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May 1, 2009

Game Story

Marlins vs. Cubs

by Christina Kahrl

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One of the well-worn tropes of baseball is that, at any game, you'll see something that you've never seen before. In going to the ballpark, there's so much you can look for and see in any one ballgame-a pitcher's mechanics, a hitter's swing, a manager's player usage patterns. Heading to Wrigley Field for last night's game, however, I went with one mission in mind, something I want to explore as I spend this spring and summer going to ballparks across the country: did I see something new?

The Cubs were limping back into town after a disheartening 2-4 road trip through St. Louis and Phoenix, while the Marlins have been inching back to the pack after racing out to a hot start, diving into a seven-game losing streak after winning seven straight, but winging to Wrigley after winning their last two against the Mets. With two injury-depleted offenses-no HanRam, no A-Ram, and no Geovany Soto in tonight's starting lineups-and with an April night game, the chances for a low-scoring affair seemed pretty good. However, with Milton Bradley back in action for Chicago, I arrived at the park musing that there's always going to be the chance that you'll see something incredible-some feat of skill and strength from the switch-hitter, perhaps also some bit of unhappiness afield, or perhaps another embroglio inspired by his striving bleeding over into strife. Maybe in Milton the Cubs have somebody who might appeal to the NASCAR demographic, where people show up to watch for all the wrong reasons?

From the outset, the matchup between the Cubs' Sean Marshall and the Marlins' Chris Volstad seemed to have potential for something remarkable. From the start, both were very much in command, and not simply because they were facing the Alfredo Amezagas or Aaron Miles or Koyie Hills of the world. Jorge Cantu might have arrived swinging a hot bat, but Marshall seemed to have a definite idea of how he might put an end to that, busting the Fish first baseman inside again and again, and striking him out in the first with something low and outside. (If any Cubs fans in attendance were missing Mike Royko's jeering at Shawon Dunston from 20 years ago, they might have gotten a contact high from this at-bat.) What trouble there was for Marshall in the opening frame was created by Ryan Theriot's calling for a high popup by Cameron Maybin out to a middle distance in left field, but he didn't get to park under it; back-pedaling, the ball popped into and out of Theriot's glove. Which wasn't novel, but since Marshall managed to pitch around that mishap and a Jeremy Hermida walk to strike out the side, it certainly said something as to the young lefty's ability to keep his head on in a tight spot.

Volstad was equally electric, scything through three perfect frames while allowing just one ball out of the infield, exactly what you might expect from the sinkerballer when he's on, and add in that he's a fast worker, the game got a third of the way over in very little time. Theriot's one-out single in the fourth nipped any suggestion of perfection, but not even the little shortstop's prompt steal of second on Volstad's next pitch would lead to first blood. That changed in the fifth-missing on a couple of pitches to Bradley, he put a cookie on a plate, and Bradley smoked it to the left-field bleachers; score one for Jim Hendry's redesigned, balanced lineup. I pondered whether Ronny Paulino ought not to have slowed things down a bit after Bradley's bomb; he's been a Marlin for little more than a month, after all, and this was literally the first time he'd caught a Volstad start, but that notion was barely noted on my scratch pad when Mike Fontenot put the next pitch almost into the same section. Just like that, we had a crooked number on the board, and the way Marshall was cruising, maybe even enough to win with.

Well, almost. With anticipation of maybe seeing my first Marshall shutout a-building, the game cruised into the seventh. Fredi Gonzalez's club was showing some interesting aggressiveness on the basepaths and trying to make something happen, which given how Marshall was doing wasn't inadvisable. Whether with Cameron Maybin's attempt to steal with two outs and nobody else aboard in the third, or Alfredo Amezaga's fifth-inning attempt to stretch a one-out single to left with the pitcher due up-something you might understand, except that Alfonso Soriano got to break out his gun and shoot him down at second-such are the payoffs of trying to make something happen. However, Cantu showed how hot hitters can stay that way by adjusting nicely to lead off the seventh, getting the bat around whip-quick to pull another inside offering hard and into the left-field corner's cheap seats. Volstad might have been pinch-hit for there-Wes Helms was on-deck with two outs and a man on first-but Amezaga flew out, and the starter was sent back out to the mound to sling another ten pitches. He did get to avenge himself on Bradley somewhat, getting a called third strike; considering how incautious umps will comment off the record about how much they love ringing up one particular player or another, and given Milton's past run-ins with the men in black, I can't help but wonder if this isn't the sort of thing that's going to happen a little more often than it should.

The Marlins tied the game up in the eighth. Lou Piniella left Marshall on the mound to open the frame with Volstad due up, but his night was done; drawing the right-handed Brett Carroll from the bench, Piniella went to Carlos Marmol, and Gonzalez responded with Ross Gload, hauling back Carroll, used up without being used. What seemed like a nice tactical trick of getting Gonzalez to burn a position player-no small thing with today's short benches and with Hanley Ramirez inactive-proved unimportant, because Marmol didn't have it, walking Gload and then Emilio Bonifacio. With nobody out and down a run, Gonzalez called for Maybin to bunt, which he did, towards third. Marmol picked up the ball and slung it towards first, but the throw pulled Derrek Lee into the baseline, and both Maybin and the pill arrived in the same place at the same time, producing a collision, a free ball, and Gload motoring home to tie things up. (In the top of the ninth, Lee had to deal with another collision, this time as Paulino ran right into him as he parked under Paulino's popup; the ump ruled Paulino out, of course, and I had to think that was the first time I'd seen a runner do that. As is, baseball-as-contact sport seemed to be on Lee's slate tonight.) Marmol would duck further trouble by overpowering Hermida and inducing a deuce from Cantu, but just like that, two great starts were off the books, a no-decision duel.

Faced with a game to re-win, Piniella threw a couple of gambits at the problem. With two outs and nobody on in the eighth, he pinch-hit with Carlos Zambrano, nice work if you can get it, but Big Z's base hit was good for applause, not runs. In the bottom of the frame, Theriot singled to lead off the frame, but Kiko Calero got Fukudome to cork-screw himself into the ground on a whiff. With Lee up and the danger of a double play all too real given Lee's tendencies to ground into them, Piniella ordered up a stolen-base attempt on the first pitch, which Fontenot swiped, but Calero just chopped down Lee at the plate, bringing up Bradley. It was Gonzalez's turn to play matchups, putting Bradley on first intentionally and bringing in Renyel Pinto to force Piniella into a corner: it certainly made sense to pinch-hit for Fontenot against the southpaw in an attempt to win the game, especially in light of Reed Johnson's ability to hit lefties, but doing so involves scragging the middle of the order and leaving the Aramis Ramirez-less Cubs to figure out who to put at third. Piniella gunned for the win, Johnson hit a tapper that a diving Amezaga stopped and shoveled to Uggla at second to force Bradley, and we were into extras. Forced to adapt, Piniella moved Hill out from catching and put Geovany Soto behind the plate, anticipating that his slumping slugger would at least get to bat third in the 10th, with the pitcher's slot landing in the six-hole, where Fontenot/Johnson had been.

It was at this point that the game went to pieces for the Cubs. Aaron Heilman came in and had the misfortune of starting off in a bad spot-Amezaga hit a shallow fly to center that Fukudome tried to dive for rather than let drop for a base hit, which didn't work, putting the Marlins utilityman in scoring position to lead off the inning. Pinch-hitter Wes Helms had a nice at-bat, forcing a walk as Heilman tried to be careful, making matters worse. Piniella pulled in the infield corners as Gonzalez ordered up another no-outs bunt with two aboard, this time from Bonifacio. The speedster pushed the ball to the left of first base.

Fielding the ball, Lee showed the aggressiveness that's won him three Gold Gloves by throwing to second, trying to keep the double play in order; it wasn't a perfect throw, and Fontenot wasn't in perfect position for it, the ball ricocheting off into the outfield grass as Amezaga scored and Helms motored to third. (Lee having made his fielder's choice, the scorer assigned the error to Fontenot.) Maybin singled to plate Helms, and you could really feel for Heilman and how his night had gone sour by an inch or two of trajectory on a couple of plays. Down two runs, he nearly managed to do some good, looking like he might overpower Hermida after falling behind 3-1, but the patient former prospect worked his way aboard for an eight-pitch, bases-loading walk. Cantu had the privilege of the coup de grace, a bases-clearing double smote out toward the left-field power alley that died at the foot of the wall, taking any hopes the Cubs might have had with it. It's nights like this that can ruin any chance that a newly acquired reliever might win friends and influence people in the early going; six runs scored-Dan Uggla greeted Angel Guzman with a double to add insult to indignity for Heilman's final line-without recording an out might only lose this one ballgame, but it wrecks Heilman's overall numbers no matter what he might do for months.

Which brings me back to my mission: What did I see for the first time last night? Certainly, Cantu's strikeout in the first and homer in the seventh provided a nice example of the extent to which players are adaptive, not fixed quantities. There was excitement to be taken in the amount of action in the infield, especially for Derrek Lee. The back-to-back bombs by Bradley and Fontenot, to the same vicinity? Yeah, I've seen that, and so have most of you. No, what was truly remarkable, at least to this old stathead, is that the Fish tied the game in the eighth and broke it wide open in the tenth on bunt plays in identical situations: two on, first and second, and nobody out. Both times, bunts get put in play, and both times, the Marlins score. I definitely haven't seen that before, but it did provide a fun reminder that, when it comes to winning individual ballgames, there really are multiple ways to skin that proverbial cat. The Cubs just have to hope that their problems-offensive, in the pen, and fielding bunts-aren't the kind that leave them scalped all season.

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

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