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April 28, 2010

Game Story

Cubs/Nationals in Wrigley

by Christina Kahrl

CHICAGO—Another April ballgame, another venue, another city. It's a cold night in Lakeview, with the wind coming in from the north and the game-time temp in the low 40s. It's one of those nights when the hardy fans who come to Wrigley alternate beers and hot chocolate, as Kenny Kaduk detailed in his boozy ballpark bildungsroman, Wrigleyworld. With that sort of mixed pleasure to look forward to, you understand why the 30,000 folks in attendance trickled in. But it would only get colder as the night goes on, one of those seasonal features of Wrigley in April that encourages all concerned to gun for quick games made more quickly still by small-ball tactics.

For pitchers who are something less than overpowering, it was a good night to pitch. For there he was, Livan Hernandez, survivor, human pitching machine, bête noir of the predictive power of pitch-counters. His season-opening scoreless inning streak busted, the designated inning-muncher had methodically masticated his way through at least seven frames each time out, and rattled off a trio of quality starts to open his season. And matched up against Tom Gorzelanny? Someone might decry this as evidence of the state of pitching today, but Livan's deathlessness and Gorzo the Magnificent's bid at joining him in indestructibility strike me as a pair of heroic narratives with their own merits. Hey, it's April.

As noted earlier on Tuesday, for Gorzo every spin through the rotation may well be an exercise in keeping his job, with every disaster start an invitation to middle relief or a shot at being dealt to some starter-needier squad than the Cubs. Who doesn't love Phoenix in July? With Carlos Zambrano lurking in the pen making decent coin to do more than just fulfill the role of correctional staff reassignment, Gorzo needed a quality start—but his odds couldn't be hurt by the fact that he'd face a Nats lineup absent Ryan Zimmerman.

With a lefty on the bump, another spot start for Alberto Gonzalez at third was just one of the its resultant ripples for Nationals skipper Jim Riggleman: Cristian Guzman batting in the three hole, Ian Desmond moved up to the second slot. Justin Maxwell got another spin in right field, his fifth platoon start (and seventh overall) since the toolsy outfielder was added to the roster less than two weeks ago. The early-April interest in seeing what Willy Taveras could do has apparently been discouraged by seeing what Willy Taveras does. Still, even against Gorzo, Riggleman understandably left a pair of lefties in the lineup: leadoff man Nyjer Morgan, and Adam Dunn cleaning up.

For the Cubs, there wasn't much out of the ordinary. The frustration over Aramis Ramirez's early-season slump had him dropped from the cleanup slot again, with Marlon Byrd propped into his place. Geovany Soto was in the eighth slot, which seems odd. Catchers batting eighth might be sort of a weak historical echo of having second basemen bat second; maybe it lingers on as a way of protecting yourself against swapping in your backup backstop after an especially foul tip or something, but still, that's not exactly a ringing endorsement of the 2008 Rookie of the Year's comeback campaign, and living in fear of Koyie Hill batting with the game on the line is no way to operate. Plus, Soto, batting behind Marlon Byrd? Against a right-hander, one of those human beings Byrd hasn't slugged .420 against on his career? That said, on a cold night where any good contact could make a huge difference, to Lou Piniella's credit he had match-up results—Byrd had gone 9-for-23 with a pair of walks against Hernandez, albeit with just one extra-base hit, while Soto had never stepped in against the human pitching machine.

So, in the cold twilight, the game got off to a quick start before most folks were seated, letting picking between their rounds of hot chocolate or beer to lead off with: Morgan led off with a triple to left field. You know, the rare-seeming sort of in-game incident that got some—Bill James included—to note what that must have meant about Shoeless Joe Jackson's innocence. We'll have to see what folks decide that Alfonso Soriano's guilty of, but it wasn't just a matter of sluggish response: it's hard to imagine how Morgan could have placed the ball between Soriano in left and Byrd in center any better than if he'd thrown it and run the bases. Discretion might have called for Morgan to hold up at second, but part of the fun of watching him is that he's not reliably discrete—he beat the throw to third handily.

Desmond promptly followed with line single to right that plated Morgan, this before Gorzo had barely warmed up his fastball up past 90. Then Guzman belted a fly to deep left-center that Byrd took a Terrence Long-like route towards—you know, charting a course, a la Magellan—moving too far toward left before trying to drift back under the ball, arcing, missing, and scoring Desmond easily as Guzman added the game's second triple just three batters into the action. Voila, two runs in, nobody out, and expectations that the game's going to be a chilly re-enactment of the Deadball Era are over, right?

Not quite. From there, Gorzo truly was magnificent, stranding Guzman on third, facing just 23 batters to get the game through seven innings from that no-outs situation, allowing just four men to reach base, erasing one on a caught stealing and another on a double play, and seeing just one runner get as far as second base. Defense may not have helped him early, but with just three strikeouts among those 23 to get through seven frames, he wasn't getting out of this with an umpiring assist.

That said, neither did Livan lean on anything beyond his defense. Changing speeds and throwing with lovely location, Hernandez cruised through the first seven innings facing just 27 batters, allowing five hits and a walk and striking out one. The one hint of trouble was in the second inning, when he gave up one-out singles to Soriano and then Mike Fontenot; Soriano motored to third on Fontenot's knock, then scored when Soto tapped into a 5-4 fielder's choice that put him on second when Guzman threw wildly towards Dunn. Hernandez got Gorzo to escape the threat with the score set at 2-1, but early on, it didn't necessarily resemble a pitching duel.

But a pitching duel is what it became. It was the sort of night where you got to see a lot of numb-fingered plays—or misplays. Throws went wide or sailed as players struggled to lasso the pill and send it somewhere. Add the consideration of misery involved, and intentional outs end games early, a bit of situational gambitry adapted to the environment. All of which makes little ball seem that much more profitable, even if the yield's sure to be smaller than otherwise (in the abstract). Inside baseball involves pressuring the defense to execute in the first place, and cold hands hamper execution. In the seventh, after seeing Gorzo retire eight straight Nats, a Maxwell walk inspired a one-out stolen-base attempt with the Attorney General and Livan due up—sure, maybe it was a low-percentage play, but scoring a run on a night like this was a low-percentage environment, and with so few weapons to work with, Riggleman took a chance. Maxwell gets gunned down, and score remained 2-1.

Undaunted, in the eighth against John Grabow, Riggleman kept at it. Grabow fielded a one-out Morgan grounder back to the mound, but he threw wide to Derrek Lee, putting the speedster on board with an error. Only up by a run, Riggleman again guns for that insurance score, green lighting Morgan for a swiftly swiped bag despite Grabow's better attempts to hold him close. After three at-bats' worth of going to the right side, Desmond jerks a low-80s something (PitchF/X says fastball, but was calling some faster Grabow offerings changeups) to left, easily scoring Morgan. Score another source of regret for re-upping with Grabow for $7.5 million and two years.

With the score now at 3-1, Hernandez took to the hill after the seventh-inning stretch, but a single by Ryan Theriot earned him his hook, putting Tyler Clippard on the spot to hold the lead. With -2.0 runs allowed on inherited baserunners, he may seem an odd choice, but as reflected in his overall WXRL (0.95) and good general marks (5.3 ARP, 1.82 FRA), he's the best set-up candidate the Nats can boast in the early going. He walked Kosuke Fukudome, making a bad situation look worse up by just two runs, but then he got Lee to fly out to right—with nobody out, the sort of possibility for a runner on second to get to third easily enough. But Maxwell ranged over to park under the ball, and whether it's the relative ease with which he sets up to catch and potentially throw, or a scouting report about his arm strength, it's enough to deter any thought of Theriot advancing to third on the first out of the inning. Clippard then got Byrd to ground out to the right side, putting Theriot and Fukudome on third and second with two outs, and then Ramirez grounded towards Dunn, who flipped to Clippard, ending the threat, and effectively the ballgame.

That's not to say there wasn't some subsequent drama—Josh Willingham led off the ninth with a walk, and Riggleman hounded Taveras off the bench to pinch run, but all the turning wheels just fragged one piston or another, as Ivan Rodriguez contributed his half by swinging through a strikeout/caught stealing double play to keep the game at 3-1 heading into the bottom of the ninth. Once there, the Cubs' capacity for mighty comebacks fell short, as neo-Nats closer Matt Capps earned his MLB-leading ninth save to close out a quick loss for the Cubs.

If Gorzo the Magnificent had managed his great game after the first three batters, Livan lived large by allowing two baserunners in a frame only once all evening. After the contest, Lee credited Livan's ability to locate to make all the difference, while refusing to take the profered excuse about the cold weather. Which is not to say the game didn't depend on defense and the odd bits of derring-do on the mound, but it wasn't something the Cubs were going to just up and confide as they hover around despair. The Nats' breaking the Cubs' four-game win steak isn't that big a deal—it's April—but it is indicative of how fragile each team's place in the standings will be. With the rubber match to see in the afternoon, we'll cut this story short by observing the obvious: Nats win, 3-1.

On to the notes...

  • About those triples, per Retrosheet data from 1954 to the present and before Tuesday's action, the spread is that 46.4 percent of all three-base hits go to right field, 38 percent are hit to center, and 15.6 percent get hit to left. So yeah, it's uncommon, but perhaps something less than the basis of a conspiracy theory.
  • Because of a family emergency, this was just my fifth game in April, but also because of that family emergency, it was in my fifth different big-league venue in five games. And yet I draw Hernandez again? It's official, here's hoping he has a great season munching innings for the Nats. And Ryan Zimmerman's hammy costs him another start? I'll have to continue to infer his existence from video and witnesses, not unlike my experience with Pervis Ellison as a Kings fan, back when I cared about the NBA.
  • Desmond made a few nifty plays to show off his arm, but also a nice diving stop of a Lee grounder in the bottom of the third to make the feed to Guzman; Guzman made the force, but didn't have enough mustard on the throw to Dunn to cinch the deuce. While Desmond was usually late on Gorzelanny's deliveries, singling to right, flying out to right, and lining out to third, there was enough about his performance worth watching, and he got around on Grabow's junk to plate a critical third run. If there was a Nat player who was just fun to watch do stuff in general, it was Desmond.

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,  Livan Hernandez,  Marlon Byrd,  Jim Riggleman,  Nats

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