May 26, 2009
Pirates versus Cubs, May 25
Thanks to the vague benefits of interleague play, the Cubs came back to Chicago having endured a brief, ugly road trip to St. Louis and San Diego before jetting back to the Windy City to face a Pirates team that had been knocking around town over the weekend. In the course of losing two of three games on the South Side, the Bucs' offense had been shut out by Gavin Floyd and Clayton Richard, scratched out a run against Mark Buehrle, and barely slipped in a win to avoid the sweep with a ninth-inning rally off of Bobby Jenks on Sunday.
The Cubs had endured the even more humiliating indignity of six straight losses during their journey, in no small part because the offense managed five runs in total, a slump so complete it earned Kosuke Fukudome a mini-benching. When Ryan Freel is labeled a godsend, you know things aren't merely ugly, they're so coyote ugly that, where the offense is concerned, you're boxing helena. Things have become so desperate that consideration's been given to whether putting Alfonso Soriano back at second base might help punch things up on an otherwise punch-drunk ballclub. As such fancies go, I would suggest a trip to all of the brave talk about putting Soriano in center back when he signed. Thinking back on that, I suppose November's a time for dreaming, what with Christmas still in the future; in contrast, late May is when you're supposed to be settling in with what you have, not pretending that your left fielder's a transformer because you don't like what you've got now that he's long since out of the wrapper.
So, last night's contest involved two lineups that might be a bit due, with both teams fronting quality starters as the Cubs ran Ryan Dempster out there against the Pirates' Paul Maholm. Where you may have anticipated that the Cubs can chew up and spit out defense-dependent lefties after going a NL-best 31-16 against them last year, this is a lineup short Aramis Ramirez in the first place-add in Derrek Lee being sent home with the flu, and Lou Piniella was working with a short bench on top of a lineup that might make fans think the Who sang, "I can see four Miles and Miles and Miles and Miles...", what with Reed Johnson batting cleanup and Freel and Aaron Miles batting seventh and eighth.
Both run-hungry offenses struck early and, as it turned out, often. After a first-inning double to center, Freddy Sanchez was plated by Adam LaRoche; the Cubs answered with a Soriano walk and a run-scoring "double" by Ryan Theriot that was hit almost directly at Andy LaRoche, but the Pirates third baseman didn't react quickly enough to back-hand the ball cleanly, and it instead bounded its way down the line. It occurred to me that it seemed as if Nyjer Morgan had to come a long way get the ball, and since he's far from Soriano-accurate or Rickey Henderson-quick getting rid of the ball, Theriot's lope to the keystone seemed almost easy for what was, after all, something hit at an infielder.
The second passed uneventfully, and Morgan led off the third inning with a walk, then motored into third base when Sanchez looped a single into center. Dempster then hit Nate McLouth, at which point last season's Cubs ace seemed to lose all sense of where to put a fastball that either wasn't painting the corners or wasn't getting much benefit of the doubt from the boys in blue; with the bases loaded, he walked Adam LaRoche to plate Morgan, walked Brandon Moss to plate Sanchez, and only escaped an even larger crooked number by getting Adam LaRoche to tap back to the mound for a neatly executed 1-2-3 double play, Dempster to Soto to Hoffpauir.
Not to be outdone by Morgan, Soriano led off the Cubs' half of the third with his second inning-opening free pass, and Theriot looped a double to left that confirmed what I was already wondering-whether Morgan was well towards the power alley to cover for McLouth's limited range in center or as a matter of positioning to defend against Theriot-and he had to motor over to get the ball and keep Soriano at third. Milton Bradley then made it somewhat clear this wasn't Theriot-specific, hitting the ball into the left-field corner, with Morgan once again sprinting over from the left-center power alley, and between his initial position and weak arm, it was no surprise that both runs scored and Bradley was at second base, having tied things back up again. Cleanup hitter Reed Johnson (think it, say it, it just doesn't feel right, does it?) skied a fly to right that Bradley advanced on, which made the question of whether or not Bradley could have scored on Geovany Soto's single up the middle academic; the Cubs were now up by a run. Micah Hoffpauir got in on the "Productive Outs" action by grounding to Maholm with Soto in motion, advancing the hefty backstop on a 1-3 grounder, but Freel lined a shot right at Adam LaRoche.*
The lovely thing about mutual blowouts is that it winds up being a kind of volley-and-serve exercise, where both teams go hammer and tongs on the luckless called upon to pitch. With WGN's crew complaining about Dempster's being squeezed, Jason Jaramillo leads the fourth off with a double that a non-Johnson in center might have reached, then advances to third when Dempster whips the ball into center trying to hold the tying run close to the bag. The record suggests that Jack Wilson tied the game when he plated the catcher with an RBI single, but it was a popup into the outfield grass that Miles couldn't snag cleanly going backwards and to his left. Maholm alternates between trying to bunt and swinging away before finally moving Wilson over with a sac bunt, but Sanchez renders tactics irrelevant by jacking a two-run homer into the power-alley bleacher seats in left that in three at-bats leaves him a triple shy of the cycle with five frames to play. Dempster's clearly done after Miles gets aboard on a leadoff strikeout and wild pitch with his slot due in the bottom half of the fourth, but Bobby Scales promptly flies to right, and Sanchez makes an outstanding play on a Soriano grounder that almost sucks him into a collision with Miles in the basepath, instead stabbing at the ball as he pulls up and settles for a "productive out." Theriot rises to the occasion by smacking his third double of the evening, aesthetically his best yet, a clean shot to the bottom of the wall in the corner that has Miles scoring easily to bring the Cubs within a run, then up a run when Bradley pulps an off-speed offering at 1-0 that reduces Maholm to the same sort of ignominy as Dempster; the score's now 7-6 Cubs, and we're not even half-way done.
Piniella hadn't had to use his pen much in San Diego, so he goes to Jose Ascanio, idle since last Thursday; three singles but no runs later, Piniella is understandably afeared of what might be next, but with a short bench, he lets the middleman contribute a two-out popup in the bottom of the fifth with Hoffpauir on second after a leadoff walk and a Freel sac bunt didn't produce a run with Miles at the plate. This decision looks worse in the sixth when, having hooked Ascanio all the same, Neal Cotts gets brought in to protect the lead. This seems strange, given that Cotts pitched on Thursday, Friday, and Sunday, but he's the pen's token lefty, and if he isn't Terry Mulholland or Paul Assenmacher for rubberiness as a southpaw, I guess maybe he's supposed to be if you force him. Unfortunately, pitching frequently ought to require also pitching well, and Cotts doesn't have it-Sanchez hits a one-out single, McLouth crushes a homer to right to retake the lead for Pittsburgh, and Adam LaRoche hits a double that hit Milton Bradley in the glove as the running right fielder fell down, then scores when brother Andy scalds a shot to center to make it 9-7 Pirates.
Where the Cubs had to deal with the terrors of indifferent relief work and the perils of playing short-handed, the Pirates got two silent frames from Tom Gorzelanny exactly when they needed them. When Aaron Heilman surrenders the Pirates' tenth run of the evening in the seventh on a two-out Morgan triple (a shot to center that Reed Johnson, playing for an opposite-field single from the spray hitter, had no chance of getting to) and then Sanchez' fifth base hit of the evening, Pirates skipper John Russell gets to operate with the benefit of a comparatively full pen when Gorzo walks Johnson to lead off the seventh. He goes to Evan Meek, who walks Soto, gets Hoffpauir to tap into a 4-6-3 rally vampire, then allows a Freel single that scores Johnson. Miles then singles as well, so down two with the pitcher's slot due up, Piniella fires one of the only right-handed bench bullets left to him-Carlos Zambrano. Why he does this against Meek, a right-hander, with lefty-swinging Mike Fontenot and Kosuke Fukudome on the bench, defies easy explanation, but it's enough to make Russell go to his pen to get Jesse Chavez-how often do you get to see a pinch-hitting pitcher force a pitching change? Such fun goes for nothing, as Chavez strikes out Zambrano.
Little did we know that the scoring was done for the evening. There was something appropriate about seeing a Patton on Memorial Day, but happily the Rule 5 pick spared us any George C. Scott-style bombast and pitched a relatively quick and quiet two innings, although he contributed his bit to history by allowing Sanchez's sixth hit-definitely a noteworthy first for him as a player, and for those in attendance. (It proved to be the Pirates' first six-hit game since Wally Backman did it over 19 years ago.) John Grabow took all of six pitches in the eighth to hand off the lead in the ninth, but Matt Capps' shot at a save was upset by a nasty Soto single off of his right (throwing) elbow that ricocheted almost to the Cubs' home dugout on the third-base line; in the breach, Sean Burnett-Russell's sixth reliever of the evening-was brought in. Burnett gets a ball called for going to his mouth, which put Freel on first base with a walk, bumped Soto to second, and put the tying run at the plate. The call is something I can't remember seeing before in person, but Sanchez already has the honor of doing the thing I'd never seen before. Tying run or not, Miles is at the plate with two outs and a lefty on the mound, so Fukudome and Fontenot stay on the bench, and the game ends on a 4-6 force that closes out any chance of extras or extra firsts.
Daylight will tell us what damage is done to Capps, what the Pirates might do with late-game leads in his absence, and what the Cubs will resort to now that the losing streak is at seven games, but for this night, it's a 10-8 Pirates win. [Ed. note: Make that eight games.]
*: For easier reference, should we start referring to the LaRoches as LaRoche the Greater and LaRoche the Lesser? Pirates fans would probably rather we didn't, what with both Ajaxes coming to bad, messy ends that belie the employment of the self-squandering Telamonian in the cause of a cleanser stronger than dirt.