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April 8, 2009

Game Story

Royals versus Sox

by Christina Kahrl

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The Cell, CHICAGO-So, it was an Opening Day in the Cell, and that's a big deal in itself for the obvious reason that it's baseball in the ballpark that houses the only World Series winner here since the Wilson Administration. Another summer for the rituals of ballgames on the South Side, with its attendants and their less earnest brand of fandom and an understandable disdain for those of Wrigleyville. Instead of a made-up timelessness there has been adaptability that comes with the rhythms of fandom in Bridgeport and the games and the teams, whether in Comiskeys old or new, by names old or new, rituals that reflect the rituals of the city itself-torn down, built up, remodeled, beloved, despised, improved.

All well and good for those of us who might wax poetic on the relative merits of Andy the Clown over Ronnie Woo Woo, but having to double up on Opening Day after a visit in the WGN studios took the edge off just that wee bit, because it meant booking down to the ballpark using the generally uncooperative Kennedy and Ryan Expressways, and if being late on the first day was unavoidable, that didn't mean there was cause to like it. While the bunting would still be there, the first pitches were long since flung, pre-game speechifying spoken, the anthem intoned, fireworks fired off, and worst of all, the first frame and a half was already in the books, and the bottom of the second already wrapping up with the score knotted at one run apiece. Later, I'd learn that I'd missed an Alex Gordon home run off of Mark Buehrle to lead off the second after the Royals had squandered a shot at a crooked number in the first, while the Sox had their own bid at a multi-run inning cut short after a Josh Fields two-out RBI base hit plated Jim Thome, but Jermaine Dye's attempt to rumble home on the hit was DOA on a David DeJesus strike to the plate from left. Rats.

As I was settling into a spot in the crowded press box, the Royals led off the third by providing an initial reminder of something that might be particularly interesting about this particular Opening Day-how would the new guys at new positions do? Setting aside the Royals' fielders for the moment, DeJesus hit a tapper up the middle to a well-positioned Alexei Ramirez at short, moving to just behind the bag to convert an easy-looking 6-3. A good thing to, since Buerhle had already been in trouble-we were informed he was already at 50 pitches midway through the frame-and the Sox ace provided ample reminder of his struggles, pelting Mark Teahen and then walking Jose Guillen before dodging this particular self-made problem by getting Mike Jacobs to pop out and inducing Billy Butler into a quickly fisted pop to Ramirez.

The better-known in-process conversion was on the spot in the bottom of the inning. Mark Teahen at second base might be the more widely questioned shift, given that his work as a regular in three of the four corners wasn't generally confused with Schmidt or Clemente or Henderson, so nobody's expecting Mazeroski. Even so, what came next wasn't pretty; with one out, Chris Getz "doubled" through the infield: a simple chop you might expect most second basemen to snag going to their left instead went past a falling Teahen into shallow right. Now, to be fair, Jacobs similarly timbered himself on the same ball, but it wasn't a hard-hit liner, and the fear is that referring to the lumber company on the right side of the Royals infield might not have anything to do with bats, but instead their grace afield.

That double was the lone extra-base hit the Sox would get off of Meche, because he cruised into the seventh, working fast and never suffering more than a single baserunner in any inning from the third through seventh frames. That wasn't to say things didn't get interesting as far as Royals defense in support of him. Gordon's glove work was on display in the sixth, for better or for worse, as he ran down a tough pop fly by the tarp for the first out, and then started a pair of 5-3 groundouts with throws that each time ran up the line; Jacobs made a nice scoop on the first of them to get the second out, but the inning-ending Dye grounder to third nearly got Jacobs clobbered, as another off-target toss pulled Jacobs off the bag and up the line towards Dye, but Jacobs adroitly managed a tag. Again, this is a source for concern, because Jacobs has a hard-earned rep for poor play at first, and as John Dewan's Volume II of The Fielding Bible politely puts it, Gordon "has a very strong arm but needs to work on his accuracy." That work still may need some doing, apparently. DeJesus' arm, however much a problem it might have been during his days in center, was tested again in the seventh when A.J. Pierzynski elected to stretch a single into an easy out at second.*

In contrast to Meche's glide through the game, Buehrle's start was ugly. He helped himself with a near kick-save in the fourth, and squeaked out of the fifth with only a lead-losing run allowed after loading the bases. For whatever reason, he was missing up early in innings and putting runners aboard, but from the stretch seemed to do a better job of keeping the ball in the infield. Josh Fields made a play in that fifth that perhaps reflected some of his old quarterbacking talents from college, as he made a nice stop going to his right on Billy Butler's bases-loaded tapper to fire a quick throw home to get the lead runner and preserve the tie. Even with that kind of help, though, Ozzie Guillen had seen enough, turning over to Clay Richard for two effective innings that add a little more to Richard's usefulness in a middle-relief role, perhaps especially as a change of pace from Bartolo Colon and Jose Contreras, who should both be on short leashes in the early going, and perhaps forever.

Which brought the quick-moving game to the eighth inning, when Trey Hillman decided to take Meche out after 91 pitches-on a cold-ish day-and turn to Kyle Farnsworth with a close lead and the Mexecutioner ready to log his first save. Fields made another fun, heady little decision, bunting his way aboard to lead off the inning after it appeared that Farnsworth was zeroing in on a punchout. With a sombrero already earned, Wise tried and failed to move Fields over, settling for a weak fly to center; so much for Ozzieball. Getz singled to right, bringing up Carlos Quentin, who, even more than Fields, looked overmatched by Farnsworth's pure gas, flailing into the second out, and bringing up Jim Thome. Who waited for his pitch, got it, and as he's enjoyed doing often in the Cell, powered a pitch to the left of center field, well into the cheap seats, for the game-winning bit of Weaverball, three-run homer included.

Now, while every Chicagoan only far too familiar with Farnsworth's combustibility might have anticipated and exulted over the result, it's obviously easy to bang on Trey Hillman for leaving Farnsworth out there, especially when Ron Mahay had been warmed up during the seventh. If Mahay's express purpose in life isn't to try and make Jim Thome go away, you may well forgive the southpaw something of an existential crisis. But that said, it's the first game, and seeing if Farnsworth can get the guy might have some value to you during the season to come, especially with plenty of intra-divisional play to look forward to. Having faced Thome all of four times before-striking him out twice, and allowing a double and a walk-it isn't as if there was a considerable body of evidence that says Farnsworth plus Thome equals instant bad news.

After striking out Quentin-and flat-out overpowering the Sox slugger in the process-you might understand Hillman's intent to give the situation over entirely to the guy the team spent $9.25 million on to do just that. You can also reasonably disagree with that intent-while skirting the frothy frenzied insta-reaction and low boiling point of sports radio-because if not for Wise's problems with bunting, gassing Quentin was arguably Farnsworth's solitary highlight. Maybe pulling Farnsworth after the strikeout would have given the pitcher something to hang his hat on for his day at the office; maybe it would have left him second-guessing his use to his new team already. Maybe it matters to have Mahay thinking he's not just a situational lefty. Maybe it matters to have Farnsworth understand from direct (recent) experience that he's coming out in that situation. Maybe Joakim Soria would have been the best guy to bring in, and maybe Hillman didn't want to go that route-one that the skipper employed just three times last year-this early in the season. Maybe a win would have eased or erased all of this fidgeting over roles and usage patterns.

Since the Royals are a team willing to go with "just" six relievers and "only" one lefty, and since Hillman was very explicit after the game in saying that Mahay's role is not simply that of a situational lefty, I'm left with the thought that getting too worked up over a single game's outcome loses sight of a manager's responsibility to run players, not assets. Indeed, if Hillman is guilty of running a bullpen like someone responsible for 162 games and not treating every matchup as if it's the World Series, that sounds an awful lot like putting into practice something that many of us here have been asking for when it comes to bullpen management. It didn't work, and it probably isn't going to work, but if Hillman loses this kind of ballgame time after time with Farnsworth over and over again, it's on him to not live by the Scottish proverb that, "he who can't be ruled by the rudder must be ruled by the rocks," and it's on Dayton Moore to give real thought to what he was thinking when he made the mistake of doing as he had done in previous winters by bidding big early-on Kyle Farnsworth.

Things Newly Seen: Well, they say that you see something new at the ballpark every time out, and while Octavio Dotel's striking out the side and having to record a fourth out (sort of) because his third-strike wild pitch put Miguel Olivo aboard was rare, it wasn't the first time I've seen that in person, and it was just the risk that was in play on a day when Dotel's fastball seemed to have particularly nasty late break. The Teahen/Getz-generated "double" was certainly a treat, but I can't honestly remember if I've seen something like that or not. So, in keeping with the nature of the festivities of this being something of a secular festival right in the middle of Easter season in Chicago, that most Catholic of Catholic cities, I'll note that this was the first time I've seen Da Mayor and Father Michael Pfleger at the ballpark, together no less, parked in the front row amid a crowd of assorted panjandrums. Whatever your feelings about Hizzoner, Pfleger's brief and unhappy dance in the national spotlight for making light of one presidential candidate's flagging fortunes really shouldn't obscure decades of good works doing urban ministry at St. Sabina's. With or without a Daley one seat over, seeing this man in particular was a nice reminder that this had to be a game on Chicago's South Side.

*: This is one of the charms of Pierzynski's brand of play; a lot of catchers try to stick with station-to-station running, but in certain situations Pierzynski likes to push and gets burned more than you might like. Even with DeJesus moving away from second to field the ball, this was a one-out risk worth avoiding, but if DeJesus has to make his bones as the Mini-Me edition of Alfonso Soriano early on this year, we might be treated to many more such challenges until he does.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who,  Work,  Kyle Farnsworth,  The Process,  Trey Hillman

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