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June 28, 2005
Prospectus Game of the Week
Chicago Cubs @ Chicago White Sox, 6/26/05
When the Cubs made it official and announced Mark Prior would make his return from the DL Sunday and pitch for the first time in a month, I immediately thought this could be the Game of the Year of Games of the Week. Sure, the first GotW of the season featured a walk-off home run--on Opening Day--no less. But that game featured more than its share of sloppy play, took about three and a half hours to complete, and didn't quite crackle with the type of playoff-game excitement I'd been hoping to find throughout the season's first three months.
Sunday's game was different. Even right off the DL Prior is a constant threat to completely dominate a game. His opponent, Jon Garland, entered Sunday's game tied with Dontrelle Willis for the best record in baseball at 12-2. You can attribute some of Garland's win barrage to luck, no question--his .253 BABIP, for one, is well below league average, and when more balls in play start to fall in for hits, that'll hurt him. His strikeout rate of less than one every other inning also portends regression, as virtually no pitchers sustain success over the long haul at that level. Still, there's a lot to be said for terrific control, which is just what Garland has shown this year. At just over a walk and a half a game, Garland's been among the stingiest in baseball with the free pass. Even with a good but not great HR rate (11 in 108 IP), that's enough to achieve success. Broadcaster turned World Series-winning manager turned broadcaster Bob Brenly notes that "Garland has been the best pitcher in baseball up to this point," a point contradicted by several Baseball Prospectus metrics--Roy Halladay and a good dozen others can make a better claim. But Garland's still ranked a respectable 15th in the majors in Expected Wins according to BP's brand spankin' new Sortable Stats, 8th if you count only pitchers with 15 starts or fewer.
Throw in a North Side-South Side Chicago rivalry that's heated up thanks to the great play of the Sox and you had all the makings of a great game.
Cubs CF Corey Patterson .245 AVG SS Neifi Perez .279 1B Derrek Lee .391 RF Jeromy Burnitz .279 3B Aramis Ramirez .307 2B Todd Walker .300 DH Michael Barrett .276 LF Todd Hollandsworth .257 C Henry Blanco .156As John Erhardt notes in his New York Sun article today, Derrek Lee could be leading all three Triple Crown categories, were it not for the atrocious OBPs of Corey Patterson (.281) and Neifi Perez (.307). Todd Walker suggested to Dusty Baker that he be elevated to the leadoff spot, where the Cubs could leverage his superior on-base skills (.361 OBP); Baker told Walker he preferred to leave him in the sixth slot to provide lineup protection for Aramis Ramirez. Of course--why give your best hitters the most at-bats? That would be lunacy.
Garland starts the game by mixing pitches to Patterson. Though Brenly, play-by-play man Len Kasper and guest commentator Ryne Sandberg note Garland's two best pitches are his sinker and slider, he's mixing in plenty of four-seam fastballs and change-ups early on. He starts Patterson with two four-seamers, then gets him on a change at the outside edge. Perez then rolls over on a sinker for out number two. Lee then crushes another four-seamer, the ball looking like a homer right off the bat. But a gust of wind brings it back into the park, left fielder Scott Podsednik scooting from the wall back out to the front of the warning track to make the catch.
White Sox LF Scott Podsednik .295 AVG 2B Willie Harris .234 DH Frank Thomas .275 1B Paul Konerko .254 CF Aaron Rowand .280 RF Jermaine Dye .268 C A.J. Pierzynski .257 3B Joe Crede .242 SS Pablo Ozuna .292It's a significantly better lineup with Juan Uribe and the underrated Tadahito Iguchi in it, sure--assuming Uribe bounces back to something approaching 2004 form (.284/.327/.506) rather than '05 (.242/.283/.372). Still, nothing jumps out at you about this lineup, other than the Sox fielding a bunch of decent players who usually won't hurt you. Paul Konerko leads Sox regulars with a solid if unspectacular .295 EqA (Frank Thomas has put up a gaudy .350 figure, but in just 51 plate appearances, as he returns from injury). Add an OBP vacuum at the bottom of the order in Pierzynski, Crede and Uribe and the Sox could struggle to score in the second half.
The way Prior starts the game, even the '27 Yankees wouldn't have a shot. Throwing mostly fastballs, Prior induces a lineout to left for Scott Podsednik, a weak groundout to first by Willie Harris--making it 0 extra-base hits in 65 at-bats this season for Harris--and a groudout to short by Thomas. Early on, Prior throwing with his usual low-to-mid-90s velocity, hitting the corners and showing near-perfect mechanics every time. This game could very well be over in two hours.
Garland's intelligence as a pitcher starts to show through in the second. Knowing Jeromy Burnitz swings from his heels every time, Garland sets him up with two fastballs to get to 0-2, then throws a sinking change-up, eliciting a huge whiff from the Cubs' cleanup hitter. Garland then works backwards to Ramirez, starting him with off-speed stuff, then throwing a high-80s fastball right by him for a second straight K. Garland tops at 92 and more often hits 89-90 with his fastball. But when he's mixing pitches the way he is on this day, he's going to make some hitters look awful. A quick flyout by Walker sends the Sox up in the bottom of the 2nd, still no score.
Prior starts the 2nd with a rare mistake, grooving a fastball to Konerko, the Sox hitter most likely to take advantage. The wind appears for the second straight time, stopping what looked like at least a double and knocking it down into Burnitz's glove in right. Aaron Rowand, who's also on the Juan Uribe career path (out-of-nowhere 905 OPS last year, 734 in '05), goes deeper into the count than his Sox mates, to 2-2. That only makes Prior mad--a fastball explodes past Rowand for strike three. Prior looks like he's in mid-season form, not just back from a one-month injury layoff. Jermaine Dye pops out to end the 2nd.
Top of the 3rd: Michael Barrett flies out to right as Garland breaks his bat on a fastball, a testament to his newfound ability to work the inside of the plate with success. An outside-edge change induces a weak groundout to the mound by Todd Hollandsworth; Henry Blanco then pops out. We learn that the Cubs went into Mark Prior's May 27 injury game ranked 13th in runs scored--they're now 6th, with Lee and company holding the fort while Prior, Kerry Wood and the rest of the pitching staff worked through injuries and turnover. All well and good, but they'll need a base runner at some point in this game, let alone a run, to keep it going.
The Sox finally get their first base runner in the bottom of the 3rd, as Pablo Ozuna lines a clean single to left with two outs. Prior wheels to throw to first on a pickoff try, but gets his spike caught in the dirt. Home plate umpire Angel Hernandez calls a balk. Replays show Prior clearly stepped off the rubber before throwing over. Brenly, who's impressing in his return to the booth, calls Hernandez out with some pointed, and well-placed criticism. "It was awkward, but there nothing there that would justify a balk call. I'm telling you, the umpires don't even know what a balk is. If it looks funny, they call a balk. That was a bad call by Angel Hernandez." So no Christmas Card exchange between the Brenlys and Hernandezes this year? Podsednik ends the threat by tapping out to second.
The Cubs get their first runner in the top of the 4th on an infield hit by Perez--it almost figures that Ozuna and Perez, not Lee, Konerko or any of the teams' other big hitters would break the schneid on each side in a game like this. But with one out, Garland throws a mean sinker to Lee, leading to an easy 5-4-3 inning-ending double play. This game has taken about 38 seconds through the first three-and-a-half frames.
Set Your TiVos and VCRs: The next Prospectus Game of the Week will mark GotW;s first trip to Safeco Field since its recent move to the new Seattle headquarters. The Mariners will host the slugging Texas Rangers, fresh off their eight-homer barrage against the Angels. That's Channel 746 on DirecTV, 7:05 p.m. start time. Chan Ho Park will battle Aaron Sele as both pitchers try to pretend it's 2001 again.