Saturday, August 18, 2007

Ward's slam keeps Cubs on top

The old adage is that good teams capitalize on good breaks. While it may be tempting to write tonight's game off as luck, we have to understand that mistakes are part of the game. We weren't lucky that things fell our way today, instead we capitalized on something that is bound to happen over the course of a 162-game season. Probability guarantees that every single team will catch breaks, the good teams just make them stand out more by making the most of them.

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.

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