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Superlatives Fail Me
by Derek Smart
I don't have enough big, happy words for the work Greg Maddux turned in last night. To be sure, he was lucky a few times that he was in Dodger Stadium, as he made a some mistakes to the likes of Olmedo Saenz and J.D. Drew that would have left most other yards, but they didn't, and the rest of the time he was efficient and sharp, and best of all, in the game for eight innings, giving the bullpen some much needed rest.
It would be foolish to expect Maddux to keep this up, but he's clearly been one of the best pitchers in the league over his first three starts, and I would have said it was foolish to expect that much back in the Spring. Maybe The Professor can make fools of us all by year's end? Wouldn't that be fun?
The Cubs' broadcast team made a big deal about last night being the first time Kenny Lofton faced Greg Maddux, and it even appears in the game notes of the AP recap on the ESPN site, but a quick trip to Retrosheet puts the lie to the notion. Sure, they've never matched up in the regular season, but they didn't qualify their statements with "regular season," and that's where the issue resides.
In the 1995 World Series while playing for the Indians, Lofton faced Maddux in this game and this game, and in the 2003 Division Series he faced Maddux in this game while a member of the Cubs. Overall, he went 3 for 11 in those meetings, all of the hits singles, stole 4 bases, scored 3 runs, and didn't walk or strike out once.
The Cubs have clearly been more aggressive in the way they're running the bases and in the use of things like the hit and run, the first of which is a symptom of added speed and baserunning instincts on the roster, and the second having a little to do with the legs, but more to do with the perceived bat handling skills of the guys at the plate.
I say perceived because, while it's true the club is next to last in total batter strikeouts in the NL, and fourth in strikeouts per plate appearance behind the Giants, Dodgers, and Cardinals this season, 2005 wasn't much different. The team was third in fewest batter strikeouts and lowest K/PA, despite the perceptions we might have lodged in our brains (the ratio of K/PA now is .146 vs. .149 for 2005, which isn't much of a difference).
To be sure there were some folks you simply couldn't use in a hit and run situation, but it was an individual issue rather than a team one, so anytime you hear someone affiliated with the Cubs say that they're doing more hitting and running because finally they have folks on the roster who can make contact, you'll know they're working off of perception rather than fact.
In any case, this is a long way of getting around to the fifth inning hit and run executed by Matt Murton on the bases and Ronny Cedeno at the plate. It was, indeed, some very nice bat handling by Cedeno as he reached outside the dish to punch the ball through the hole left by Murton's forced evacuation of the right side of the infield. You can say the hit and run isn't a good percentage play, since it can make big innings more difficult by potentially giving up outs, but that doesn't mean it's not fun to watch, and since this club has been anything but fun the last couple of years, I'll gladly take it.
It took me a minute to realize that the Cubs had abandoned their early season mini-platoon of second basemen and inserted Todd Walker into the lineup with Greg Maddux on the mound. Walker's been so good with the stick lately, I imagine Dusty felt like he couldn't justify leaving him out, and not only did he make Baker look like a genius with a first inning, opposite field homer, he held his own defensively, too.
In fact, Walker made multiple nice plays to his right, ranging fairly far to get the balls, and getting off good, strong throws despite having his momentum moving him away from the play. They weren't just catchers he got, either, as some of the faster men on the Dodger roster were nailed by Todd. If he keeps hitting anything like he has, and can defend the way he did yesterday, Todd will go a long way toward making the mini-platoon a distant memory.
The bad news is, once Brett Tomko left the game, the Cub bats went silent. The good news is, it was three innings of work by Franquelis Osoria that did the damage, and with an outing that long, it's doubtful we'll see him again during the series. He really had the Cubs messed up, so while I understand why Grady Little left him in the game to give his team a shot at coming back - the correct decision, if you ask me - I'd still like to thank him for rendering Osoria inoperable tonight and tomorrow.
To this point I've not said anything about the work of Ryan Dempster, mostly because I don't want to jinx it, but what I've seen of him so far has been very impressive. His offspeed stuff has been what's made the difference, as both his slider and splitter have been great pitches for him all year. I'd say he looks better than he did at the end of last year, although my memory is fuzzy on that point. There's still a lot of season left, so no reason to get too excited, but it's safe to say that thus far I'm a happy man.
This is a big start for Carlos tonight. He's been shaky most of the year, and failed to keep himself together when things haven't gone his way, so it's an opportunity to ditch those problems and just get the job done. It's also a key game in this series, since tomorrow night features Sean Marshall against the Dodgers' best starter thus far, Brad Penny, which figures to be a tough one for the Cubs to pull out.