cubs regular lineup - worth nearly a win more than Aramis Ramirez, due mostly to The Ram's sub-standard defense at the hot corner.

Quick caveat: I use WARP1 because it's an easy way to express a player's overall contribution to his club by stating how many wins he's worth, and it works well as a comparison tool. However, I have my qualms about the defensive component, as I do about all defensive stats, so I try to take that aspect with a grain of salt. In the case of Lawton vs. Ramirez, my guess is that the defensive differences bring them closer to even, rather than making Lawton clearly superior, but that's partly my bias towards offense talking. Draw what conclusions you will.

While the player sent to the Pirates was Jody Gerut, the deal should be more accurately seen as Lawton for Jason Dubois, and considering the needs of the team, that's an excellent haul, indeed. Add in that part of the reason why Gerut was acquired was because early discussions with the Pirates about Lawton were fruitless, and one has to like it even more. I'd be curious to know if this was part of the plan all along, but whether it was or not, it's another piece of masterful dealmaking by Jim Hendry.

Still, while I think this move is very important in setting this club right, more hope rests in the return this Friday of three fallen warriors, and if you ask me, the risk-laden drama of whether Williamson is ready, Nomar is steady, or Wood is all systems go will tell the story of the rest of the 2005 season.