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One Good Frame
by Derek Smart
For seven innings, the Cub offense was worthy of the goose-egg it laid, with bad at bat piling on bad at bat, and the team's only real chance squandered in the fifth. Despite drawing four walks against Marlins' starter Jason Vargas, the Cubs were swinging early in the count and getting themselves out against a man who would have likely given them something better to hit, or sent them to first without an argument. It was maddening, it was frustrating, it was what I've come to expect from the Cubs.
Then came the bottom of the eighth, and suddenly everybody's patient. Pierre got a 2-1 count and smacked a double. Cedeno, who'd been an early-swing-offender, coaxed a five-pitch walk. Then Todd Walker, who'd been getting robbed so much on the night he had to wonder if his car was still in the lot, decided he'd be better off not putting the ball in play and got a five-pitch pass of his own.
The bases were loaded, no one was out, and up came Aramis Ramirez, which should have excited me, but instead made me mildly nauseous. See, Ramirez hasn't been good lately, and he nearly made the game a very different one with his high chopper to Miguel Cabrera.
Thankfully, Mr. Cabrera was determined to be responsible for as many runs as possible, team designations be damned, and he chucked the ball that should have forced an out at home into the dirt in front of the plate. Everyone was safe, and after Matt Murton and Jacque Jones came up big, the game was effectively over.
The team may not have deserved the win based on the totality of their play - although, I'd say that in the end, Carlos Zambrano did - but thankfully, the game's about scoring more runs than your opponent, not asserting your moral imperative for victory, so I'll take it. Now quick, you take these bullets, their hot, hot, hot!
Big Z had himself a nice outing by the time he got settled in. As has been the case for much of this year, take out the first inning, and he was pretty efficient too, getting through frames 2-7 in 88 pitches - t'ain't The Professor, but that's solid for Carlos - which is particularly impressive when you figure that 10 of those 18 outs were via the whiff.
What seemed to really settle things for him was when he figured out that, while he couldn't locate his fastball all the time, he could get right-handers to swing at his sweeping slider on the outer half, a pitch that was filthy enough to deserve a Silkwood-style scrubbing all night. He'd get ahead of guys with it, he'd get back in the count with it, he'd put 'em away with it. That beast was a vicious weapon once he figured out he had it going, which is the thing with guys like Z that throw several thousand different pitches; one of them's bound to be working, he just has to figure out which one.
The homer by Cabrera was funny looking. He hit it square, but his weight was forward and he wasn't all-out swinging, which makes me think the speed of the pitch fooled him initially. That he was able to recover and, not only make contact, but jack the thing, tells you how dangerous a hitter he is. Although, were we cursed with Ken Harrelson as an announcer, the bomb would have resulted in three consecutive hours of theorizing about the work schedules of Costa Rican ball winders.
David Aardsma got ahead on Chris Aguila 0-2, then proceeded to walk him. He then got ahead of Reggie Abercrombie 1-2, and took him to a full count before dispatching him with a swinging strike. In both of these instances, I felt like we were dealing with the theoretical phenomenon I posited the other day, where pitches that resulted in swinging strikes in the minors are often not yielding the same results in the Majors.
He seemed to get it a little more with the final at bat of the inning when he got ahead of Matt Treanor and finally sat him down with an unhittable pitch low and away with the count 2-2. It's not that you have to throw strikes to get guys out when you're ahead in the count, but you have to come closer than he has in many cases, and the faster Aardsma learns that, the longer he'll stick around.
Matt Murton had looked lost in St. Louis, swinging at balls that he couldn't do anything with, and looking at third strikes several times. It was the first time I remember him seeming genuinely out of sorts at the plate, and I was beginning to wonder when he'd break free of his slump.
I think we saw it last night, as not only did he do a nice job with his game-tying hit, but he was able to draw two walks earlier in the evening, not just because Vargas was particularly bad throwing to him, but because he was willing to take pitches that others on his team weren't. Finally, he seemed relaxed again, and the air of anxiousness that followed him on the road trip seemed to be gone. He's a better hitter than what he showed over the last week or so, and if he's really made that re-adjustment, he'll be good to go for a while.
The bad news is, Sean Marshall has to face the one daunting pitcher on the Marlins' staff tonight in Dontrelle Willis. The good news is, Willis hasn't been terribly sharp, only going beyond six innings once in four starts, but not so much because of ineffectiveness as inefficiency - he's thrown 107 pitches in 5 innings, 113 in 5.2, and 106 in 6 - so even if he does a nice job keeping runs off the board, if the Cubs can learn a little from last night's eighth inning outburst, they could be in the Florida bullpen early.