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Arc de Triomphe
by Derek Smart
Sure, the Cubs handed Dontrelle Willis his first career April loss (a meaningless accomplishment, if ever there was one), but the real story was the way Sean Marshall pitched. For the first time since the season started, he really had his curve going, and it was obvious how much having that pitch at his disposal opened up the rest of his game, and he just got better as the contest went along.
It's not like he's incapable of being serviceable without it - he hasn't really had it thus far, and he's managed to get by - but he's sure more effective when it's there. Combine that yummy breaker with his already established ability to hit spots with his other offerings, and you've got the reason why the Cubs broke camp with him aboard. He's still bound to struggle - he is young, after all - but even considering the favorable weather, last night was a tantalizing glimpse of the sort of work he's capable of when everything's right.
I loved the way Marshall handled Miguel Cabrera the last time he faced him. Marshall had been striking guys out with his curve all night, but instead of saving it for the end of the at bat, he broke it out at the beginning, getting a strike looking. Then, after getting him to a 1-2 count, a spot where he'd thrown the curve all night, he threw a change-up off the outer black that dove out of the zone and got Cabrera lunging, swinging out in front and over the top.
You have to believe Cabrera was concerned about the breaking ball in that spot, so when he saw what he thought was a fastball he jumped at it, only to be fooled by Marshall's arm action. It was a great set-up, but even better execution, and if that's the kind of mixing we can look forward to when Sean's got his pitches going, we could be in for some really impressive outings from this kid.
What's not to like about the Marlins' Josh Willingham? He's been very impressive thus far in the series, hitting nearly everything square, and going 0 fer last night in great part due to the whims of weather. Both of his first two at bats against Sean Marshall would have resulted in homers had the wind been neutral, or even just a little less fierce. It's rough at this point in his career to be the second best hitter on a Major League team, but I'll bet in a couple of years if he's the second best man on his club, it'll be a helluva tough group.
Anyone else nearly break something when Matt Murton attempted a bunt - and a bad one, at that - with Michael Barrett at second and no one out in the seventh? My goodness, before Barrett's hit The Baron was the only man on the team to really get good swings against Willis, so using him up to move a man into slightly better scoring position - and with a strikeout artist on deck, no less - was an incredibly wasteful idea.
Now, perhaps the play didn't come from the bench. Maybe Dusty is blameless, here. Maybe Murton did it on his own, and if he did, someone needs to tell him that while his "team first" sentiment is admirable, and everybody really appreciates his unselfish impulse, that the real "team first" play was the double he eventually hit.
And now that I've railed against Murton's bunt attempt, I'm going to reverse course and applaud the bunt - bad, though it was - that Jacque Jones laid down (or, more accurately, laid up).
Again, not my favorite strategy when considered in a vacuum, but with Jones' struggles, and his only contributions at the plate thus far coming in the form of home runs that no one was capable of hitting last night, having him lay one down was a pretty defensible play, particularly if you believe, as I do, that it was done specifically to set up an opportunity for a squeeze play with Jerry Hairston.
I'll tell ya, there are a lot of things about the way this team plays ball right now that don't necessarily make sense from an analysis standpoint, but they make for immensely entertaining baseball, and until I start seeing specific situations where the strategy costs games, I'm going to come out in favor of the stuff, because like so many of you out there, I, indeed, enjoy a bit of the fun.
The series is safely in hand, so a lot of today's game is about evaluating the current utility of Angel Guzman. He couldn't have a better situation for his first Major League start, going against what is essentially a minor league lineup, so while results are obviously important, pay attention to how he's getting them. They'll tell you more of what you need to know for the moment.