March 11, 2011
Day Three in AZ, Cubs vs. Sox
Trekking out to Camelback Ranch to see the Cubs and Sox square off made for an interesting battle of the presumed alphas in each team's rotation: Ryan Dempster, already lined up for the Opening Day start for the Cubs, versus Mark Buehrle, who's drawn the assignment for the Sox three years running, capped by last year's game and his remarkable between-the-legs flip sure to remain on highlight reels for as long as there are Web Gems being broadcast. These things loom fairly small at the moment—as Cubs skipper Mike Quade commented before the game, "I'm not ready to make any harsh criticism"—but the outcomes couldn't have been more different.
Three weeks away from his Opening Day assignment, Dempster overcame the initial mistake of pegging Alejandro De Aza at the plate, and headed into cruise control by the third inning, striking out six of his last 10 batters faced in a a five-inning assignment that only involved two swings through the lineup. De Aza got as far as second base twice (the second time under his own power, on a double), but that represented the pinnacle of White Sox offensive achievements against him. There isn't a lot to say about the meaning of this: Adam Dunn's an easy enough target, of course, but Tyler Flowers and Brent Lillibridge too? Overpowering that lot just tells you that Dempster's making his progress towards game one with a sort of polished inevitability.
In the meantime, Buehrle's streak is much more a matter of concern. It's hard to wear an ace label and live up to truth in advertising expectations when you've posted a .492 SNWP, and a 4.82 SIERA in 2010 represents an ominous portent for the future, any more than last season's career-worst 11.0 percent strikeout rate. If there's a recrudescence of concern over Ted Lilly's dropping velocity in the Windy City, perhaps it ought to be deeded to Buehrle, since he's actually averaging even lower velocities that the former Cubs lefty.
Unfortunately, running up against a Cubs lineup alternating career lefty mashers and a pair of lefty power threats in Tyler Colvin and Carlos Pena to potentially abuse the reliably bass-ackwards Buehrle, the venerable Sox workhorse got knackered. Jeff Baker belted out a pair of doubles batting from the leadoff slot, Pena crushed his first homer of the spring, runs scored in each of the first three frames, and if not for a Lou Montanez double play tapped to Buehrle to end the third five batters in, he'd have averaged six batters per inning.
After that, the game was reduced to an exercise of pitchers getting their work in. Sean Marshall, Thomas Diamond, and Scott Maine got in a scoreless inning apiece for the Cubs, while the Sox got two innings of cleanup from Jeffrey Marquez—still trying to live up to expectations that the Sox got something more for Nick Swisher besides fond farewells and a brief association with Wilson Betemit before the former Braves went to the Last Tepee, also known as KC. Marquez managed to strike out the side in the fifth, and was followed by Opening Day locks Will Ohman, Jesse Crain, and Matt Thornton notching their own participation chits.
If there was a bittersweet note for the Cubs, it's that Jeff Samardzija couldn't noiselessly join the "being there" crowd. Giving up a one-out infield single fumbled by Blake DeWitt—adding to the full-spring concern that there's no love for his glove—presaged a Stefan Gartrell double to left to plate pinch-runner Jose Martinez, immediately followed by a Lastings Milledge homer to narrow the lead to its final 4-3 score.
For the Sox, that last might be the day's wee bit of sunshine. If Milledge has any shot at sticking around, he can't merely hope that the injury to Dayan Viciedo will help him lock up a spot. The Sox announced today that it looks as if Viciedo will at least resume baseball activities in two weeks, with playing to follow shortly in its wake. (Score yet another remarkable recovery to Herm Schneider's staff, obviously.) But Milledge had a couple of long at-bats on the day before his Domer-cracking blast, including working his way aboard for a walk against Diamond.
Tomorrow, I'll be taking a break from Chicago-team action, and traveling out to see the Indians/Angels contest on Saturday.