If seeing former Cubs skipper Jim Riggleman's Washington ballclub leave town was a case of a not-so-fond farewell to an old friend after losing a series, next up is Arizona. With so many players left from the two teams that squared off in the Diamondbacks' sweep of the 2007 NL Division Series, for the Cubs, renewing this rivalry with a rhumba of rattlers provides equal measures of revenge and a run back toward .500.
If the Cubs are already providing disappointment, imagine the state of impassioned Snake fanciers in Phoenix. The greatness from prematurely fired-up stars like Chris Young and Stephen Drew—a crime of projection as well as straightforward enthusiasm for which my colleagues and I bear a share of the guilt—has been something less than advertised, while Justin Upton keeps seeming to be caught short of full fruition by some nagging hurt. But even so, Young and Drew are still in the midst of their projected peaks, while Upton's just 22—this is the sort of anticipation for which there's still time to catsup.
Despite the club's lackluster record (10-11) coming into the Cubs series, the D'backs' offense has been fine in the early going, ranking third in the league in TAv, that despite losing two starters to injury: catcher Miguel Montero and left fielder Conor Jackson. The early-season sizzle has been fueled in part by Kelly Johnson's white-hot start, but also by good work from Drew and Young and Mark Reynolds, with Chris Snyder filling in effectively for Montero. Indeed, the only pistons not firing are Upton and the Jackson substitutes in left, Gerardo Parra and Cole Gillespie.
The problem has been pitching, although not quite in the way we expected. A rotation counting on retreads Kris Benson and Rodrigo Lopez to round out the front five has gotten to see that pair deliver four quality starts in their first seven turns. The problem has been the people who were planned to be part of the program, with Ian Kennedy managing one in four, and Edwin Jackson—the big-ticket pickup at the Winter Meetings—providing just one in five. Overall, that adds up to just nine quality starts in the first 21 games for the team. Exacerbating the team's troubles has been a ghastly bullpen that ranks last in WXRL and bullpen FRA, and next to last in ARP. It's not even a unit with which A.J. Hinch has been able to micro-manage and play matchups—as a matter of choice, the Snakes have no lefty pitcher in the bullpen, and haven't had one since deciding to send down the elaborately fuzzy Clay Zavada before the season, and then rookie Jordan Norberto during. It's an interesting roster decision in itself, but against the Cubs' right-leaning lineup, there aren't a lot of lefty-specific issues to worry about. Kosuke Fukudome or Mike Fontenot have their uses, but Andre Ethier they ain't.
The Cubs have their own problems, starting with an offense that still seems to be coming up short. Pinpointing issues only exacerbates the confusion about what's amiss. They're not especially slow, ranking decently mid-pack in EqBRR, and they're not hitting into a lot of double plays; they're also in the middle of the majors as far as walking and hitting for power. But where fans on the South Side might be only too familiar with their team's problems hitting against first-time opponents, Wrigleyville might be introduced to the issue. Counting Wednesday's loss to Luis Atilano, in the early going this season the Cubs faced four young pitchers for the first time, and struggled to do much against any of them, beating the Braves' Tommy Hanson 2-0 only because Randy Wells shut Atlanta out, but losing games started by the Reds' Mike Leake and the Mets' Jon Niese (scoring just a run against each). Sure, that's just four starts in total, but plating little more than two runs per nine against new faces might be the start of a problem. Would seeing the Snakes' Ian Kennedy for the first time present more of this sort of same?
Thursday afternoon is glorious at Wrigley Field, with the thermometer up over 70 and the sun doing its thing unimpeded by any gloom. That said, it's not a day many might want to take the mound—winds pushing 30 mph are blowing toward the left-field corner, and where previous contests this week have had elemental issues to affect in-game action and tactics, today seems like it might provide the big innings that Lou Piniella waited for fruitlessly on Wednesday against the Nats.
Though both may be strike-throwers, the contrasts between Lilly and Kennedy are immediate. Lilly's open as he sets, his hands at his waist; he doesn't seem concerned about establishing his fastball early, instead teasing the free-swinging Snakes with slow changeups and breaking stuff, at least until he gets to Mark Reynolds, whom he challenges with fastballs around the corners the first time around. With nobody on base, Kennedy's one of those peekers, the guys who keep their gloves close to their chin and peeping over the glove as they set for their windup; he ditches that once he has to throw from the stretch with anyone aboard. Kennedy starts strong, pounding outside and low immediately while getting his fastball up over 90.
Both hurlers cruise early, with the Cubs getting first blood in the third. Leading off, Fontenot's plunked to break up the perfect game, an out later Lilly pushes a bunt up the first-base line, and Ryan Theriot plates him with a looping base hit to right-center.
But spotted to a lead, things go very badly for Lilly in the fourth when the Snakes answer. He loses Upton on a leadoff walk, and with Reynolds up, he attacks the Snakes' TTO king with a different pattern from the first time around, favoring sliders and changeups. It doesn't help, and Reynolds works the inning's second walk. Then Lilly falls behind Adam LaRoche as well, and pays for it at 3-and-1 by surrendering an Earl Weaver special up into the wind, carrying deep into the left-center bleachers. An out later, he allows a sharp double to Gillespie followed by a cleanly pulled Chris Snyder shot into the left-field bleachers, and what had been a wind-defying pitcher's duel becomes a sticky, unappetizing mess, like an hour-old plate of poutine.
Lilly was given the fifth inning as well, but he's starting to look gassed, relying on even slower stuff, and getting hammered by LaRoche again on a soft change pulled hard into the seats in right to make the game 6-1. Meanwhile, Kennedy cruises through the Cubs' lineup his second time through and into his third, allowing a lone base hit through 11 hitters after Theriot's RBI single to reach a quality start through six.
It's at this point that the Snakes make the game silly against the back end of the Cubs' bullpen. Jeff Gray does his usual thing of whipping in fastballs simultaneously flat and fast, which works well enough in the sixth but produces a single and walk before he strikes out Reynolds and makes way for lefty James Russell with two-taters LaRoche due up. LaRoche lines a double to center to score the inning's first run. Then, with runners on second and third and one out, Chris Young lines a hard-hit grounder at Aramis Ramirez that runs up the third baseman's glove arm and over his shoulder, where Theriot intercepts it trailing his right-hand wind man. Nobody advances, but Young's aboard on an error to juice the bases. It's "just" 7-1… and then it isn't, as the inning dies by inches. Gillespie and Snyder push single runs across with base hits, Kennedy hits a sac fly, and then Kelly Johnson crushes a three-run shot deep to right that makes it a 13-1 game, and you can officially euthanize the ballgame as far as results, beyond the kabuki of playing it out because the rules require it.
Spotted to that sort of lead, Hinch leaves Kennedy out there, not even bothering to warm anybody up. In the seventh, Kennedy runs into some trouble, giving up a pair of base hits before the first-base ump decides Alfonso Soriano went around on strike three to get his first out. Mike Fontenot lines to Johnson for an unassisted double play, killing that threat off. So, still up by a dozen, Hinch sends Kennedy out there again in the eighth—and he does so without anyone warming up at the start of the inning. So when Kennedy walks Geovany Soto and then sees pinch-hitter Tyler Colvin reach on Rusty Ryal's error on a first-pitch swing, seven pitches into the inning there are two men on and nobody ready to go. Four pitches later, Theriot singles to load the bases. A pitch after that, Kosuke Fukudome belts his first major-league grand slam into that jet stream in left field, and Kennedy's great ballgame (7 4 1 1 1 6 before the eighth) takes a bloody nose. Kennedy had thrown just 87 pitches headed into the inning, so you can understand the rationale for putting him out there, especially on the heels of a pair of 11-run outings for the staff in Denver on Tuesday and Wednesday. Perhaps that last is why Kennedy gets to finish the inning, retiring Derrek Lee, Ramirez, and pinch-hitter Xavier Nady to end up with 110 pitches, 32 batters faced, and a win.
Afterward, the Cubs' locker room was muted. Repeated questions about whether or not the offensive short circuit was maddening and attempts to gauge how close to a boil frustration might be merely produced clipped bromides about not letting that happen. To a man, the Cubs didn't vent any drama over their third straight loss, instead just patiently noting that everyone's working hard and controlling what they can. It didn't quite reach "we're just taking it one day at a time," but in the post-game presser, Piniella blandly opined there was a need "to stabilize things." Later, Lee said he was getting his pitches, but his swing was "just off." Lilly noted, "I wasn't throwing the ball very well," but asked why, responded with "I can't pinpoint any one thing. I want to make good pitches and control what I can." If you're looking for something juicy in post-game commentary, welcome to the beat: you have to settle for dry tofu. That's hardly cause for regret—it's not the job of any player or the manager to provide post-game entertainment, and acting out isn't for grown-ups or professionals. Or for Lou Piniella, long decades since the bad old days in the Bronx in the tarnished Bronze Age of the Boss.
But if there's one thing to note, it's that first-time matchups don't seem to be doing the Cubs any favors. They can take some solace in the fact that they've already seen Rodrigo Lopez and Dan Haren in the past. Come Sunday's matchup, they've even already gotten to face Edwin Jackson for the first time, last year as a Tiger. They lost.