Pirates! Cubs! It’s hot under-.500 action in this week’s Game of the Week!

Of course there was more at stake Sunday than two teams fighting to see who finishes a distant second behind the Cardinals. The Pirates were taking the worst offense in the league into the game; averaging just three runs a contest, their futility offered the allure of plastic surgery gone horribly wrong (coming up next…on Fox!). Their lineup features more 100-somethings than a Matlock convention.

Meanwhile the Cubs were trotting out Kerry Wood. (Last week’s GotW promoted a Mark Prior/Josh Fogg matchup, but Friday’s rainout pushed Prior back a day, and Fogg missed the start with an inner ear infection, giving way to Dave Williams). Since his dominating rookie season, which included one of just three nine-inning, 20-strikeout performances in big-league history, Wood has been an enigma, racking up eye-popping strikeout rates while constantly struggling with injuries and control problems. If the Cubs are going to make any kind of run this year–especially with a depleted offense–Wood will need to put up a Cy Young-caliber season; right now he’s the team’s #3 starter, squarely behind Prior and Carlos Zambrano.

He’s a lock to win today, however. Why? Aside from the Pirates’ nightmarish lineup (see below), the Pirates’ announcers clearly reversed-jinxed him. Heading into the game Wood had yielded nine walks and five homers over 18 innings and three starts, for a 6.38 ERA. A rough start, no question. Still, this was enough for the pre-game promo to dub him “Wood, the winless wonder of Wrigley.” Are you really a “Winless Wonder” if you’re 0-1 with two no-decisions after three starts? What are the odds Wood doesn’t strike out 10+ and kill the Pirates here?

As always, let’s check in on the lineups:

RF Matt Lawton
2B Rob Mackowiak
CF Jason Bay
1B Daryle Ward
3B Bobby Hill
LF Craig Wilson
C  Humberto Cota
SS Freddy Sanchez
P  Dave Williams

Ugh. No team in baseball can match a 4-5 as awful as Daryle Ward and Bobby Hill. As is, Hill and Ward are here after manager Lloyd McClendon tried to improve the lineup, benching HACKING MASSter Tike Redman and Ty Wigginton, a decent hitter against lefties (796 OPS since 2002), barely so vs. righties (732 OPS). In fact, much of the Pirates’ lineup will likely remain in flux throughout the season, the result of having plenty of passable players, but no stars.

McClendon also seems to have fallen victim to Itchy Manager Syndrome, which holds that starters can be benched mere days into the season if they go into a slump. The IMS strain seems to be especially virulent in the NL Central, where Luke Scott claimed a starting job off a big spring training despite an inferior track record to Chris Burke; Austin Kearns and D’Angelo Jimenez have been aced out by Wily Mo Pena and Ryan Freel in Cincinnati; and the Pirates have Hill starting over Wigginton, Freddy Sanchez starting over Jack Wilson and his .134/.171/.149 line, and the catching job being passed among Benito Santiago, Humberto Cota and Dave Ross at a dizzying pace. Injuries aside, there’s no evidence to suggest that a player who’s 8-for-his-last-15 is more likely to get a hit the next time out than the one who’s 1-for-15. Yet nearly every time a team struggles, you’ll see a manager promote a benchwarmer–usually one who’s riding the pine for a reason–at the expense of a regular with a better track record. It’s refreshing to see the rare manager who’ll ignore the prodding from media and fans and stick with his best players, through slumps and all.

Top of the first, and we can already see the battle developing. Wood is wild right out of the box, bouncing the first pitch of the game to Matt Lawton and walking him on five pitches. Lawton aside, the Pirates have few hitters with the patience to take advantage of Wood’s wildness, work the count for pitches to hit and try to knock him out early. That can also be easier said than done against Wood, who’ll often go from horrific effort to no-hit stuff in consecutive at-bats: His sequence to Rob Mackowiak goes 94-mph fastball for strike one, 86-mph slider for strike two, 94-mph fastball on the outside corner for strike three. Michael Barrett, his horrific third-base experiment of 1999 and 2000 long behind him, pegs a perfect throw to nail Lawton for the strike-’em-out/throw-’em-out double play. Wood fans Jason Bay, and the Pirates are now scoring less than three runs a game.

CF Jerry Hairston Jr.
2B Neifi Perez
1B Derrek Lee
3B Aramis Ramirez
LF Jason DuBois
RF Jeromy Burnitz
C  Michael Barrett
SS Ronny Cedeno
P  Kerry Wood

Wow, that’s Pirate-esque. Corey Patterson–who’s gone from raw young guy to one of the team’s biggest bats in the last couple years–is getting a rare day off. Add that to the off-season departures of Sammy Sosa and Moises Alou, and the injuries to Nomar Garciaparra and Todd Walker–which have caused much consternation in Wrigleyville–and you get a lineup that would barely scare a bunch of Volunteers, let alone a major-league pitching staff. Other than Derrek Lee and his second-in-the-NL .413 average, the only Cubs hitter scaring anyone lately is Neifi Perez. As Pirates announcers Lanny Frattare and John Wehner go through the lineup (more on them later), Perez is highlighted, with the screen showing his 6-for-10 line this year against the Bucs, including a highlight of him taking Oliver Perez deep in Pittsburgh. It’s that bad.

Williams takes a 1-1 record and 2.31 ERA into the game. Though there are scads of finesse lefties around the majors who need to hit their spots perfectly or risk annihilation, Williams looks to have leg up on Rueter Nation, with better strikeout rates and solid home run and walk rates to boot. If Perez can get his act together after a dominant 2004 and a terrible start to ’05, the Pirates may actually have a solid rotation to go with their miserable offense.

Jerry Hairston Jr. taps weakly out to first to start the inning. The Neifi-riffic one, fresh off a 3-for-3 with a walk performance Saturday, then slams a double down the left-field line, just past a diving Hill. “Despite Hill’s effort, we still can’t get him out,” says Wehner, who shows the rare combination of narcoleptic voice and rah-rah homerism that only the worst broadcasters can bring to the table. Meanwhile Frattare offers little in the way of charisma or insight himself, settling for dull competence. Seriously, don’t teams know these broadcasts go out across the country on MLB Extra Innings? Is it that tough to find 60 broadcasters who can do the job well–or even 30 passable play-by-play guys, mixed with 30 color guys who can offer more insight than “Williams needs to get off to a good start today”? Hey all you college broadcasting majors–go kick this chaff to the curb, would ya?

Lee grounds out to second, Aramis Ramirez smacks a liner off Williams that’s fielded for the out, and Perez is stranded at second. The disappointing end to the inning gets livened up as the Pirates run the first of their “Come Hungry” between-inning ads. This one features left-hander Perez hosting the “Cooking With Perez” cooking show, holding a mixing bowl and grinning into the camera. “My recipe is simple. First, I mix up the batter. Throw in some junk (we see Perez tossing in an egg). And then, I bring the heat–lots of heat. A second later, Perez checks the oven: “Oh look, I burned them again.” Commercial: solid A-…”Come Hungry” ad campaign: D. I mean I love Primanti Brothers as much as the next guy, but if you’re asking people to come out to the park because of the food, what does that say about your ballclub?

Top of the second, and Wood is playing Mr. Hyde again, missing all over the zone with his fastball and walking Ward to lead off the inning. Wood goes to the curve against Hill to even the count at 1-1; just as Scott Kazmir didn’t seem to be throwing enough fastballs in last week’s GotW, Wood could stand to mix in more pitches to complement the heater, notably his killer 12-to-6 curve. The curve early in the at-bat not only evens the count–it also sets the stage for a wicked fastball on the inside corner for strike two. Hill slaps the first pitch to the first-base side of the mound, and Wood gets the force at second. Craig Wilson flies out to center and Wood looks on his way to pitching around the lead-off walk. But Cota jumps on a flat slider for a double to make it second and third, two outs. After another great curve drops in for strike one, Sanchez smokes a one-hopper off the wall in left that cashes both runs. This after Sanchez hit the game-winning triple in the ninth Saturday. Wehner is beside himself, chastising the Cubs for not walking Sanchez to get to the pitcher’s spot. Of course he’s doing this after the fact; one can’t help but wonder if he’d have praised Wood for getting Williams to lead off the next inning had he dispensed of Sanchez. Williams strikes out on five pitches, and it’s 2-0 Pirates.

A whiff of potpourri as DuBois, Burnitz and Barrett flail through an eight-pitch, 1-2-3 2nd:

  • The pre-game festivities with Frattare and Wehner would include “an interview with Curt Smith in Segment Two,” Frattare breathlessly tells us. The TV jargon of segmentizing the broadcast aside, who is Curt Smith? We later learn that he’s a former presidential speech writer and baseball historian who’s written a book called Voices of Summer about the best announcers of all-time. Smith’s top 10:

    10 Lindsay Nelson (Original voice of the Mets)
    9 Dizzy Dean
    8 Jack Brickhouse
    7 Bob Prince (Long-time voice of the Pirates)
    6 Harry Caray
    5 Red Barber
    4 Jack Buck
    3 Ernie Harwell
    2 Mel Allen
    1 Vin Scully (The only announcer on the list to get a perfect score of 100, and the only one of the 10 next to whom I’ve relieved myself at a ballpark; this was followed by me washing up, walking out the bathroom door, and finding a wide swath cut through the corridor, with cries of “Clear the way!” Probably for Vin, sure, but I like to pretend it was for me.)

    Great debate. The rankings take into account total years as a broadcaster, years with one team, network coverage, awards and six other criteria. Who’s your favorite?

  • The next segment included a look back at the 1960 Pirates championship team. This seemed appropriate given how long it’s been since the team’s been competitive: The Pirates have fielded 12 losing teams in a row, or a loser for every year since the team passed on re-signing Barry Bonds and instead gave a long-term deal to Andy Van Slyke. With the Brewers and Devil Rays building strong farm systems, the Pirates may officially be the L.A. Clippers of MLB.

  • NL Central standings heading into game:

    Team       Record   GB
    Cardinals    11-5   --
    Cubs          8-9   3½
    Reds          8-9   3½
    Astros        8-9   3½
    Brewers       6-11  5½
    Pirates       6-11  5½

    Seven out of 11 BP authors picked the Cubs to finish second this year; at the rate this division is going, the pick could pan out, and the Cubs could still finish below .500. Tony La Russa is already searching the waiver wire for a sixth utility infielder to add to his playoff roster. Jose Oquendo is keeping his phone line open, just in case.

  • As the third inning breezes by with the Bucs still up 2-0, a Ronny Cedeno pop-up stirs a discussion in the booth. The ball lands foul two rows into the seats between the visitor’s dugout and the bullpen. The pop-up would have been an out last year, having landed seats that didn’t exist before 2005, put in by the Cubs to increase revenue. Through all the talk of supposedly juiced bats, balls and players–and even discussions of ballparks themselves–this is a neglected area. Just how much does it matter when Dodger Stadium, Wrigley and other parks cut their foul territory? Don’t expect teams to stop adding premium seats either: As Joe Sheehan has frequently noted, the U.S. tax code makes it possible for companies to snatch up those seats at a hundred, two hundred bucks a pop, entertain clients, then write off the cost of the tickets. Any park seeing any kind of decent attendance is going to be as aggressive as possible in putting in these seats to get that added cash. The predictable spin about making parks more intimate aside, such moves will continue to boost offenses, long after BALCO has faded into a blurry haze of German-electropop history.

Bottom of the 4th, St. Neifi leading off…and going yard! The home run was hit directly into the wind, we’re told, the same wind that had knocked down shots by Bay and Sanchez over the last couple days. Wehner: “Craig Wilson looks up, thinking maybe, maybe the wind will hold it up. But nope, can’t hold Neifi.”

Neifi Perez strikes a pose after crushing the second of what’s sure to be many homers in 2005.

Lee follows Perez with a single to right-center, and suddenly it looks like the Cubs are getting a read on Williams’ fastball. Ramirez takes the first pitch for a ball, then clubs the second pitch–another low fastball from behind in the count–up the middle for another single, making it first and second, nobody out. Like most pitchers, Williams works much better when ahead in the count–rather than throwing get-me-over high-80s fastballs, he’s able to mix in his sharp curve and deceptive slider, often getting hitters to whiff on his off-speed stuff. Now he’s falling behind, and Spin Williams has come out to try and help stop the bleeding.

Jason DuBois is up next. DuBois put up a huge .320/.392/.631-.286 EqA line last year at Triple-A Iowa–he was also 25 years old. On the other hand, in 2002 Dubois hit .321/.422/.562 in Daytona, for a .287 EqA. PECOTA projected a fairly optimistic .263/.344/.485 line for 2005, but in part-time duty. Though it’s still early in the year, DuBois looks lost at the plate and doesn’t appear ready for full-time major league duty, while Todd Hollandsworth has shown he can’t do much more than pinch-hit, lest he hit the disabled list. While DuBois couild pan out long-term, the Cubs would love an instant upgrade in left field; with a crippled middle infield, though, DuBois’ growing pains may remain on display all season. He strikes out on an 0-2 curve here.

Facing Jeromy Burnitz, though, Williams again falls behind 1-0, and again tries to come in with a low fastball. Burnitz creams it for a three-run homer, a blow that went a dozen rows deep despite the swirling wind…4-2 Cubs. Given the weakness of the Pirates’ lineup, that may have been it.

The game does settle into pitchers’ mode from there. Wood gets his eighth strikeout as he plows through the fifth–he’s held the Pirates completely at bay since the second and looks to be cruising. After Wood and Hairston make the first two outs of the bottom of the 5th, Perez works the count to 3-1, looking ready to add to his pursuit of the cycle–he needs just a single and triple, with at least two at-bats to go. Neifi then hacks at an eye-high fastball for strike two, then another heater, six inches off the plate, for strike three. He hurls his bat in disgust–when you’re this good, you have high standards.

Top of the 6th, and something’s amiss. Despite hitting for himself in the 5th, the Cubs bring in Glendon Rusch, not Wood, to start the inning. We later learn that the tendinitis in Wood’s right shoulder had acted up again. Just when he’s put together a strong performance–5 IP, 3 H, 2 ER, 3 BB, 8 Ks–the injury bug comes up to bite him again. After the game Dusty baker expressed hope that Wood would make his next start. The Cubs can’t afford a prolonged absence.

Fortunately for the Lincoln Park Trixies, the Cubs’ bullpen looks good today. Rusch works around three hits to usher the 4-2 lead into the 8th, and Michael Wuertz keeps the Bucs at bay heading into the 9th. In the bottom of the 8th the Cubs get a pinch-hit bunt single from Patterson and a sacrifice bunt from Hairston. This brings up the unstoppable Neifi Perez, hungry for more. The man does not disappoint, whacking a single up the middle to cash Patterson with the Cubs’ fifth run. Perez’s line for the day: 3-for-4, double, homer, single, one run scored, two RBI, up to .396 for the season. Nomar, Shmomar.

Top of the 9th and the Cubs go to Chad Fox, not LaTroy Hawkins to close out the game. Though he’s continued to put up his usual good peripherals with the Cubs, Hawkins has gained a reputation as an excellent set-up man who can’t hack it as a closer. After blowing the lead Saturday, Hawkins has again angered Baker, who’s installed Fox as his interim closer until Joe Borowski returns from injury. With apologies to fantasy players, it doesn’t make much difference if Fox handles the 9th and Hawkins the 8th or vice-versa. Both offer more than one out pitch, keep the ball in the park and miss enough bats to handle high-leverage bullpen innings. If Borowski comes back at 100%, with Rusch and Wuertz also on board, the Cubs will have a strong bullpen to back up a starting rotation that when healthy can dance with anyone.

Fox is mesmerizing the Pirates. He strikes out Craig Wilson on a big snapper of a curve on the outside corner, Wilson’s third whiff of the day. (This never would have happened if Wilson had kept his transcendent blonde mullet from last season…he’s the MLB equivalent of Samson.) Cota grounds out to first on another nasty curve. After a Sanchez walk, Redman swings through a 97-mph fastball, then waves at a curve down and out of the zone for strike three and the ballgame.

With the win, the Cubs get to .500. They’ll need to at least tread water for the next few weeks while they get healthy, and Jim Hendry should continue to put trade feelers out. Of course, the Cubs could always ride The New Neifi to playoff glory–stranger things have happened. The Pirates are headed nowhere for the 13th straight season. They’ll need to start seeing a pay-off from their farm system soon, or the McClendon/Littlefield regime could be in trouble. Improved drafting, better investment in the product, about five more Giles-for-Bay-and-Perez trades…in Pittsburgh, there’s still a long way to go.

Set Your VCRs and TiVos: The next Prospectus Game of the Week will be Blue Jays at Yankees, Sunday May 1, 1 p.m. ET (Channel 742 on MLB Extra Innings for DirecTV). Newly-minted Yankee Carl Pavano will take on former Yank Ted Lilly. With the media’s vultures circling over the Bombers’ slow start, we’ll be sure to wear a hat.

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