July 5, 2009
Activated UT-R Ryan Freel from the 15-day DL; placed OF-R Reed Johnson on the 15-day DL (lower back spasms), retroactive to 6/21. [6/25]
I figure I'd use my attendance of today's Cubs game as a way of entering into trying out the new TA blog feature, as I shift over from lengthy articles to lengthy and ideally more timely posts. Blame me for this being a TA; going forward, I should be rattling off a few of these a day in a feature that'll show up on the front page of the site like Kevin Goldstein's Minor League Update. I still plan on breaking out and breaking down the big deals and major moves as full-length articles, and anticipate being less bloggy in the offseason, but generally speaking, this format should free me up to do more during the day, rather than feed my completist's compulsion to try to finish complete divisions or leagues.
To stick with the roster moves to start off with, I'm generally impressed with what they've done here. Now, sure, a lot of this is easy to like, in that anything that involves absenting Miles is improvement, and I've been a noisy Jeff Baker fan going back almost a decade ago, when I spoke with him and his father for a piece for militarylifestyle.com about Baker pere doing things like starting t-ball leagues for his son in Saudi Arabia during assignments there in the early '80s. (Baker's father also played for West Point.) Baker's utility is as a multi-positional reserve who can play anywhere but center or short well, while providing some power, especially against left-handers, who he's battered for a (Coors-aided) .278/.342/.556. It's hard to see exactly where he'll fit in over the course of the season, because the Cubs are due for a roster crunch, starting tomorrow (more on that in a bit). He's certainly a major upgrade on Freel, who isn't really much of an infielder any more, on those odd occasions when Freel's healthy enough to employ.
As for tweaking the pen by turning to the Domer, Ascanio seems a bit like a guy out of luck than someone who'd earned an outright demotion, but that's a reflection of the crowded possibilities for the back end of the bullpen. Samardzija might be an improvement as a long reliever, but this might be another temporary addition. He's managed three quality starts in his last four for Iowa, two of them on five days' rest instead of four, but with Angel Guzman due back on Monday, somebody's going to get bumped, and as long as the team indulges in carrying Rule 5 pick David Patton, someone's invariably going to get the short straw. Looking at the pen-wide performance, Ascanio hasn't really pitched so badly as to be squeezed out, and if they're serious about leaving Samardzija in a Triple-A rotation, they might also prefer to let him keep starting and see what he grows into.
As for today's game itself, beyond it's import for the NL Central, it featured the interesting element of Cubs starter Ted Lilly's knowing that he'd made the All-Star team as he took the mound. What he did with that knowledge can be debated, but the performance could not, as he threw a masterful game, allowing just two runs, walking nobody, and ringing up nine batters at home plate before getting hooked in the seventh with an 8-2 lead. Spotted two runs early on by Derrek Lee's 15th homer of the season in the first (which grew to 4-1 in the fourth and 7-1 after five), he subsequently noted that he had the opportunity to do something we usually associate with the Deadball Era, saying that with a lead he could be a bit more aggressive and go after people; since he threw 81 strikes in his 100 pitches, that obviously had something to recommend it. Although he gave up nine hits, it would be hard to suggest he was ever really in trouble; to some extent it was amusing that a squibby thing like Kendall's gork over Derrek Lee's to lead off the seventh would get him hooked. In short, while he gave up nine hits in less than seven innings, he certainly didn't look like a guy getting hit all that hard.
Once he was hooked with runners on first and third, however, Piniella made a sensible double-switch to deposit Andres Blanco in the ninth slot (due up second in the bottom of the frame), taking Jake Fox off of third and out the game, and placing Aaron Heilman in the fifth slot, which in-game was the ninth slot away from the bottom of the seventh. All very sensible, but it came with the added bonus of Blanco's flipping an incredible deuce to end the inning when Corey Hart chopped to Ryan Theriot for the feed to Blanco. Threat ended, and effectively game over, as the Cubs' 8-2 lead would hold up till the end. The eighth provided the "I don't think I've seen that" instance when Fuld, brought in to sub for Alfonso Soriano on defense in the top of the eighth, managed to record all three outs in the inning.
Since the game was well in hand, I headed down for the interview room, a smallish space (500 square feet, tops) tucked under the third base-side seats, and not so well insulated that we couldn't hear Ronnie Woo-Woo Wickers doing his leather-lunged act outside the park. His team having achieved the series split, Piniella offered a number of standard bromides ("The players are the ones who get it done," for example), but when pressed on the subject of the roster, he got a little dodgy. That's because with Angel Guzman, Aramis Ramirez, and Reed Johnson all getting activated on Monday, something's going to have to give. Will the Cubs really send down Jake Fox again, after he added his fifth homer of the season to today's tally? Does Blanco's defensive play gain him any consideration for keepery? Will they put the needs of the present above the obvious desire to hold onto Patton? When asked about this, Piniella simply noted that it was "a difficult, interesting decision," and promptly moved over to saying nice things about Blanco's play.
Then, after that, in the mostly empty locker room, the slow arrivals of Piniella and Lilly seemed to afford many of the players the opportunity to escape unmolested. Lee was still available, however, and was suitably diplomatic when quizzed about his exclusion from the NL's All-Star team. As much as could be made out; the man's a serious low-talker (although not a Shaq-grade spiteful mutterer), and with the crush of cameras and microphones around him, if you weren't within five feet, you weren't making out more than a phrases.