Friday, August 31, 2007
Brewers had runners on first and second with nobody out when Yost called upon Hardy to lay down a sacrifice bunt. Sure, the bunt moved the tying run into scoring position, but it cost Milwaukee the first out of the inning. While some might be thinking that two chances to tie the game was a good thing for the Brewers, I challenge you: what good would tying the game have done? A tie isn't really a tie: if the Brewers did force a tie into the bottom of the ninth inning, the Chicago Cubs would've gotten two at-bats for the price of one.
Evidently, Lou Piniella didn't get it either. After Dempster retired Ryan Braun, Lou issued an intentional walk to Prince Fielder. I get that first base was open, I get that Fielder is the most dangerous hitter on the team, I get that it was a lefty-righty thing, but under no circumstances should you volunteer the go-ahead run on base! Does the intentional walk increase the chances that you end the game after 8 1/2 innings? Probably, but it certainly doesn't increase your overall win probabilities. Just four minutes after Yost closed the door to a big inning, Piniella opened it back up for him.
Speaking of the win probabilities, PROTRADE Live supports my arguments with their numbers. Had J.J. Hardy swung away, the Brewers would've had a 25% chance of winning the game. Instead, the sacrifice brought their chances down to 22%. Similarly, had we pitched to Prince Fielder, our likelihood of winning the game (not necessarily right then, but eventually) was 92%. The intentional walk brought that number down to 88%.
The intentional walk to Fielder did exactly what I was afraid of it doing. Because it loaded the bases, the scenario in a three-ball count is incredibly different. Even though Dillon's run at third base didn't mean a thing, knowing that ball four brings home a run, a run that makes it one step closer to a blown save, is completely different. In this particular instance, Dempster didn't give in and walked Hart and put the go-ahead run (the man we intentionally walked) into scoring position and shifted the momentum to the Brewers entirely as the bases still remained loaded. In other instances, Dempster might've grooved one over the heart of the plate.
Tuesday, August 28, 2007
With the Cubs beating the Brewers and the Cardinals winning today, Milwaukee has fallen into third place, 2 1/2 games behind the leading Cubs. Meanwhile, St. Louis managed to stay within 2 games of the division lead.
With Sheets and Parra pitching against the Cubs in the final two games of this series, a split won't be as easy at it seems. Still, if the Cubs can achieve that split and the Cardinals are unable to beat Roy Oswalt, the standings will look the exact same on Thursday as it does now. With us trying to hang onto a small lead, simply knocking games off of the schedule without losing any ground could be beneficial to us.
Just flipping the pages on the calendar puts us closer and closer to the playoffs. The St. Louis Cardinals just played the first game of what will be 35 games in the season's final 34 days and the Brewers have their final 11 games of the year against Atlanta, St. Louis and San Diego. Holding on might be all we need to do.
Lee continues to struggle: All-Star Derrek Lee did knock in a key insurance run in the Cubs' seventh inning, but the first baseman still hasn't looked comfortable at the plate. I was joking about putting Ward and Fontenot in the lineup until they each went 0-for-15, but dropping the former batting champion in the lineup might not be a bad idea. With Alfonso Soriano returning to the lineup, Ryan Theriot is batting second meaning previous options for the two-hole (Jones, Kendall, etc) could conceiveably bat third. Ramirez fourth, Floyd fifth and Lee sixth (or even DeRosa sixth and Lee seventh) could work. It takes some pressure off of Derrek and gives him the next best thing to a change of scenary.
Sunday, August 26, 2007
Those of you who are trying to replay the inning without the hit-and-run and see that Jones' grounder scores the tying run, do us all a favor: go shoot yourself, or at least stop watching baseball. The entire complexion of the Theriot AB changes with first base occupied! There is no way that the rest of the inning plays out exactly how it did if Pie and Fontenot remain on their bases.
Strikeout pitchers are strikeout pitchers because they are able to fan the average batter more often than other pitchers. Contact hitters are contact hitters because they can usually put the bat on the ball against any pitcher. What I'm trying to say is that the chances for a strikeout didn't really depend on Valverde pitching, but moreso on Kendall and his ability to put the ball in play.
Those that know me well know that I love the hit-and-run. Would I have put on the hit-and-run three times in a row? Probably not. But I really can't sit here and disagree with Piniella's decision to do it three times in a row when I was glad that he did it the first two times.
I didn't see how the Diamondbacks defended against the double steal. Regardless, what is for certain is that many holes open up on the infield and you stay out of the ground ball double play. Yes, Kendall did swing through strike three and yes, the Diamondbacks did get a double play anyway, but if you think about who was at bat, you see that a ground ball double play was much more likely.
So many things could've gone right for the Cubs with the hit-and-run. Kendall could've tied the game with a hit, a throwing error (almost happened) could've tied the game, or the Cubs could've stayed out of the double play and had both runners in scoring position with just one out (what Piniella was trying to achieve with the bunt). The worst-case scenario was incredibly unlikely (unfortunately, it happened) and even that doesn't completely derail the inning: two outs, but the tying run is still in scoring position.
The loss definitely hurts and it puts the St. Louis Cardinals in an encouraging position. With the Cardinals having 37 games remaining, they trail the Cubs by just 2 games (1 in losses) and are chomping at the bit to get the next series underway. With the Cubs, Brewers, and Cardinals all idle on Monday, the three teams will begin crucial serieses on Tuesday. With the Cubs and Brewers playing each other, the Cardinals know that as long as they win their games, they will pick up ground on someone. After having picked up two games in the last two nights on both the Cubs and Brewers and with the guarantee that either the Cubs or the Brewers will lose two of the next three games, Cardinals' fans have to have their eyes wide open.
First, let me start by saying that I give credit to Lou Piniella for sticking with Derrek Lee. I can't fault Piniella for thinking that Lee is who we all thought that he was. (You know, not a fraud.) I wanted to give Lee a couple of days off starting August 14, but Lou stuck with his all-star (really?) first baseman. If you'll remember, the Cubs finished a 20 games in 20 days stretch on August 12 without Daryle Ward and Aramis Ramirez before an off-day on August 13. With Soriano already on the disabled list, Piniella couldn't justify benching Lee and Ramirez, especially when he didn't have Ward. Looking back on it, benching him right after getting Ward and Ramirez back would've been too early and benching him now might also be too early.
But if Derrek Lee keeps this up any further, we can't afford to keep an automatic out in the middle of our lineup, especially if we want to stay alive in the post season hunt.
The numbers really are quite deceiving, because Lee doesn't appear to be struggling as bad as he is. In actuality, Lee is beyond struggling: he's just bad. His useless hits in pointless situations are the only reason why he's still above .300 -- or near it for that matter.
On August 25, Lee took a called third in the first inning, hit what would've been a double play (had it not been for a defensive miscue), before a soft single with two outs and nobody on. On August 24, Lee popped out with a man on second base and also hit into a rally-killing double play. August 23's 0-for-4 came at inopportune times: twice with a runner on and twice while leading off the inning. On August 22, Lee struck out in a 2-2 game in the ninth after hitting into a double play earlier. I could keep going, but those who have watched Derrek Lee know exactly how bad he's been.
Those that have seen Derrek Lee know about his defensive incompetence as well. Sure, he made a good pick on a low throw by Ryan Theriot in last night's game, but Lee's range seems to have been cut in half and he also bobbles his fair share of balls hit straight at him (3rd inning last night is just one of many examples). This really doesn't show up on the stat sheet, though; he always does just enough to avoid errors, but there have been plenty of plays that the Derrek Lee of 2005 would've made look easy that today's Lee refuses to handle.
With a right-handed Yusmeiro Petit pitching today's finale against the Diamondbacks, this is how I would write the lineup:
SS Ryan Theriot
C Jason Kendall
1B Daryle Ward
3B Aramis Ramirez
RF Cliff Floyd
2B Mark DeRosa
LF Matt Murton
CF Felix Pie / Jacque Jones
P Jason Marquis
If we win tomorrow, I'd stick with that lineup. If we don't, I'd try to change things around, but keep Lee out of the lineup until Daryle Ward posts an 0-for-15 streak. (Then, I would move DeRosa to first and play Fontenot.)
If Soriano's back (rumor has it could be as soon as Tuesday), then the lineup should read like this against right-handed pitchers:
LF Alfonso Soriano
SS Ryan Theriot
1B Daryle Ward
3B Aramis Ramirez
RF Cliff Floyd
2B Mark DeRosa
C Jason Kendall
CF Felix Pie / Jacque Jones
With a crucial series against the Brewers coming up, we can't afford to have our three-hole hitter be a guy that doesn't care. If his performances at the plate and on the field still don't have you convinced that Derrek Lee isn't caring, check out how hard he's running after hitting the ball in his ninth inning at-bat on August 24. MLB.com now shows each half-inning in its entirety after the game is played, so copy and paste both parts of the URL below (sorry -- too long to post in one line), then click on the "3" spot in the Cubs' half of the ninth and fast forward to Lee's at-bat (seventh AB of the inning). With the bases loaded and no outs, you'd think he'd run to first to stay out of a double play. Instead, he's barely even jogging.
Last time we played Milwaukee, we were 7 1/2 games behind the Brewers. Milwaukee let us have two out of three because that still kept us 6 1/2 back, but now the tables have turned. We're in the lead and the Brewers have the urgency that we had last time. Tomorrow's games for the Cubs and Brewers will be crucial for setting up the final meeting between the two teams atop the NL Central Standings on Tuesday.
The most likely scenario is that we stay 1 1/2 games ahead of the Brewers. I would be okay with that: even if the Brewers win the series at Wrigley, we could still stay in first place. The best case scenario obviously is a 2 1/2 game difference, which would give us a golden opportunity to move as far as 3 1/2 games in front of the Brewers by the end of the week.
Milwaukee is obviously looking to be only 1/2 game behind before the series starts. A series victory would put them in first place while avoiding the sweep keeps them just 1 1/2 back -- very much within striking distance.
Let's not forget about the Cardinals either. Facing a struggling Jo-Jo Reyes on Sunday before taking on the sixth place Houston Astros on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, the Cardinals could make this race really interesting by the time September begins. It almost seems like St. Louis could go 3-1 in their next four games, meaning a well-earned 2-2 over the next four for us will close the gap on the Cardinals to just 2 games -- one in the loss column.
Wednesday, August 22, 2007
To see that the W-L record is a fairer measure of a pitcher’s ability than ERA, one needs to look at Jason Marquis’ last two starts. Six days ago, Marquis went six innings allowing seven hits and four runs, but most considered than Marquis really earned that win. Despite blowing a four-run lead given to him early in the game, the right-hander really beared down to keep the Reds at four runs. When the Cubs scored a fifth run, Marquis tossed up a crucial goose egg allowing the Cubs to pour it on with a seven-run seventh.
Yesterday, Marquis’ line score looked much better: one run and three hits over seven innings. Even so, had it not been for the ninth inning comeback against Tim Lincecum and the Giants’ bullpen, Jason Marquis should’ve been pinned with the loss. After the Cubs went down in order on seven pitches in the top of the first inning, you knew that Lincecum was on his game. Marquis really needed to give his team a couple of more chances to get to Lincecum with the score even. Instead, a first inning run really changed the complexion of the game and let the Giants’ starter settle in. Of course, the Cubs’ offense is mostly to blame for their incompetence against Lincecum, but Jason Marquis shares a small piece of that blame for creating an unnecessary sense of urgency.
The ninth inning against the Giants, however, saved us. And it was certainly an interesting one. Down 1-0, Ryan Theriot led off the inning with a clean double down the right field line. But, then Jones’ single eluded the dive of Pedro Feliz by a few inches before Derrek Lee was able to drive home the game-tying run. Aramis Ramirez then took a few close pitches for a walk before Cliff Floyd’s chopper through the infield just got past Ray Durham who was pulled in.
The heartbreaking May 17 loss to the Mets was also very similar. Up four runs in the ninth inning at Shea Stadium, Ryan Dempster and Scott Eyre were unable to shut the door on the game as the Mets continued to hit balls that were just out of reach of the Cubs’ defenders. I was upset that Delgado’s game-winning single was six inches away from being a game-ending double play for the Cubs, but now I see that the breaks have even out.
Being on the good end of the breaks this time, the Cubs managed to maintain a share of first place as I begin classes for the fall semester.
Usually, the Cubs are about 12 games out at this point and don’t really have much to play for. This allows me to devote most of my attention to my coursework and after the final week of September, I am able to concentrate fully on school. Now, I am faced with the tricky situation of having to balance classes and the Cubs as
I’ll probably end up posting in my blog a lot less often. Over the summer, I had often felt compelled to write something in my blog after a game, but I certainly can’t afford to do that anymore. If there is something that really jumps out at me and is worth my time, I will express my opinions. But anything short of that will remain out of my blog.
Monday, August 20, 2007
Let's first start with Major League Baseball's concern: when is this game made up? The teams have two common off-days, but neither seem like they would work. August 27 is the first of two such days, but this would put both teams at 21 consecutive days with a game and 34 consecutive days for which a game was scheduled, counting Saturday (yesterday). Any stretch longer than 20 consecutive days without an off-day would have to be approved by the MLBPA but with this game having so many playoff implications, this might be an exception that the player's association feels is warranted. The second common off-day is Monday, September 10, but it is even less of an option. Should a game be scheduled then, the Cardinals would be forced to play 35 games in the season's final 34 days.
With Monday's game also in jeopardy due to the weather, things get awfully interesting. Both teams would leave Chicago at the end of Monday's game and while the Cardinals have a short trip back home to St. Louis for a Tuesday night game, the Cubs would have to fly all the way across the country to San Francisco. Even so, every effort must be made to complete this game; failure to do so will almost ensure that the division championship would not be decided on its own merits.
Going with just 161 games for the Cubs and the Cardinals is probably the most likely option. After all, the Cardinals played only 161 regular season games last year when they won the division title. It's possible that Major League Baseball will wait until the end of the season to see if that 162nd game is necessary before choosing whether or not it should even be made up. Monday, October 1 would become the day for the make-up game if necessary and it's not a problem for the Cubs, though this forces the Cardinals to play 22 games in the season's final 21 days.
The participant in the Monday, October 1 game would obviously be given Tuesday, October 2 off and be assigned to the series that starts a day later than all of the others. While there is a ripple-down effect, if the 162nd game could decide who makes the playoffs, it is a necessary evil.
Another interesting option is to make up the game at Busch Stadium. There is precedent for this too: when hurricanes blew through Florida in September of 2004, the Marlins and Cubs made up a game originally scheduled to be played in Miami at the Friendly Confines. The Cubs will make one more trip to St. Louis on September 14-16 and that would be a no-brainer of a choice had there not been a double header scheduled for September 15. Another doubleheader would not be played on get-away day, so September 14 would be the day. This creates another minor complication: it would force the Astros to move up their game time in their game against the Cubs on the 13th, but in the grand scheme of things, it's not so bad.
Then, from the Cubs side of the coin, you can't help but wonder whether Zambrano will return on regular rest. Separating Zambrano and Lilly is intriguing at first, especially with the Cubs suffering a few medium-length losing skids over the recent past. Piniella might be tempted to split his two best pitchers so as to avoid the long losing streaks in the future.
But, Chicago has 40 regular season games remaining: bringing back Zambrano on short rest doesn't give him more starts: he won't get more than eight in any event. He always pitches well on extra rest, so why not give it to him when you have the chance? We're up by a full game in the standings (two in the loss column), so now is not the time to panic and try new things with the rotation.
And even though it's foolish to speculate on what the rotation may look like several weeks down the road, you can't help but count the days on the schedule. As of now, Zambrano is set to pitch in both the series against Milwaukee at the end of the month and the four-gamer in St. Louis in September. Moving Zambrano up probably wouldn't prevent him from pitching against the Brewers but it looks like it could put his start against the Cardinals in jeopardy.
Looks like Zambrano coming back on regular rest might be the best thing after all.
Cubs eyeing broom: In late April, the Cubs got a shortened sweep when Chicago took the first two from St. Louis before the tragic death of Josh Hancock. Now, the Cubs have the opportunity to hand the Cardinals another shortened sweep, even though the reason for Saturday's game's cancellation is far less emotional.
Ted Lilly goes for the Cubs and he'll try to tie Carlos Zambrano (and others) for the league lead with 14 wins. He is opposed by Joel Piniero, a recent Cardinals acquisition that has been throwing the ball well since joining the National League.
Saturday, August 18, 2007
In a scoreless tie in the third inning, Jacque Jones hit what could've been a inning-ending double play but poor defense forced the Cardinals to settle for just one out, opening the door to a five-run inning, capped by a Daryle Ward grand slam. While it's uncertain whether or not the Cardinals' middle infield would've been able to make the turn on the speedy Jones, a momentary bobble by second baseman Brendan Ryan sealed the fate of the play.
Later in the game, with the Cardinals trying to creep closer, Albert Pujols was called out at home plate on a bang-bang play that went the Cubs way. Replays later showed that Pujols, who attempted to score when Marmol's 2-1 pitch eluded Jason Kendall, was safe.
The ball bounded off the backstop and Kendall hustled to the ball to make a flip to Marmol who was covering the plate. Though the throw beat Pujols to the plate, it was high and by the time Marmol applied the tag, it appeared as though Pujols had already touched the plate. Nonetheless, home plate umpire Ted Barrett stuck to the rules that umpires usually use on tag plays: if the ball beats the runner, the runner is out.
Had Pujols scored, St. Louis would've been within two runs and would've had a man in scoring position and only one out. As it turned out, it was still a three-run game and Marmol was required to record just one out in order to escape trouble, a Duncan strikeout.
Sean Marshall did exactly what he was supposed to do, throwing strikes with the big lead. Marshall surrendered just five hits in five-plus innings of work, but two of the hits were solo home runs. Despite that, Marshall's line score turned out to be an impressive one and was rewarded with his sixth victory of the year.
What did concern me from today's game, however, was the inability to break the game open. Aside from the disastrous third inning for Anthony Reyes, the young Cardinals pitcher was able to pitch very efficiently. The Cubs almost looked content with the five-run inning, managing no runs and just one hit in the final five innings the Cubs were at-bat. Marshall and the bullpen were able to make that run stick up this time, but a few tack-on runs here and there would be nice in similar situations in the future.
About 90 miles north of Wrigley Field, the Brewers were able to snap their five-game losing streak and stay just 1/2 game behind Chicago. Not a total loss though, the division-leading Cubs were able to separate themselves from the third place Cardinals just a bit more. With Zambrano and Lilly going in the final two games of the series, what was previously the good possibility of the Cubs taking at least three out of four is now a likelihood.
The 3-1 series against the Cardinals would most probably keep the Cubs on top of the division when the next road trip begins. If that's the case, things have to look good until the end of the month. The Cubs and Brewers trade road serieses with San Francisco and the first-place Diamondbacks before the two teams square off in a three-game series at Wrigley. With the Brewers struggling as much as they have on the road, it seems rather unlikely that Milwaukee would be able to make up any ground on their nine-game road trip.
Splitting the final two games of this wrap-around series would also guarantee the Cubs maintaining a four-game advantage over the Cardinals. While St. Louis might have a schedule a little easier than the Cubs, you have to got to assume that the Redbirds would not be able to make up four games in just a couple of weeks' time. Above average baseball until the second week of September would be the best way to keeping the lead in the division until the second the Cubs can really bury the Cardinals during the four-game series at Busch.
One pitch, one K: When rain interrupted play in the middle of the Cardinals half of the eighth, manager Lou Piniella was left with an interesting decision. Up two runs in the eighth, the inning normally belongs to set-up man Bob Howry. After 12 pitches, however, rain halted play with a 1-2 count on a left-handed hitting Chris Duncan at the plate.
I thought that Piniella had a few choices that he could've worked with. The most obvious choice was the decision to bring in lefty Pignatiello to finish the at-bat while another equally viable option was allowing Dempster to finish the eighth inning before attempting to convert the save in the ninth. Lou chose the former option and it worked; Pignatiello's first and only pitch of the game was a called third strike to Duncan and the side was retired.
Friday, August 17, 2007
Carlos Zambrano had given the team the Opening Day deadline to sign him to a multi-year contract. When that fell through, it looked like the Cubs ace was going to test the free agent market at the end of the year. In the open market, Zambrano would've surely brought interest from many teams and signed a record deal.
The big right hander still signed a record deal, but he will remain a Cub until at least the end of the 2012. His 5-year, $91.5M contract (includes $5M signing bonus) is the most any pitcher has been paid per year in a multi-year contract, but it's not unreasonable to assume that the Red Sox or Yankees would've been willing to go even higher. Salary arbitration had kept his salary down for the most part, but after punching in six years of Major League experience, the ace pitcher is now rolling in the big money.
A 13-11 season in 2003 gave Zambrano a $450,000 contract for the next year. Then a 16-8 season with a 2.75 ERA in 2004 only bumped his pay for the next year up to $3.8M. A 14-6 season the year after allowed him to earn $6.5M for 2006. He led the league in wins last year, but still received a measly salary when comparing to other pitchers of his caliber: $12.4M for this year. Now Zambrano, who looks to be on his way to setting a new career high in wins, will get $15M next year followed by at least $17.75M in each of the four years afterwards.
It's hard to tell whether or not Zambrano would've been cheaper in April. After all, the arbitration figure he submitted at the beginning of this year was $15.5M -- and that was just for the 2007 season. Nonetheless, the deal needed to get done and I'm glad that the Tribune Company, Sam Zell, and Jim Hendry were able to set aside their differences to ink him to this type of a long-term deal.
Jim Hendry committed a lot of money beyond the 2007 season last winter, but this team still has its fair share of holes. The Cubs may be able to plug some of these holes this off-season, but losing Carlos Zambrano to free agency would not have been replaceable, making the rest of the ludicrous salaries seem like a waste.
For starters, Alfonso Soriano is going to be paid up to $18M per year until 2014. Derrek Lee will make $13M annually until 2010 and Aramis Ramirez will be owed nearly $16M per year until 2010. Lilly, DeRosa, Marquis, Jones, Howry, and Dempster are all signed beyond the 2007 season and salary arbitration will keep Marmol, Hill, and Marshall with the Cubs until further notice. The team has most of its major pieces returning for the 2008 season and Zambrano at the top of the rotation makes the team just so much stronger.
Hill dominates: It looks like Rich Hill read my blog post from yesterday. With the bullpen short after yesterday's game, the team needed a deep start from the young left-hander and he delievered. Being backed by only a two-run shot by Jacque Jones, Rich Hill was able to make that stick up, tossing seven innings of three-hit ball before giving way to Howry and Dempster.
The Cubs win puts them at 62-59 and now in sole possession of first place after the Brewers fell to the Reds. Today's win over the Cardinals also did many more things. Not only did that re-create a three-game separation between the two teams, but it guaranteed that the Cubs would not be behind the Cardinals at the end of the series and opened the door to the very real possibility of taking three out of four.
The last time the Cubs snapped a four-game losing streak, they won two games before hitting the recently-broken four-game skid. Hopefully, this winning streak can last longer than two.
Thursday, August 16, 2007
After a pathetic approach in the final two innings of Wednesday's game, the Cubs' bats came to life -- looking to take some pitches, work some counts and then drill the pitches they did get to hit. Despite not hitting the ball out of the park, the Cubs managed to pour it on the Reds: a four-run first put the Cubs ahead in the beginning and a seven-run seventh sealed it.
Marquis struggled in the second inning of the game, giving up the 4-0 lead his team got for him in the first, but really pitched well the rest of the afternoon. Marquis went six-plus innings, allowing just three hits outside of the nightmare-ish second and really earned his tenth win of the season, making the Cubs the second in the league to three 10-game winners.
Ryan Theriot continued to impress, collecting three hits (two doubles) while scoring three times and driving in two himself. Mark DeRosa stepped up after being put in the two-hole, pounding a career-high five hits (one double) and knocking home four runs, while Ramirez and Jones contributed four-hit and two-double performances. Among the 20 Cubs hits, however, Derrek Lee has responsible for none of them, going 0-for-5. Maybe it's time to sit Lee for a few games and give Daryle Ward a few at-bats.
Aside from the offense, the bullpen also impressed me as well. Scott Eyre pitched out of a scary situation when he entered the game with a man on base and nobody out in what was then a one-run ballgame. Slowly but surely, Eyre appears to be the same trustworthy reliever he was last year. Carmen Pignatiello finally made his Major League debut, tossing a scoreless inning and Ryan Dempster, though shaky, also twirled up a goose egg. The only concern about the bullpen I have is for tomorrow's game. Rich Hill has averaged less than five and a half innings per start since June 17 and I would have to assume that both Wood and Pignatiello are unavailable tomorrow.
While Wood didn't pitch in today's game, he was up in the bullpen making it the second straight day that he's thrown. Carmen Pignatiello was asked to throw in each of the last two games before actually coming into the game today, so today was three in a row for him. Marmol and Howry better be ready to go.
Nonetheless, it feels good to have snapped the four-game skid. The Cardinals helped the Cubs pull within 1/2 game of the division lead by sweeping the first-place Brewers, but now St. Louis trails the division by just 2 1/2 themselves -- the closest they've been to first place since April 16 when they were 7-9 and Houston was pacing the division. In fact, the Cardinals trail by just one game in the loss column!
Initially I thought that maybe I wanted the Cardinals to win just two of three against the Brewers, but after seeing that we were only able to take one game from Cincinnati, the sweep definitely was the best-case scenario for the Cubs. After all, now we have a chance to put some distance between ourselves and the Cardinals; St. Louis is 28-33 on the road and 3-5 against the Cubs.
Looking ahead: After the last week to ten days, the Cardinals made it very clear that they are alive and kicking in this race. Also in the past week to ten days, the Brewers have made it very clear that they have no intention to win the division. I have a feeling that this race might ultimately become a two-team race, but not the two teams we all expected it would be about a month ago. But until it does become a two-team race, we should keep our focus on winning ballgames and having the Brewers lose. After all, they are still in first place.
The next four days will be very interesting. If the Cardinals can win the series, they would have at least a share of second place in the division while every time we win creates more space between us and St. Louis. Hopefully after these four days are up, we'll be in first place and we won't have to worry about watching the scoreboard as much.
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
The approach used by the Cubs in the final two innings of the game after Hamilton's pinch-hit homer in the top of the eighth was nothing short of absolutely horrid.
Jared Burton and Dave Weathers pitched scoreless innings to close out the 11-9 decision against the Cubs, but they have the Cubs' offense to thank for that. In the eighth, Aramis Ramirez and Daryle Ward each tried to tie the game by hitting that miraculous two-run homer with the bases empty while Jake Fox truly looked like a minor league hitter, foolishly swinging and missing over and over again.
Matt Murton nearly fouled out on the first pitch of the ninth inning -- a fastball way up and out of the zone -- before rolling over a breaking ball harmlessly to the left side. Jacque Jones and Ryan Theriot contributed quality at-bats in the ninth but that wasn't enough as the Cubs once again failed to pick up ground on the Brewers, who lost.
Do these players not know how to count? You can't tie the game if you're down by two unless you put a man on base first!
The Cubs remain 1 1/2 games behind Milwaukee, but have now seen their lead over the Cardinals shrink to just 2 games. With Chicago and the Brewers continuing to struggle the way they have been, St. Louis has got to like their chances.
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
For the first six innings of the ballgame, the Cubs were the same old tired bunch that didn't really feel like playing. It seemed as though they were swinging as hard as they could at the first pitch that was near the same zip code as the plate, the same approach the Cubs took in the final two games at Coors Field.
The Cubs did hit three solo homeruns, but it's saying a lot when each of the first three hits were homeruns. Looking at the approach taken by many of the hitters, especially the guys in the heart of that lineup, it's obvious they were all swinging for the fences. I'll admit that Derrek Lee did work the count for his homerun but it seemed as though Ramirez and Jones just got lucky with theirs. In Jacque Jones' case, on the 1-0 pitch, he tried to pull a ball that was six inches off of the outside corner and just came up with a big swing and miss. Two pitches later, Jones had the same wreckless hard swing: the only difference was that Harang left the 2-1 pitch over the heart of the plate.
For the final three innings though, the team showed why it had been playing so well over the month of June and first half of July. Down multiple runs, nobody tried to get it all back (exception: Jones in 8th) in one swing, but instead tried to focus their attention on stringing base hits together. The Cubs scored lone runs in the 7th and 8th innings on RBI singles through the middle and to the opposite field, which made the game close.
The Cubs need to remember how they played the final three innings of tonight's game and duplicate that process if they want to succeed, especially against a pair of unfamiliar lefties coming up.
Struggling Leaders: The Cubs have gone 7-12 in their last 19 games and have fallen to just two games over the .500 mark. Meanwhile, the Brewers have gone 9-17 in their last 26 games and kept the Cubs alive. For the past three weeks, Chicago has kind of been sitting right around 1 or 2 games behind first place, but now the top two teams have competition. The Cardinals have been able to get right back into this race by playing above average baseball, gaining 4 1/2 games on the Brewers by going just 10-7 since July 28.
The next week will really tell the tale for the St. Louis Cardinals. They have a good chance to do some damage in the division race, but they'll have to do it on the road. The Cardinals won the first game of the three-game set in Milwaukee before they will play a wrap-around four-game series in Wrigley over the weekend. By this time next week, we'll know whether it'll be a two- or three-team race down the stretch.
Saturday, August 11, 2007
The Rockies, however, made the best out of their scoring chances. Clint Hurdle opted to lift Josh Fogg in the bottom of the sixth inning of a tie ballgame with the bases loaded and two outs. The pinch hitter, Jamey Carroll, hit his 2nd homerun on the year (both off of the Cubs), a grand slam to put the Rockies ahead for good.
The Cubs had a great approach in the first inning, forcing Fogg to throw 37 pitches and drawing two walks. After that, the team was visibly frustrated, recklessly hacking away early in the count. Fogg was allowed to complete the next five innings in just 51 pitches and ended up leaving with a win and a quality start. I realize that Marvin Hudson's strike zone was horribly inconsistent, but that doesn't give you permission to swing at every pitch.
To make matters worse, the Brewers rallied against the Astros bullpen, scoring seven times in the last three innings to beat Houston 7-4. The Cubs now trail Milwaukee by 1 1/2 games in the NL Central race, the most since July 28.
Caught Stealing? Coming into today, catcher Jason Kendall was 0-for-25 in throwing out opposing baserunners since joining the Cubs. In reality though, that number is a bit deceiving: catching for pitchers like Rich Hill and Jason Marquis has made throwing out baserunners really hard.
Well, in the fifth inning of Saturday's game against the Rockies, the numbers took the first step towards evening out for Kendall. Rich Hill had picked off Troy Tulowitzki from first base, but because the runner had broke to second base as Hill threw to Derrek Lee, the official scoring was a caught stealing.
Friday, August 10, 2007
Jacque Jones, once again provided the offense: going 3-for-5 with a double, a homer, and 2 RBI and he now has 7 hits and 6 RBI in the first two games of the series. Kendall also turned in a three-hit game for the second day in a row and the Cubs are starting to get some offensive production from guys that didn't start the year all that well.
It's good that we're getting some pop from guys that we didn't expect that we'd be getting it from, but you wonder how long it will last. Granted, Kendall and Jones have had very good track records throughout their careers, but looked like totally different players in the first four months of the year. Hopefully, Ramirez will be healthy and Lee will start to swing the bat again by the time Jones and Kendall regress to more expectable performances.
Even though the Rockies never pulled within three runs after the fourth inning, the bullpen made the game interesting. The Rockies were able to load the bases in both the 7th and 8th innings, but escaped having allowed minimal damage and preserving the lead. Bob Brenly brought up a point that I mentioned in my post after yesterday's game: why did Wood, Marmol, and Howry throw in an eight-run ballgame?
Yes, we did end up squeaking a victory out of today's game but the unfortunately, the effects linger a little past today's game. Marmol, almost undoubtedly, would be unavailable in tomorrow's game and Lou Piniella would probably like to try to stay away from Howry as well. This leaves just Wood and Dempster as the reliable arms late in the game, meaning Rich Hill must deliver another deep start in order to keep guys like Wuertz, Gallagher, and Eyre out of big situations.
I just don't understand why Lou didn't use the combination of Lilly and Gallagher to pitch all nine innings in Thursday's series opener.
The bats seemingly came to life in the first four innings of the series opener at Coors Field, as we managed to cross the plate ten times. After that though, the Cubs' bats got awfully quiet, failing to score in any of the next five. Now I understand that that's the way the routs usually work; for whatever reason (perhaps a "regression to the mean" effect), teams that pull to a big lead early usually can't tack on late in the game. But, this type of performance can't help but make you think how much of the offensive success was due to the Cubs' bats and how much was due to Jimenez's struggles.
Nonetheless, let's enjoy this win where (most of) the team was clicking on all cylinders. Ted Lilly battled some control issues, but was able to work around them nicely. Mike Fontenot and Matt Murton played some good heads-up defense. Jacque Jones collected four hits and four RBI, while DeRosa and Kendall each had three hits. Ryan Theriot had two hits and even Felix Pie joined the multi-hit party. Derrek Lee, however, continued to struggle. Not only did he go 0-for-5, but none of his at-bats were quality at-bats.
Lou tried the hit-and-run with his first baseman a couple of times in the series at Houston, but it didn't seem to work. It looks like what Lee really needs is an off-day, but we can't give him one because both Soriano and Ramirez are unavailable. There is a team off-day coming up, but I don't think I can put up with three more days of the same Derrek Lee.
Also, I'm a little upset that Ted Lilly was allowed to throw 127 pitches. I understand, it was an "easy" 127 pitches and I understand that Lilly will get an extra day of rest next time through the rotation, but up 10-2, I expected Piniella to use Sean Gallagher to eat up some innings. Instead, he threw three of our top four relievers: Wood, Marmol, and Howry. It looks like Lou's holding Gallagher back until he is needed for more meaningful innings.
Tuesday, August 7, 2007
Derrek Lee struck out three times, bringing his strike out total up to 82 on the year. Among Lee's three strikeouts, two have been of the looking variety and five of the thirteen strikeouts for the Cubs in tonight's game have been on a called third strike. To top it off: Lee, the once Gold Glove first baseman, has decided to stop playing defense too. It's not just the errors he's been making, but he's no longer able to get to balls hit in the hole and no longer able to scoop balls out of the dirt. Nowadays, you'd be hard pressed to even consider him as an "above average" fielder.
The Cubs had a chance to break the game open real early. With one already in, the Cubs failed to add on with the bases loaded and nobody out in the first inning. Another bases loaded opportunity in the third inning was wasted when Eric Patterson struck out on a pitch up and out of the strike zone. And -- just like yesterday -- the Cubs were 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position; that makes it 0-for-20 for the series.
The Astros are a decent ballclub at home, yes. But, nonetheless, they are a team that was 15 games under .500 (coming into the series) and a team that we need to beat. Instead, having dropped the first two of the road trip and five of the last six, the Cubs will fall to just four games above .500 and appear to be content with having been in first place for a couple of nights. Unless the Rockies can rally against the Brewers, we will fall 2 games off the pace.
Fourteen-game winner Carlos Zambrano will try to salvage the series finale against the Houston, but if we can only muster up three runs in the first 19 innings of the series, getting Zambrano any run support against Oswalt would be next to impossible.
Monday, August 6, 2007
We thought that maybe the Cubs had turned their luck around when they won the third game against the Phillies on a walk-off wild pitch, but it looks like Chicago's National League team has returned to a team that refuses to, or just can't, finish the task at hand.
The top of the first inning was not a good sign for the Cubs in the 2-1, 10 inning loss to Houston. After placing runners on the corners with just one out, Aramis Ramirez and Matt Murton both struck out to end the inning without a run crossing the plate. In the third inning, Ryan Theriot's hustle put him on third base, again with less than two outs, but a strikeout by Cedeno and a popout by Lee on a 3-0 pitch ended that inning without denting the scoreboard.
The Cubs also looked like they were in perfect position to score the go-ahead run in the 10th inning. Jason Kendall turned on a Brad Lidge fastball and bounded a single into left field before new Cub Eric Patterson had a 3-1 count. Patterson did his job by moving Kendall over to second, but the top of the order's incompetence to come through with a man in scoring position again hurt.
All in all, the Cubs were 0-for-10 with a runner on second and/or third.
In the bottom of the 10th inning, Mike Wuertz started the leadoff man, Ty Wigginton, with two good sliders and jumped way ahead in the count. Unfortunately, that was all the strikes that Wuertz felt like throwing as he wasn't even close on any of his next four pitches -- inexpicably walking the lead-off man after jumping ahead 0-2. After a getting two outs (and two strikes on Bruntlett), the lead-off walk came back to haunt the Cubs as Wigginton scored easily from third on ball hit into the right-field corner.
Thankfully, the Brewers are playing horrible baseball as well -- having lost the 13th game in their last 20 -- and so the Cubs are still very much alive. (Imagine, had the Brewers been just 11-9 in their last 20, we'd be 5 games out right now.) Nonetheless, the Cubs find themselves slowing being pushed out of the Wild Card race and it will only be a matter of time before Milwaukee starts to play good baseball again.
Glavine tossed 6 1/3 strong innings, allowing just two runs on six hits as the New York Mets took the series finale by an 8-3 score. The Brewers lost earlier today, so the margin in the division is still one game, but the Cubs have fallen victim to another career milestone.
Many believe that Tom Glavine might be the game's last pitcher to 300 and while I'm not sure if I believe that, I'm pretty confident that if someone else is to get to 300, he's already pitching right now.
The emphasis of middle relief is growing in today's game, which was clearly proven by the fact that two set-up men were listed on the Final Man Voting for the AL all-star roster. As time continues to progress, the outings for starting pitchers will continue to get shorter and shorter, which takes decisions away from the starter. The contracts of the players will continue to grow, also meaning more caution will be exercised when handling these high-priced pitchers.
Unless baseball returns to a four-man rotation, I think it's safe to say that we have already heard the name of the game's final 300 game winner.
Coming into the season, Bill James estimated Glavine's chances of getting to 300 wins to be 74%. He also estimated Johnson's chances of getting there to be 70%, but he expected 14 wins out of the Big Unit this year. After Glavine and Johnson, no one else is higher than 20%, but Mussina, Santana, Martinez, Smoltz, Schilling, Pettitte, Hernandez, Rogers, and Oswalt are all at 8% or better, meaning that is likely that at least one from that group gets there.
Fallen star? Besides losing the series on Sunday, the Cubs also lost all-star outfielder Alfonso Soriano for 2-4 weeks to an injury. After Theriot singled up the middle in the third inning, Soriano aggressively rounded second base before pulling up lame with a strain in his quadricep and being thrown out at third. Alfonso Soriano briefly missed time in April, due to a hamstring strain, and the Cubs went 2-3 without him.
I'm not too worried about Soriano going down, though. I mean, I would love for him to be in the lineup, but the fact of the matter is that we've been winning without his production. Despite his .265/.276/.425 numbers in July, the Cubs went 17-9 in the month.
Granted, I'm not saying that the Cubs are a better team without Soriano; I'm not saying that by any stretch of the imagination. We saw what he was capable of doing in June, and we know that it's possible for him to get that hot again. But, I don't anticipate the loss of Soriano would slow down the Cubs. Surely, his replacement in the lineup can at least match his .276 July on-base percentage and he might even be able to match the .701 OPS.
It's inconvenient, as this forces Fontenot and Jones to play a little more often, especially against lefties. It also means that Cliff Floyd might have to play a little more often than usual, but I don't think the loss of Alfonso Soriano is as demoralizing it may first seem on the surface.
Down on the farm: With Soriano headed for the DL, the corresponding roster move is an interesting thing to consider. The obvious candidate is Felix Pie, but it's no secret that he has struggled offensively at the Major League level. This is where Josh Kroeger enters the equation. In all fairness, I should point out that I have not seen any Kroeger and don't know much about him other than what his numbers say, but those numbers sure are impressive.
Kroeger, 24, is a left-handed outfielder that has split time this year between Tennessee (AA) and Iowa (AAA). Starting the year with Tennessee, Kroeger hit a whopping .382 in 225 AB, with 14 doubles, 11 homers and 50 RBI before being promoted to Iowa. The Pacific Coast League hasn't been able to figure out Kroeger either, as he's continued to hit the ball well. In 114 at-bats with the I-Cubs, he has hit for a .289 clip with 9 homers and 25 RBI.
All together, Kroeger stacks up at an impressive .351 average, with 20 homeruns, 75 RBI and a willingness to draw walks (43 of them) that has his on-base percentage at .424!
The Cubs haven't been shy about calling up the hot hand on the farm. They did it with Soto, Moore, and Fox and so if they stay true to that trend, Kroeger could be next: in 48 at-bats since the All-Star Break, the lefty has 14 hits (.292) -- 5 of which were homers -- and an OPS of 1.007!
I should point out that Pie, who is on the roster (Kroeger is not), has been hot too. In 91 at-bats since his most recent demotion, he is hitting .330 with 6 homers and 16 RBI.
RANDY JOHNSON (70%) - 286 WINS
AGE: 43 yr, 10.8 mo
EXPECTED 07 WINS: 14.4
ACTUAL 07 RECORD: 4-3
Heading into this season, a betting man clearly would've taken Johnson's chances to get to 300. Just 16 wins shy, Johnson entered the 2007 season having won at least 16 games in each of the last three seasons, but his career might very well be over due to injury troubles. There's no question that after 4 months of the 2007 season, that 70% probability has dropped drastically.
EDDIE'S DIAGNOSIS: Possible.
MIKE MUSSINA (18%) - 245 WINS
AGE: 38 yr, 7.9 mo
EXPECTED 07 WINS: 13.3
ACTUAL 07 RECORD: 6-7
Mussina is the only AL pitcher to win 10 or more games in 15 or more consecutive seasons (15+ in 10 seasons), but keeping that streak alive seems to be in jeopardy this year. Even if he does manage 10 wins on the year, he would still need more than 50 wins after that to get to 300. This means he would have to pitch effectively into the 2011 season, when he would be 42. Possible? Yes, but his probability is also much lower than what it was coming into the season.
EDDIE'S DIAGNOSIS: Very unlikely.
JOHAN SANTANA (16%) - 89 WINS
AGE: 28 yr, 5.7 mo
EXPECTED 07 WINS: 17.1
ACTUAL 07 RECORD: 11-9
It seems weird to see a guy who's yet to reach 100 wins being mentioned in the talk for 300, but I think that Bill James was right to include Santana's name on the list. He entered the season having averaged better than 18 wins per year over the last three years and though he might fall short of his expected 2007 win total, it's likely that Santana would be beyond 92 career wins by the end of the year. That would leave him with 208 to go: ten 16-win seasons and four 12-win seasons. If he stays healthy and consistent, we're looking at him getting there at age of 43.
EDDIE'S DIAGNOSIS: Too soon to tell.
PEDRO MARTINEZ (13%) - 206 WINS
AGE: 35 yr, 9.3 mo
EXPECTED 07 WINS: 10.2
ACTUAL 07 RECORD: NR
Obviously published before it was known that Martinez would miss this many starts, the Handbook expected 10 wins out of him. Needless to say, he will fall short of that mark. He'd be extremely lucky to get to 210 career wins by the end of the year and even then he would need six 15-win seasons. Martinez is clearly on the way down and while he could still get to 300, the probability for this pitcher has also dipped below the mark that he entered the season with.
EDDIE DIAGNOSIS: Very unlikely.
JOHN SMOLTZ (10%) - 203 WINS
AGE: 40 yrs, 2.7 mo
EXPECTED 07 WINS: 13.4
ACTUAL 07 RECORD: 10-6
Had Smoltz not spent 3+ years closing, he would probably be on pace to pass 250 wins by the end of the season and would have a shot at 300 wins. However, he's likely going to need around 93 wins after the year is done. Even if Smoltz turns up the pace and averages 17 wins per year, he would be 46 when he reaches 300. If he wants it done by his 45th birthday, Smoltz would have to average more than 22 wins per season. It looks like Smoltz kept up with his probability at what it was to begin this season (ie: he'll probably reach his expected win count), but I don't understand why it was so high to begin with.
EDDIE'S DIAGNOSIS: No chance.
CURT SCHILLING (9%) - 213 WINS
AGE: 40 yrs, 8.7 mo
EXPECTED 07 WINS: 12.8
ACTUAL 07 RECORD: 6-4
Schilling is ten wins ahead of Smoltz, but he's six months behind and has health issues. Turning 41 right after the end of the season, Curt would be lucky to have four (maybe five) seasons left. That's 21 wins (or 17 wins) per season for the rest of his career if he wants to get to 300.
EDDIE'S DIAGNOSIS: No chance.
ANDY PETTITTE (9%) - 193 WINS
AGE: 35 yr, 2.3 mo
EXPECTED 07 WINS: 13.4
ACTUAL 07 RECORD: 7-7
Another pitcher on the chase for 300 that will fall short of his expected win total for this year. He won't win his 200th game this year, but he is a lot younger than some of the other guys on that list. Having averaged 16.5 wins in each of last six full seasons, he could get to 300 before turning 42. The question is: will he be pitching that long? If he stays healthy and he wants to get to 300, he's got a good shot.
EDDIE'S DIAGNOSIS: Very unlikely.
LIVAN HERNANDEZ (8%) - 130 WINS
AGE: 32 yr, 5.5 mo
EXPECTED 07 WINS: 11.6
ACTUAL 07 RECORD: 7-7
He racked up 123 wins in his first 10 years, so he's going to get 170 in his last 10 years? I don't think so. Besides, he's won more than 15 games just once in his career. It looks like Hernandez has a real good chance at 200 wins, but 300 appears to be out of reach.
EDDIE'S DIAGNOSIS: No chance.
KENNY ROGERS (8%) - 210 WINS
AGE: 42 yr, 8.8 mo
EXPECTED 07 WINS: 12.9
ACTUAL 07 RECORD: 3-2
Injuries hurt any chance Kenny Rogers had at 300. He would need 90 wins after turning 43, meaning an average of 18 wins per season for five years. Just in case you were wondering, his career high is 18 wins and he did that only once. What are the chances he pitches until he's 48, let alone him matching his career-high five years in a row?
EDDIE'S DIAGNOSIS: No chance.
ROY OSWALT (8%) - 109 WINS
AGE: 29 yrs, 11.2 mo
EXPECTED 07 WINS: 14.2
ACTUAL 07 RECORD: 11-6
It looks like Oswalt's on the list because many past 300 game winners didn't get a good start until they were in their thirties. Lefty Grove had 115 wins at the age of 30, Early Wynn had 101 wins at the age of 30, and Gaylord Perry was at 95 wins when he turned 30. Oswalt's got potential to average 17 or so wins for the next 10 years and doing so would put him over 280 at the age of 40, giving him a realistic shot. But anything short of that and he's going to have a tough time getting to 300.
EDDIE'S DIAGNOSIS: Unlikely.
CARLOS ZAMBRANO - 78 WINS
AGE: 26 yr, 2.2 mo
EXPECTED 07 WINS: 14
ACTUAL 07 RECORD: 14-7
Despite a slow start to the season, Zambrano finds himself leading the league in wins with 14. He'll definitely pass his expected total of 14 wins of this season and will most likely top his career-high of 16 wins. With his amazing 2007 season, he's entered his name into the race for 300 wins; he's in a better position than Santana was when Bill James put him at 16% (78 wins at age 27). Nonetheless, Zambrano would have to break a trend if he wants to enter the 300-win club; James has a convincing argument that pitchers who log many innings before turning 26 don't have a shot.
EDDIE'S DIAGNOSIS: Very unlikely.
Saturday, August 4, 2007
Going 7 2/3 strong innings and giving the bullpen some much-needed time off, the left-hander improved to 12-5 as he was backed by a six-run third. All six runs in that third inning came with two outs after Ryan Theriot kept the inning alive by legging out an infield single, even though replays showed that Theriot may have indeed been out at first base on the bang-bang play.
With the Brewers struggling on the road and winning more than two-thirds of their games at home, you almost want to try to just keep pace with the Brewers when they are playing at Miller Park. Earlier this week, both the Cubs and Brewers returned to their respective home parks with the Brewers up by 1/2 game. If the Cubs can end the homestand down by just 1 game, you'd imagine that there's a pretty good chance we can jump into first place during the road trip.
And with just one game each left before the two teams at the top of the division hit the road, the only way the Cubs can be further than 1 game out is with a Cubs loss and Brewers win tomorrow. With that having been said, I feel pretty good about the chances of staying within 1 game until Monday, even though the Cubs square off against Tom Glavine in the series finale.
Besides, Glavine doesn't have to be a tough opponent.
Glavine may be a soft-tossing lefty, but he's certainly not unfamiliar to the Cubs bats. The four main power threats in the Cubs lineup have all done well against the future Hall of Famer, with Derrek Lee leading the charge with 15 lifetime hits (in 52 AB, .288). Soriano is 7-18 (.389), Floyd is 13-33 (.394) and Ramirez has hit Glavine the hardest: 11-22 (.500) with 3 homeruns.
Four Cubs have multiple homeruns off of Glavine in their career, five have multiple extra-base hits, and nine have multiple hits off of the Mets' left-hander.
Glavine is on the brink of history, but hopefully he'll have to try again for win #300 five days from tomorrow.
Friday, August 3, 2007
With two of the league's hottest pitchers starting today's game against the Mets, you knew that runs were going to be tough to score.
In fact, after Castro's sixth inning homer, I thought that would be the run that wins the game. Instead, Lee gave the Cubs new life in the bottom of the sixth. After Marlon Anderson drove home the go-ahead run in the seventh inning, I was again convinced that the game was over. However, Jason Kendall answered the call by ringing an RBI double off of the left field wall to bring the Cubs back to level ground.
But, four runs off of Dempster in the ninth was too much.
What's even more frustrating, aside from the fact that they kept fighting back, is that the Cubs looked like they were going to get away with all of the walks they were issuing. Playing with fire all day, the Cubs allowed 11 walks -- and they were able to work around most of them.
Late in the game, Lou Piniella clarified Wood's role with the ballclub on the field a couple of days after he had announced it to the press. Down 2-1 in the 7th, Wood was warming up in the bullpen, but was immediately replaced by set-up man Bob Howry after Kendall tied the game. Then, Piniella continued the strategy of playing a tie like a lead when at home by putting in Dempster in the ninth inning.
Since returning from the disabled list, Dempster has been good enough, but not the same lights-out closer that he was before the DL stint. It would be interesting to see how Piniella chooses to handle this situation, though I believe that Dempster hasn't lost the job yet.
It would have to be tempting for Lou to try to shuffle around the bullpen, especially with the return of Wood and the struggles of Sean Marshall.
Wednesday, August 1, 2007
Rich Hill struggled again as he failed to complete fifth inning. The young left-hander was in and out of trouble all day and had his pitched count in the high 90's when he was relieved by Scott Eyre in the middle of an at-bat in the fifth inning.
The bullpen stepped up for Hill's shortcomings, though. Allowing just one hit in 4 1/3 innings, the combination of Eyre, Marmol, Howry, and Dempster kept the Philadelphia Phillies in a tie before Matt Murton doubled to lead off the ninth and then took third and home on separate wild pitches to win the game and propel the Chicago Cubs into first place.
Some may consider the Cubs and Brewers in a tie for first place, but the Cubs do have a better winning percentage and fewer losses. Nonetheless, the Cubs do have at least a share of first place and it feels great! The Cubs have looked like a brand new team since June 3, going 35-18 since Piniella was ejected by Mark Wegner during a game against the Braves.
The Cubs also looked like a ballclub totally different from the Cubs of April and May in many ways this game. We hit a lefty pretty well -- and a soft tossing lefty at that. We scored the winning run on a bloop double and a pair of wild pitches. We won another one-run ballgame. And the opposition had baserunning errors and missed out on a lot of scoring chances. It looks like the mistakes we were making earlier in this year are finally evening themselves out.
It's okay to be excited about being in first place on August 1, because it is an exciting time! But we should realize that there is still plenty of baseball left. With 55-ish games remaining for both teams, there's still plenty of season left. In fact, there are two full calendar months left, so let's try not to get too excited just yet. Statistical probability says that the Cubs will likely be in sole possession of first place at some point during the season and equally likely that the Brewers will be back in first place at some point during the season.
It's still a little too early to be overly concerned about how the opposition does in every single game; if we keep winning, things will continue to take care of themselves. It's definitely too early to start thinking about the postseason and magic numbers. The point I'm trying to make is that there is still a ton of baseball left. It's exciting for us and the Brewers, because we're not in this situation often. But for the perennial contenders, the race is just getting starting.
Oh, and even though I told you not to think about it: 57.
1. Cubs Stand Pat at Deadline:
I'm not sure that Jim Hendry is the one to blame for this. In fact, I'm not even sure that there is any blame that needs to go around. While there were a lot of places where the Cubs could've improved here and there, there really wasn't a single gaping hole in this team that Jim Hendry could fix.
Center field and right field aren't really problems if Jacque Jones and Cliff Floyd keep producing at the plate like they have recently. The bullpen isn't all that bad; Marmol, Howry, and Dempster are reliable. Jason Kendall seems to be the everyday catcher from here until the end of the season. The back end of the rotation could use some help, but there really isn't a clear cut guy that would get kicked out of the rotation if we were to bring another starter in. And acquiring a left-handed bat may not help that much; we struggle against lefties, not righties.
The team has many serviceable parts. While I agree that the combination of shortcomings of these serviceable parts could add up to the equivalent of the so-called gaping hole, a single move is not able to plug the hole entirely. If Jim Hendry had a supportive background behind him and was allowed to spend money, I think that he would've tried to add a player like Griffey, Dunn, or Gagne.
Instead, the incremental nature of each of the potential moves made it easier for Sam Zell to disallow the deal. You might be able to convince Zell with one big move that clearly makes the team better, but because Zell doesn't really care about baseball, he won't be able to see the importance in a combination of small additions.
2. Garciaparra Jersey Brings Home a Winner:
Many thanks go out to Ryan Rosenberger, who was kind enough to take me to back-to-back Cubs games at the end of July.
The first game against Cole Hamels and the Phillies wasn't all that interesting, because Hamels shut us down. My attire at the Cubs game is usually pretty obvious; you'll see me in a Cubs jersey and a Cubs cap. Recently, however, my choices of what to wear to the game have been limited. I only have three Cubs jerseys: a Garciaparra home jersey, a Patterson home jersey, and a Ramirez road jersey. Usually the choice is obvious -- Ramirez, he's the only player still with the Cubs. But after falling to the Phillies by a 4-1 score in the series opener while I was sporting the Ramirez jersey, I was left with a tough decision.
Do I go back to the Ramirez jersey? Wear the same thing two days in a row?
Or do I go with a different jersey? It may not be an active player, but at least I'd be wearing the home pinstripes like my boys out on the field. The decision was Garciaparra and that led to a 7-3 victory over Philadelphia.
Needless to say, I will be wearing the Garciaparra jersey to my next Cubs game.
3. First Place in Sights:
Being just one game out of first place -- and actually tied in the loss column -- catching the Brewers is no longer a dream world fantasy; it's a realistic possibility.
The interesting thing, however, is that we would most likely want to be on the road. Why?
Well, it's very simple. With the schedule for Cubs and Brewers written the way that it is, the two teams will be following the identical schedules until they meet each other on August 28. This means that when the Cubs are at home, the Brewers will be at home. When the Cubs are on the road, the Brewers will be on the road.
The Cubs are the same team at home as they are on the road, as indicated by their 28-25 and 28-24 records at and away from Wrigley Field respectively. The same can't be said for the Brewers, as they are playing worse than .400 ball (21-32) away from Miller Park. The thing that has kept them in first place is their .685 home winning percentage.
On the last road trip, we picked up 2 1/2 games on the Brewers. At least from now until the end of August, we are in the interesting scenario to try to look to try to stay even with the Brewers at home and see what kind of damage we can do when both teams are in unfamiliar settings.
4. Wood's Strong Rehab in Tennessee:
It looks as though Kerry Wood will make an appearance in the 2007 season after all. After tossing 1 2/3 scoreless innings in Tennessee (AA), the one-time ace of the staff will return to the Major League team in an effort to bolster an already-strong bullpen.
After pitching single innings in back-to-back days on Saturday and Sunday, the right hander took Monday off before making one final rehab appearance on Tuesday. If Wood feels fine on Wednesday, he could be activated from the disabled list as soon as Thursday and jump into the bullpen.
Lou Piniella has already clarified Wood's role in the bullpen and I agree with him. "Roles can change, but I'll use him in the middle," said the Cubs' skipper. "We'll build up some stamina, build up some strength. He hasn't been on the mound for a long long time in a Major League game. We have to get him acclimated first and foremost. We have to build some stamina for him. The middle is the best place to do that."
This means that Dempster will remain as the closer, Howry will continue to be the eighth inning guy and Carlos Marmol continues to be used as the relief ace. I don't think that Kerry Wood will be used in a manner where he would directly help the ballclub. Of course, when he pitches, he will look try to retire the opposition and pitch as effectively as possible, but in the long run I believe that his contribution to the team would have been to keep Marmol, Howry, and Dempster stronger for longer.
Tuesday's win over the Phillies brings up a perfect example of what I think Wood's role should be. After Marquis went 6 innings, Will Ohman entered with a two-run lead in the seventh inning. Ohman recorded two outs before giving way to Marmol with men on base. Marmol then escaped the seventh inning and watched his team score two more runs. Despite the lead now being four in the eighth, Marmol returned for a complete inning before Bob Howry tossed a scoreless ninth.
With a four-run lead, I cringed a little at the fact that Piniella had to use Howry at all and Marmol for more than one inning. I understand why he did it though; it was the only way to give Dempster the night off. In this situation, Wood could've thrown one inning, either allowing Marmol to be done after one batter or giving Howry the night off entirely.
That's not to say that Wood won't steal the job from Marmol, Howry, or Dempster. We never know what's going to happen with the effectiveness these four pitchers down the stretch. But the bullpen's not broke (yet), so don't fix it.
If and when the bullpen does break, hopefully Wood will be ready and willing.