Two tight games later, it’s the series rubber match, a day game after a night game, and Luis Atilano‘s second start for the Nationals since moving into the rotation after Jason Marquis‘ elbow-related breakdown. Atilano’s debut was a quality start win against the Dodgers last Friday, and had to be sweet for the former Braves prospect from Puerto Rico, having had to already make the slow comeback from Tommy John surgery. Between generating a lot of ground-ball outs and relying on changing speeds and location on a moving fastball and a changeup, the question is whether throwing strikes and changing speeds is going to be enough; evaluations of his breaking stuff tend to be less than charitable.
As for the Cubs, with Ryan Dempster takes the hill after rattling off quality starts in three of his last four appearances, and with gunning for his 30th career win at Wrigley Field. He never lost to the Nats, having gone 6-0 as a starter, and 7-0 overall. You could anticipate a good day at the office against a Nats squad still missing Ryan Zimmerman (hamstring) and also short Willie Harris because of a knee injury. The galling failure of the Cubs’ lineup has the team mired in 13th in the National League in team TAv (.248), which however much it annoys some, really isn’t too far below their pre-season projection of .257. However, expectation is a sweetener that palls on the palate fast, and after seeing their four-game win streak die at the hands of the deathless Livan Hernandez last night, the expectations that this team is a contender won’t brook much in the way of shortfalls, not least at the hands of the Nats.
The Nationals strike early today when Adam Kennedy defies a 10-mph wind blowing in from the lake on 2-0 and smites his first homer of the season dead to the right-field bleachers. There’s nothing cute or lucky about it, just a straight-up jack, and before Dempster is down a run before he’s even warmed up enough to start dialing heat higher than 90 mph or making the sale on his breaking stuff.
In the bottom of the first, Atilano in the flesh seems lankier and shorter than his listed 6-feet-2 and 220 pounds. From the start, he’s throwing high-80s fastballs with a lot of movement. From the get-go, PitchF/X was calling all sorts of these things changeups, but since that’s where his fastball tops out, it’s another instance of misidentification. Ryan Theriot leads off by grounding a single up the middle past a diving Cristian Guzman, and then Kosuke Fukudome walks. A Derrek Lee fly ball to right to recently recalled Roger Bernadina advances Theriot-Bernadina makes a decent throw that reaches Kennedy at third on a bounce, but it’s not quite strong enough. Aramis Ramirez, returned to the cleanup slot against the rookie, plates the tying run with a sac fly to left, and the Cubs have manufactured a run.
The Nats respond in the top of the second with another run: Bernadina hits a one-out single off Mike Fontenot that heads off into right field, and then lands on second on a stolen-base attempt by Ian Desmond‘s ground-ball out to Dempster that the pitcher takes, seeing that Bernadina’s already at the keystone. Bernadina then scores when Dempster gives up a crisply-hit safety to eighth-slot hitter Wil Nieves-day game after night game, so no Pudge. But the Cubs responded with another manufactured run fueled by another productive out in the second: Fontenot singles, moves up to second on Koyie Hill‘s grounder to Guzman, then scores on Theriot’s two-hit hit to right.
Early blood being drawn, it’s at this point that both pitchers start settling into their respective grooves. As the game moves on, you can hone in on the pitcher’s individual mannerisms. Take that flippy thing that Dempster does with his glove hand as he goes into his wind-up. It’s not all the time, it’s something he uses with nobody on base; once he has to start worrying about shortening up his delivery from the stretch, he drops it. He doesn’t do it during his warm-ups either. There are also degrees of how much he does it-most times it’s perfunctory and quick, other times slower and more elaborate, like he’s a fan dancer playing to a particular patron’s needs. By mid-game, he has his fastball established into the low 90s, setting up his slider effectively. Where Atilano spent his day working from the far right side of the rubber against righties and lefties, Dempster’s squarely on top of it against either, with textbook-perfect footwork.
In the top of the fourth, the Nats break the tie when Adam Dunn belts a leadoff homer into the left-field seats on a 3-1 fastball. It’s a heater with a little less zip and a little less movement, and as Dempster would note after the game, it was one he left over the plate. That homer would be the Nats’ last hit of the day, but as the game would play out, it was also all the difference they would need.
That’s not to say that they didn’t catch a bad break, however. Atilano got good wood on Dempster in the fifth, driving the ball to center. Marlon Byrd, closer in with the pitcher up, retreated towards the warning track, lost the ball in the sun, and managed to pick it up late but in time to make a behind-the-back circus catch as he crumpled beneath the ball. Whether by design or sheer luck, it’s a tremendous play a day after his failure to flag down Guzman’s first-inning triple, a nice reminder that his defensive work isn’t a concern, and that even the slightly above-average center-field regular will make his share of incredible as well as unfortunate plays afield. This being Chicago, folks immediately started comparing it to the equally remarkable play Mark Buehrle made on Opening Day in the Cell. In his post-game remarks, Byrd modestly noted that while he picked the ball up early and late and lost it in between, he owed something to luck.
But the defining quality of the game’s second half was the Cubs’ repeated opportunities to break the game open, and the equally frequent squashing of those opportunities. Take the fifth frame, the first of four the Cubs would put the leadoff man aboard, and get nothing out of it. Atilano ran into trouble and got cranky about it, walking Fukudome, giving up a one-out single to Ramirez, and then losing the usually hack-happy Tyler Colvin on a seven-pitch walk to load the bases. Rather than let him simmer over that unhappy event, the Nats conferred on the mound. Byrd then comes to Atilano’s rescue with a soft liner to Dunn, putting Fontenot on the spot after already pulling a pair of singles off the Hun. Fontenot almost loses the at-bat early and up 2-0 with a foul liner in play down the left-field line at the wall by the Cubs’ bullpen that Josh Willingham just can’t quite reach, but with a full count, he grounds to Dunn. Bases loaded with one out, and nothing to show for it.
After letting Atilano get the bottom of the order and Theriot in the sixth, in the bottom of the seventh manager Jim Riggleman hooks Atilano after 28 batters and 91 pitches, turning to Brian Bruney with a one-run lead. Bruney’s now bearded and looking lighter on his feet, and thus cutting a different figure since getting free of the button-down Yankees. However different the presentation, the results remain mixed-he gives up a quick pair of base hits to left to Fukudome and Lee, making it seem as if there’s a new opportunity a-borning on the bases. Ramirez squelches that by grounding a full-count fastball up the middle to Guzman over the bag for an unfussy 4-3 double play. With the tying run at third, Bruney gets a Colvin grounder to Guzman to hand off the lead.
In the eighth, Riggleman brought in his other former Yankee, Tyler Clippard. A vaguely Tekulve-like beanpole, Clippard works at a pace only Steve Trachsel might love, pausing at considerable length between pitches before winding up into a big overhand delivery. He picks up the pace just barely after allowing a leadoff double to Byrd, but he gets Fontenot to pop up to short, at which point Cubs manager Lou Piniella pulls out the stops and tries to make something happen by going to his bench, bringing in Chad Tracy to pinch-hit for Hill (whiff), and then Xavier Nady for Dempster (walk), only to lose this third opportunity when Theriot harmlessly pops out to Dunn in foul ground.
In the ninth, Matt Capps came in for his10th save without any particular drama, and as quickly as the Cubs seemed to have turned things around with a four-game win streak, they lost a low-scoring series to the Nationals.
The fact that the Cubs got their runs in the early innings thanks to a trio of runner-advancing outs but then blew their repeated opportunities at big innings later on should serve as a reminder that, however actuarial the outcomes on these plays might be on a seasonal level, the eviscerating reality is that there are times when it doesn’t matter. Atilano was hittable, but not easy to hit hard. A lack of familiarity might have been an issue, prompting the post-game question to Piniella over whether or not the Cubs had scouted him enough; Piniella acidly answered that they “had reports.”
The other contrast worth noting was how aggressively Riggleman played his slender hand to get this getaway-day win. Perhaps it was a matter of design, but by brining in Bruney before Clippard, he lined up his beanpole to face different hitters than he had the night before; Byrd was the only repeater, and he doubled. Bruney’s bumpy inning featured three batters he’d faced on Monday, the extra-inning affair he lost; two of them singled.
The other neat turn of events was that, as Riggleman has done before, he pulled the heart of his order out of the game late, swapping out Dunn and Willingham after they made the last two outs of the ninth. Doing so thus depositing the pitcher’s slot furthest from having to bat again by bumping it to Willingham’s place, all so that he could simultaneously make his designated defensive replacements by moving Kennedy across the diamond to first, bringing in Willy Taveras to play left, and putting Alberto Gonzalez in at the hot corner in the nine-hole. Now sure, if the lead gets blown and the game gets to the 11th or later by the next time Dunn and Willingham might bat, you can fret. But already dealing with a short bench with Zimmerman and Harris hurt and Pudge resting, he decided to use his remaining position-playing bullets aggressively, and take his chances that the pitcher’s slot-or an opportunity for Dunn or Willingham to win the game at the plate-wouldn’t come up. It isn’t rocket science, but it was a nice bit of tactics.
The Cubs had an extreme shift on against Dunn, with A-Ram at the shortstop’s position and both Theriot and Fontentot deep in the outfield grass right of the keystone. But, consistent with Dunn’s fly-ball tendencies (remember, he homered to left), they did not have the outfield pulled around.
The game’s noteworthy random oddity: After both of the homers Dempster allowed, in the first and the fourth, he got each of the next two batters due out on a pitch apiece. You can understand why, post-game, he expressed frustration over his needing to do a better job pitching and executing, and particularly ruing the two-out base hit to Nieves to score the Nats’ second run. Dempster was very sharp, but in this kind of game, the tiniest mistakes cost him. Eight innings, five baserunners, and three runs should work win-wise more often than not, but two bombs, the Nieves single, and the Cubs’ situational weirdness on offense cost him.