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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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Lingering Injuries and Speedy Recoveries

Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013

I’m coming off two weeks of crippling back problems, so I’ve got pain and recovery on my mind. But I’m a lifelong Cubs fan, so pain of one kind or another is never far from my thoughts.

What I am wondering these days is if our thinking on sports injuries is totally skewed; if we’ve adopted the shorthand of labeling guys as “injury-prone” or “quick healers” and lost sight of just what these modern gladiators go through for the sake of our entertainment.

You can’t follow Chicago sports without hearing about the ongoing story/controversy surrounding Bulls’ star Derrick Rose. Rose suffered a grisly injury, tearing his left ACL in the first game of last season’ playoffs. He has been medically cleared to return to the court for a while now, but does not yet have enough confidence in his repaired knee to test it in a game.

And while Bulls fans and others across the NBA continue to grumble and complain about Rose’s supposed cowardice, many athletes across the sports world have encouraged him to ignore his critics and stick to his own timetable. The common reasoning is that these guys know their bodies better than any doctor, and they shouldn’t rush back from an injury and put themselves at further risk.

Having had my right ACL replaced, I can’t argue with that. It’s a weird injury to suffer–it feels like everything in your knee has unraveled, sort of like busting a lace on your shoes. And from the moment it happens, it’s hard to remember what your knee felt like when it was still healthy. That goes on throughout the recovery process, first as you keep it agonizingly immobile for a few weeks, and then as you slowly start to relearn how to bend your knee and trust it to hold your weight. As your leg hangs virtually useless from you body for weeks on end, you start to lose faith in it. You get comfortable not trusting it, not depending on it, and not even really needing it. It’s like a rebellious faction of your body you’re trying to bring back under your control.

No doubt the Bulls have had the best doctors in the world working with Rose, employing the most aggressive physical therapy to get him back into shape. But his line of work requires him to have complete confidence in his physical abilities–to trust them to work in instantaneous harmony, and not betray him with weakness or inconsistency. That’s not something a doctor can sign off on. It takes time to learn to trust your new knee, because no matter how superb the surgery was, it will never again feel like it once did. It takes patience, and that’s not something athletes or we fans are particularly good at.

Part of that is due to the occasional speedy recovery or guys who just seem to just “heal fast.” For every dozen Derrick Roses there’s a Ray Lewis, who only needed a matter of weeks to return from a torn triceps muscle. Whatever it was that aided Lewis’ superhuman recovery–whether it was the rumored Deer Antler Spray or some other sketchy substance–he made it back to the field in record time for one last victory lap and another Super Bowl ring.

So what’s the eager fan to do? Do we root for our guys to claw their way back onto the field, employing any and every means necessary to patch their bodies? Do we submit to the Jose Canseco “Steroids Are Good For You” school of thought, and ignore the dangers athletes might face in the process? Or do we pump the brakes on our fanaticism, understanding that a lost season isn’t the biggest tragedy in life or even in sports, and root for guys like Rose to return to the court only when they’re 100% ready to be back?

If this whole thing has any link back to Cubs baseball, maybe it’s this: like most of you, I’ve made my share of jokes about towel drills and soft pitchers. In the past there probably wasn’t much certain ex-Cubs could do to convince me they didn’t baby their injuries, quitting on the team and their own careers. But realistically, I don’t know what their bodies are telling them, and how or why they knew something was wrong.

Nor do I know why something as simple as a joint slightly out of alignment can keep me hunched over, render my legs numb and useless, send body-shaking spasms throughout my back, and virtually incapacitate me for days on end; or why a week and several treatments later I feel almost completely back to normal. The inescapable reminder in all of this is that our bodies are delicate, wondrous creations, and that we shouldn’t take so lightly the sacrifices of athletes who put theirs on the line for our enjoyment.

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