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Game 57 – Extra Inning Excitement

Thursday, June 6th, 2013

Cubs 8, Angels 6

Box Score / Highlights

Like Jedi, this two-game series in Anaheim was my first chance to see the 2013 Cubs in person. And while you tend to miss a lot of the game when your group includes four children under the age of four, here’s a few things I walked away with from the Cubs’ extra innings win over the Angels.

Anthony Rizzo is a cool guy; he’s trying to help you. Prior to his single in the ninth inning, Anthony Rizzo had grounded out to first in each of his four at-bats. That’s the kind of night that can get into a hitter’s head; the kind of night that makes him start pressing in the wrong places and squandering late-inning opportunities. But not Rizzo. He came up in the tenth inning with the bases loaded and two outs–the exact kind of game-changing situation so many other Cubs’ sluggers have disappeared in in the past. Instead, Rizzo offered up the biggest hit of the night–a bases-clearing double to right, breaking the tie and giving the Cubs a protect-able cushion for the bottom of the tenth. Put it this way: a lot of hitters can inspire hope. Rizzo inspires confidence. In that situation there’s no one I would have rather step up to the plate (at least while Castro’s mojo is still AWOL).

Viva la Garza. I’ve been in the less-than-optimistic camp when it comes to Matt Garza’s return to form, but he seems to be doing well so far. Wednesday wasn’t the best performance I’ve seen from him, but it was better than serviceable, and therefore, better than what I expected. (Also in the better-than-expected camp: Ryan Sweeney.)

Trumbo in paradise. Much has been said already this season about the Angels’ high-priced roster of underperforming sluggers. What looks on paper to be a partial All-Star lineup has fallen far short of expectations, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a shakeup in the near future. One name that should be in demand is Mark Trumbo. On several other teams, he’d be one of the marquee players. For the Angels he fades into the background, despite his performance. Wednesday night he went 2-for-4 with two homers, driving in a third of Anaheim’s runs for the game and looking every bit the top-shelf hitting talent his teammates are paid to be. With a surplus of OFs and 1Bs who can hit, expect the Angels to shop Trumbo. And if Wednesday night was any indication, expect him to have several suitors.

If I could reach you, I would hit you. I cannot bring myself to trust Kevin Gregg with the baseball in his hands. Even if he’s been one of the Cubs’ most consistent relievers this season, he doesn’t inspire confidence when you watch him on the mound. In fact, he inspires the opposite of confidence. It’s an intense, concentrated worry; like the inescapable  feeling your bladder is about to explode, and you’re a great distance from shelter and a fresh pair of pants. And it’s all compounded by the still-vivid memories of his first, disastrous go-round with the Cubs. Gregg received the win for Wednesday’s effort, but the terminology is deceptive. He outlasted the Angels. Or better still: his ineptitude was overcome by theirs. (On a side note, I hit up the Portillo’s in Buena Park on the way home last night, along with what seemed to be most of the Cubs fans who attended the game. Amidst the crowd was a mildly jubilant, less-mildly drunk Cubs fan who was complaining about our shaky bullpen. He wanted me to know he was pleased we survived an inning of Marmol, even though Marmol never took the mound Wednesday. So I guess congratulations are in order for Hector Rondon, who it seems is officially the drunk man’s Carlos Marmol.)

Trip advisor. Since Southern California is a vacation destination, and there’s a good possibility that some readers might be heading out this way in the coming months, I want to give you a brief heads-up on the baseball situation in the greater LA area. Unless you’re a fan of rampant profanity, territorial aggression, drunken brawls, and a general lack of safety, I’d encourage you to skip Dodger Stadium altogether and instead head down to Angel Stadium. Seriously, the Anaheim crowd is friendly, peaceful, and into the game. None of that seems like an achievement until you’ve visited Dodger Stadium. But I strongly suggest you don’t.

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Game 51 – Wrecked ‘Em? Dioner Killed ‘Em!

Wednesday, May 29th, 2013

White Sox 3, Cubs 9

Box Score / Highlights

The Good  Cubs’ backup catcher Dioner Navarro had the kind of day we dream about as children. He hit three homers and walked once, scoring every time he came to the plate Wednesday and driving in six of the Cubs’ nine runs. It was a simply remarkable day at the plate, especially for a guy who came into the game hitting .200 with only three homeruns in fifty-five at-bats.

The Bad  Hard to find anything bad with the game, but potentially bad for the season is Scott Feldman’s ongoing campaign to be this season’s Paul Maholm. Feldman continues to over-perform, holding the White Sox Wednesday to two runs on six hits with seven strikeouts over six innings (my favorite stat–no walks). Is Feldman a long-term building block? Obviously not. But when the Cubs decide to move him and his cheap contract before the trade deadline, he Cubs will be a less interesting, less enjoyable team to watch.

The Ugly  With a seven-run lead in the eighth inning, Carlos Marmol made an appearance in the only situation I can trust him in these days. And while he didn’t completely melt down, he did manage to give up a double, a pass ball, and a run-scoring sacrifice fly. He’s the poster boy for the Cubs’ leaky bullpen, which took another hit Wednesday when the team announced that Kyugji Fujikawa needs Tommy John surgery.

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Bleacher Bums

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

I’m in the early stages of fighting off a cold, and so far I’m losing spectacularly. As a result I won’t have much to say today, but I’m counting on you guys to pick up the slack.

By now you have probably seen the highlight of Travis Wood’s homer this past Sunday. If so, then you probably also saw a woman pour most of a beer over a man’s head after his failed attempt to catch the ball on its way over the left field bleachers.

If not, you can see the video and read the story here.

Normally the inebriated antics of the Bleacher Bums wouldn’t interest me, but I’ve met these two. I don’t know them well, mind you–in fact, I’ve been struggling for the last couple days to remember their names. I do know they are both longtime Cubs fans and season ticket holders. And in the short time I spent with them, this little episode seems totally in-character for this husband and wife team.

I met them last year at the season ticket holder entrance in right field, and we started talking before the gates opened. I wound up sitting with them (same seats as you see in the video, which is apparently where they always sit) while I waited for a friend who never showed up. Instead, I was treated to a barrage of bleacher anecdotes, Cubs chatter, and friendly ribbing with the other season ticket holders and regulars in their section. These are the kind of people who have never met a stranger, and as a new Cubs season ticket holder, I was welcomed with open (metaphorical) arms.

The next day I had another friend in tow, and we arrived at the game just before the first pitch. There weren’t many open seats in the bleachers by then, but my new friends had saved us a couple in case we showed up. And while I usually prefer to sit closer to the field, these two do have a pretty good spot if you’re looking to catch a homer. I wound up misplaying one that second day in the stands. At the time I was a little embarrassed for missing what should have been an easy catch. Now I’m just glad she didn’t dump a beer on me.

Let’s hear about the memorable characters you’ve met at Wrigley. Ronnie Woo-Woo does not count.

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Game 40 – “Let’s Get Some Runs!”

Thursday, May 16th, 2013

Rockies 3, Cubs 6

Box Score / Highlights

If you’re like me, you usually appreciate the optimism of the Harry Caray-instituted post-seventh inning stretch cry, but you readily acknowledge that it’s probably misplaced. This season in particular, I don’t get the sense that these Cubs are prone to late-inning heroics. I spent most of Tuesday afternoon in driving to and from LAX, and didn’t get to hear much of the game. I did manage to stream a few minutes, but when I heard the Cubs were down 7-1 late in the game, I knew there was little reason for hope. Sure, they managed to tack on a couple late runs, but they never really threatened to get back in it.

That same pessimism shows up when they let an opponent hang around too long, like it seemed there were doing Wednesday evening. After a lead-off homer from David DeJesus in the first and a two-run bomb from Jeff Samardzija–a surprising show of power for the Dread Pirate–the Cubs nursed a two run lead through the early innings. And while Samardzija looked strong for most of the evening, I never got the sense they were going to put the Rockies away (they did load the bases with two outs in the fifth inning, but that little rally was over before it began). A pinch hit homer for Reid Brignac (who?) in the sixth did nothing to calm my fears.

Then in the bottom of the seventh, the bats woke up again. With Darwin Barney on third base (after a walk, a steal, and a Samardzija sacrifice) and DeJesus on first (HBP), Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo both singled to right, driving in runs and chipping away at the Rockies’ hopes. After a pitching change, Alfonso Soriano grounded into a run-producing fielder’s choice to widen the lead. And although Colorado managed to push across a late run in the ninth, the game was basically over after the seventh (and yes, I’m temporarily sidestepping my misgivings about Kevin Gregg’s closing abilities).

Did the Cubs respond to the “Let’s Get Some Runs!” cry? Of course not. In fact, my guess is the players regard that particular bit of optimistic groupthink as little more than a repetitive nuisance.

But in a game that depends so much on good timing, it was a pleasure to see the Cubs have it working on their side Wednesday night. And it seems like more and more lately, this team has been a pleasure to watch. Stick around–they might surprise us yet.

Parting Shot: And speaking of good timing, here’s another semi-annual reminder that Soriano has a gun.

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Rivalries and Playoff Runs

Tuesday, May 14th, 2013

Last Thursday night some friends and I sat in a tiny restaurant in Burbank* and happily watched the Chicago Blackhawks advance to the next round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. In the booth next to us sat a cab driver named Elmer who grew up on the south side of Chicago. Over the course of the game, he and I chatted about the Blackhawks’ playoff chances, how much the team has improved this year, and the other Chicago teams we root for (Elmer was a Sox fan, but he didn’t seem to harbor any malice for us Cubs fans). Mostly we discussed who we wanted to face in the next round and why.

*The restaurant is called Taste Chicago, and it’s owned by actor and Chicago native Joe Mantegna. The story goes that he and his wife couldn’t find a place to get good Italian Beef or Chicago-style pizza, so they opened their own. It’s not much more than a hole in the wall, but the restaurant serves as an unofficial gathering place for former Chicagoans. I stopped by in December for the Bears’ last game, and the place was packed to the rafters, with Mantegna in an orange and blue Bears wig leading the singing of “Bear Down, Chicago Bears” after every touchdown. If you’re ever in the area, it’s worth a stop.

Elmer was eager to march through the San Jose Sharks and face off against the Anaheim Ducks on the way to the Cup Finals. He was looking for revenge–the Ducks went 3-0 against the Blackhawks this season. His contention was that Anaheim had lucked out by facing us when we were dealing with injuries, and that they needed to be put in their place during our playoff run. And while I agree that we probably should have been able to handle them in a seven-game series, I honestly wanted no part of the Ducks in the postseason. In my book, the sooner they were out of the playoffs, the better.

Fast forward to this past Sunday night when I gleefully watched the Detroit Red Wings stomp to death the Ducks’ postseason hopes. And while I’m thrilled the Blackhawks won’t have to deal with pesky Anaheim, they’ve exchanged one potential hurdle for another.

The Red Wings are one of the most consistently skilled, smart, and well-constructed teams in the league. They often play with a freakish efficiency, and they rarely seem to struggle to fill spots in their roster with more top-flight talent. And as the Blackhawks’ oldest rival, they hold a 389-313-84 advantage in the all-time record against Chicago. I’m not sure the Blackhawks won’t have a tougher time against them than they might have had against the Ducks.

But I do know that this series will matter in ways a series against Anaheim never could. I know that the history between these two franchises is inescapable, and that regardless of who comes out on top, the victory will be all the sweeter because of who they’ve beaten.

And maybe that’s where this connects back to baseball. Given the historic lack of postseason success on the Northside, maybe we shouldn’t be picky. But if when the Cubs make their next playoff run, would you want it to go through St. Louis? Would playoff glory be that much sweeter against the Cardinals? Is it better to stare down and conquer your greatest foe, or would you rather take on the pesky team that’s bothered you all season?

If he had his druthers, I think Elmer would have chosen both.

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Game 34 – Doing All The Little Things Wrong

Thursday, May 9th, 2013

Box Score / Highlights

The Good  For Cubs fans on the west coast, day games usually start just after 11am. That’s great on days when I can close the door to my office and actually enjoy the game. Wednesday was not one of those days, and it seemed like the Cubs were only able to produce when I was away from my desk. If I were superstitious, I definitely would have spent half the day in the break room. Instead I got sucked into the false hope of a two-run lead, and had a great seat for the ensuing collapse. The Cubs don’t get a lot of clutch hitting, but in the early going, it looked like they might have enough for the win. In the first, Luis Valbuena scored on a Anthony Rizzo double, with an assist from a Carlos Beltran error. In the fourth, Nate Schierholtz doubled in Valbuena and Rizzo, and then scored on a productive Dioner Navarro ground out. This lineup won’t overpower many pitching staffs–if any–but if we can hit with guys on base, we ought to have a shot against most anyone.

The Bad  Another small late-inning lead, another bullpen collapse. Wednesday it was James Russell and Michael Bowden who jogged out to take a dump on the mound. Elsewhere, Kevin Gregg continues to be the lone bright spot in the pen. Prepare yourselves for the coming apocalypse.

The Ugly  The Cubs hitters didn’t help anything in the late innings, going 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position Wednesday. That includes hitting into double plays in the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth innings. Brace yourselves–the Cubs are currently hitting a league low .183 with RISP. Somehow that all hurts worse when it happens against the Cardinals, but that’s tremendously bad no matter who you’re playing.

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Ian Stewart’s Lost Weekend

Tuesday, May 7th, 2013

Ian Stewart went missing over the weekend. By now you’ve probably seen the note in Joe’s recap this morning, but just in case here’s the story so far. Stewart’s abysmal performance (he hit .091) in his rehab stint with the Iowa Cubs cost him his promotion back to the big league team. Consequently the Cubs optioned him to Iowa, meaning he could have–and should have–kept playing with the Iowa Cubs. He didn’t.

Instead he took off, enjoying a 72 hour window afforded to any player who has been optioned. It seems he even talked his decision over with Cubs GM Jed Hoyer before he bolted. From what I can tell, there aren’t any indications of where he went or what he did–he just took off.

To me that seems like a highly unusual decision for a guy who ought to be trying to work his way back to the majors. I’m sure he’s disappointed in his performance and the fact that he’s got a lot to prove if he wants to turn his career around. But what sense does it make to start that potential turnaround with some extended “me-time”?

I never followed Stewart on Twitter (he apparently deleted his account late last week), so I missed out on his ranting and his late-night stupidity. Honestly, I don’t have much of a read on the guy. I wasn’t impressed that he opted out of rehabbing from his wrist surgery with the team last season, but I can be talked into a  number of excuses on that matter.

But abandoning his team is an entirely different story. Not only is it a terrible example for his AAA teammates, it’s also a betrayal of his big league coaches and teammates. And it’s a slap in the face to a Cubs’ front office that has shown a lot of faith in Stewart. This past offseason, the team gave him a new (and largely unwarranted) $2M contract. Apparently this is how he repays their confidence in him and his abilities. And assuming this is his last season with the Cubs, what does this little walkabout demonstrate to any future employer? Nothing good. In fact, for all I know we might be watching him set fire to his own career. Short of an explosive turnaround in his performance, it’s hard to imagine him getting another big league contract. Even a promotion back to the Cubs seems unlikely at this point.

Which is what makes this so surprising to me. As I said, it seemed like the front office and the coaching staff had some reason for hope with Stewart–that he could and would reward their confidence. It seemed like people were legitimately hopeful he’d be able to perform at a high level. Now I’ve got to believe that his weekend off has burned through substantial amounts of that good will. Why would anyone in the Cubs organization still be rooting for to make it back to the bigs. He proved this weekend that he’s a bad investment–one that will likely be gone at the end of the year.

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Game 26 – An Offensive Display

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

Padres 13, Cubs 7

Box Score / Highlights

The Good  I said almost a week ago that if this Cubs team could heat up at the plate, they’d be a fun group to watch. And lo and behold, this last week has been pretty fun. The Cubs’ bats stayed hot Tuesday night, with several hitter contributing to the cause. Luis Valbuena, Starlin Castro, David DeJesus, and Cody Ransom all hit homeruns. Anthony Rizzo couldn’t manage to get one over the wall, but he did hit three doubles on the evening, along with one apiece for Welington Castillo and Darwin Barney. It wasn’t necessarily an offensive explosion, but it was a productive night for a lineup that’s short on fireworks. On most nights we’d be celebrating how they walked away with the win. However…

The Bad  It was the pitchers’ night to light the dumpster fire. Edwin Jackson went from shaky in the 2nd and 3rd innings to downright horrific in the 5th. Kameron Loe and Hector Rondon weren’t much better out of the bullpen, with only Shawn Camp working a clean, albeit meaningless 9th inning. Put it this way–the Blackhawks dropped the puck on the playoffs around the time Jackson threw his first pitch, and the pervasive ineffectiveness of the pitching staff made my viewing choice easy for most of the evening.

The Ugly  Just a short word about unexpected pick off plays. The Cubs recorded two errors tonight–both of them on errant throws to Rizzo in an attempt to pick off a runner on first. Castillo threw one down the first base line in the 3rd and Jackson tried to throw one into the visitors’ dugout the following inning. I think the snap throw to first has become a little like the thundering collision in football, in that guys occasionally betray some basic fundamentals for the sake of a highlight-reel play. So far I’ve been fairly impressed with Castillo’s defense, but he’s got to know the blind throw to first from behind a left-handed hitter has poor hope for success, especially when he’s betting on Rizzo to win the surprise footrace back to the bag. While the circumstances were different, the same basic principle applies to Jackson–it won’t ever work if the one you’re surprising is your firstbaseman.

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Game 20 – One Lousy, Stinking Run

Thursday, April 25th, 2013

Cubs 0, Reds 1

Box Score / Highlights

The Good  Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d type: Jeff Samardzija looked like an ace today. Maybe that’s overstating it a tad, but I’m very impressed with him and the Cubs’ starting staff in general to start this season. ESPN Chicago beat writer Jesse Rogers wrote about just how effective the starters have been through the first twenty games of the season, and how their performance has made the team’s weaknesses all the more infuriating. Wednesday was no different, with the Cubs wasting another quality start from Samardzija. The first batter he faced hit a high bouncing grounder back up the middle and he made a stab at it with his pitching hand. The result was a bashed index finger that looked pretty gnarly for the rest of the game, but didn’t inhibit his performance. He was dealing for most of the afternoon–be sure to check out the pitches he threw to strike out the side in the 3rd–and his only hiccup came on a Todd Frazier homerun in the 6th. If the Cubs had any consistent offensive presence, they could have walked away with this game.

The Bad  But they don’t. Dale said it best: “We’re just having trouble hitting the outfield grass when we get people on base.” Yup, that’s pretty much it. I will say I can handle this kind of loss a little better than another heartbreaking blown save, but it still stings. The Cubs go to 6-14 with the loss, and and all twenty of those games have been decided by four or fewer runs. If the bats ever heat up, this might be a fun team to watch.

The Ugly  The biggest threat the Cubs posed to the Reds today was in the 8th inning. With runners on 2nd and 3rd, pinch hitter Alfonso Soriano struck out swinging (for my money, Soriano’s to excitable a hitter for those types of situations, but whatever) and David DeJesus came up hoping to get the Cubs on the board. With a 2-2 count, DeJesus hit a grounder up the middle that looked sure to drive in a run. Instead, Zack Cozart ranged over to nab it, throw to first in time for the out, and stomp his cleat right through my chest. And with that, another winnable game slipped through our fingers. Oh well, on to Miami.

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