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When the Cubs made it official and announced Mark
Prior

would make his return from the DL Sunday and pitch for the first time
in a
month, I immediately thought this could be the Game of the Year of
Games
of the Week. Sure, the first
GotW of the season
featured a walk-off home run–on Opening Day–no
less. But that game featured more than its share of sloppy play, took
about three and a half hours to complete, and didn’t quite crackle with
the type of playoff-game excitement I’d been hoping to find throughout
the
season’s first three months.

Sunday’s game was different. Even right off the DL Prior is a constant
threat to completely dominate a game. His opponent, Jon
Garland
, entered Sunday’s game tied with Dontrelle
Willis
for the best record in baseball at 12-2. You can
attribute
some of Garland’s win barrage to luck, no question–his .253 BABIP, for
one, is well below league average, and when more balls in play start to
fall in for hits, that’ll hurt him. His strikeout rate of less than one
every other inning also portends regression, as virtually no pitchers
sustain success over the long haul at that level. Still, there’s a lot
to
be said for terrific control, which is just what Garland has shown this
year. At just over a walk and a half a game, Garland’s been among the
stingiest in baseball with the free pass. Even with a good but not
great
HR rate (11 in 108 IP), that’s enough to achieve success. Broadcaster
turned World Series-winning manager turned broadcaster Bob Brenly notes
that “Garland has been the best pitcher in baseball up to this point,”
a
point contradicted by several
Baseball Prospectus metrics
Roy Halladay and a
good
dozen others can make a better claim. But Garland’s still ranked a
respectable 15th in the majors in Expected
Wins according to BP’s brand spankin’ new Sortable Stats
, 8th if
you
count only pitchers with 15 starts or fewer.

Throw in a North Side-South Side Chicago rivalry that’s heated up
thanks
to the great play of the Sox and you had all the makings of a great
game.


Cubs
CF Corey Patterson .245 AVG
SS Neifi Perez .279
1B Derrek Lee .391
RF Jeromy Burnitz .279
3B Aramis Ramirez .307
2B Todd Walker .300
DH Michael Barrett .276
LF Todd Hollandsworth .257
C Henry Blanco .156

As John Erhardt notes in his New York Sun
article
today, Derrek Lee could be leading all
three
Triple Crown categories, were it not for the atrocious OBPs of
Corey Patterson (.281) and Neifi
Perez

(.307). Todd Walker suggested to Dusty Baker that he
be
elevated to the leadoff spot, where the Cubs could leverage his
superior
on-base skills (.361 OBP); Baker told Walker he preferred to leave him
in
the sixth slot to provide lineup protection for Aramis
Ramirez
. Of course–why give your best hitters the most
at-bats?
That would be lunacy.

Garland starts the game by mixing pitches to Patterson. Though Brenly,
play-by-play man Len Kasper and guest commentator Ryne Sandberg note
Garland’s two best pitches are his sinker and slider, he’s mixing in
plenty of four-seam fastballs and change-ups early on. He starts
Patterson
with two four-seamers, then gets him on a change at the outside edge.
Perez then rolls over on a sinker for out number two. Lee then crushes
another four-seamer, the ball looking like a homer right off the bat.
But
a gust of wind brings it back into the park, left fielder Scott
Podsednik
scooting from the wall back out to the front of the
warning track to make the catch.


White Sox
LF Scott Podsednik .295 AVG
2B Willie Harris .234
DH Frank Thomas .275
1B Paul Konerko .254
CF Aaron Rowand .280
RF Jermaine Dye .268
C A.J. Pierzynski .257
3B Joe Crede .242
SS Pablo Ozuna .292

It’s a significantly better lineup with Juan Uribe and the underrated Tadahito
Iguchi
in it, sure–assuming Uribe bounces back to something
approaching 2004 form (.284/.327/.506) rather than ’05
(.242/.283/.372).
Still, nothing jumps out at you about this lineup, other than the Sox
fielding a bunch of decent players who usually won’t hurt you.
Paul Konerko leads Sox regulars with a solid if
unspectacular .295
EqA
(Frank Thomas has put up a gaudy .350 figure, but in just 51 plate appearances, as he returns from injury). Add an OBP
vacuum at the bottom of the order in Pierzynski, Crede and Uribe and
the Sox could struggle to score in the second half.

The way Prior starts the game, even the ’27 Yankees wouldn’t have a
shot. Throwing mostly fastballs, Prior induces a lineout to left for
Scott Podsednik, a weak groundout to first by
Willie Harris–making it 0 extra-base hits in 65 at-bats this season for Harris–and a groudout to short by Thomas. Early on,
Prior throwing with his usual low-to-mid-90s velocity, hitting the corners
and showing near-perfect mechanics every time. This game could very well be
over in two hours.

Garland’s intelligence as a pitcher starts to show through in the
second. Knowing Jeromy Burnitz swings from his heels every time, Garland sets him up with two fastballs to get to 0-2, then throws a sinking change-up, eliciting a huge whiff from the Cubs’ cleanup hitter. Garland then works backwards to Ramirez, starting him with off-speed stuff, then throwing a high-80s fastball right by him for a second straight K.
Garland tops at 92 and more often hits 89-90 with his fastball. But when he’s
mixing pitches the way he is on this day, he’s going to make some
hitters look awful. A quick flyout by Walker sends the Sox up in the bottom of
the 2nd, still no score.

Prior starts the 2nd with a rare mistake, grooving a fastball to Konerko, the Sox hitter most likely to take advantage. The wind appears for the
second straight time, stopping what looked like at least a double and
knocking it down into Burnitz’s glove in right. Aaron
Rowand
, who’s also on the Juan Uribe career path
(out-of-nowhere 905 OPS last year, 734 in ’05), goes deeper into the count than his Sox mates, to 2-2. That only makes Prior mad–a fastball explodes past
Rowand for strike three. Prior looks like he’s in mid-season form, not just
back from a one-month injury layoff. Jermaine Dye pops out
to
end the 2nd.

Top of the 3rd: Michael Barrett flies out to right as Garland breaks his bat on a fastball, a testament to his newfound
ability to work the inside of the plate with success. An outside-edge change
induces a weak groundout to the mound by Todd
Hollandsworth
; Henry Blanco then pops out. We learn that the Cubs went into Mark Prior’s May 27 injury game ranked
13th in runs scored–they’re now 6th, with Lee and company holding the fort while Prior, Kerry Wood and the rest of the pitching staff worked through injuries and turnover. All well and good, but they’ll need a base runner at some point in this game, let alone a run, to keep it going.

The Sox finally get their first base runner in the bottom of the 3rd, as
Pablo Ozuna lines a clean single to left with two outs. Prior wheels to throw to first on a pickoff try, but gets his spike
caught in the dirt. Home plate umpire Angel Hernandez calls a balk. Replays
show Prior clearly stepped off the rubber before throwing over. Brenly,
who’s impressing in his return to the booth, calls Hernandez out with some
pointed, and well-placed criticism. “It was awkward, but there nothing
there that would justify a balk call. I’m telling you, the umpires
don’t even know what a balk is. If it looks funny, they call a balk. That was
a bad call by Angel Hernandez.” So no Christmas Card exchange between the
Brenlys and Hernandezes this year? Podsednik ends the threat by tapping
out to second.

The Cubs get their first runner in the top of the 4th on an infield hit
by Perez–it almost figures that Ozuna and Perez, not Lee, Konerko or any
of the teams’ other big hitters would break the schneid on each side in a
game like this. But with one out, Garland throws a mean sinker to Lee,
leading to an easy 5-4-3 inning-ending double play. This game has taken
about 38 seconds through the first three-and-a-half frames.

Notes interlude:

  • Given their merely decent lineup, it’s clear the Sox are built on
    pitching. The
    worst of the top five Sox starters
    sports a SNVAR
    of 0.7. The bullpen has also done some heavy lifting, getting dominant
    performances
    from previously forgettable veterans like
    Dustin
    Hermanson
    and Cliff Politte.

    Still, chinks are slowly starting to appear in the armor, even as the
    Sox maintain the biggest cushion of any division leader in baseball. After
    a hot start, Jose Contreras‘ ERA has shot up a full run in his last three outings. Orlando Hernandez was starting
    to
    unravel before hitting the DL. Brandon McCarthy is one
    of the best pitching prospects in baseball, but rookie starters are always
    a dicey bet. Mark Buehrle‘s a legit ace and
    Freddy Garcia looks like he’ll be the above-average inning horse people expect. But between Garland’s low strikeout rate, the shaky credentials of the bottom of the rotation, and Hermanson and Politte unlikely to keep pitching like Wetteland-Rivera circa 1996, the Sox look like a .500 team for the second half. With 50 wins already banked, though, .500 ball would net a 94-win season, still a strong bet for a playoff berth.

  • Garland fun facts: Would have attended USC had he not signed with the
    Cubs, which would have made him Prior’s teammate (Prior started at
    Vanderbilt, transferred to USC). The Cubs drafted Garland in the 1st
    round in 1997, then traded him for highly replaceable reliever Matt Karchner a year later at the
    deadline
    . One day Chris Kahrl will have to do a Top 10 most
    inexplicable trades of the TA era column. After several years of merely
    decent pitching by Garland made it look like the Cubs didn’t mess this
    one
    up too badly, we’re now back to Aaaaaargh! Level 5 in
    Wrigleyville.

  • The bottom of the 4th shows Prior at his best and also features the
    highlight of the game. Prior starts Harris with one of his patented
    sweeping fastballs that paints the inside corner for strike one. It’s a
    pitch he’ll throw a good dozen times during the game, and looks eerily
    Madduxian. With his same-every-time pitching motion and pinpoint
    control
    when he’s on, Prior looks a young Maddux out there, with better velocity.
    If he stays healthy he’ll win the Cy Young by 2007.

  • Prior doesn’t look all that Cy-like starting off to Thomas, running the
    count to 3-0. Then the fireworks start. Prior darts a fastball in there
    for strike one. At 3-1 he throws the nastiest pitch of the game, one
    I’m still struggling to identify. Friend o’ BP and erstwhile Chicagoan
    Keith Scherer says it’s a slider or some kind of trick pitch. I thought it
    was a hard curve. Whatever it was, the 3-1 offering takes a big,
    bending arc, with plenty of speed behind it. Thomas sits frozen for strike two
    as Sandberg lets out an audible “whoa!” With Thomas now set up, Prior guns
    a fastball right down the Ryan Expressway for strike three. Wait, there’s
    more. Prior falls behind 3-1 to Konerko. He then sweeps in another
    curve for strike two. Brenly: “3-1 breaking ball, Ryno?” Sandberg: “That
    takes all the fun out of it, right there.” Prior throws a nasty splitter in
    the dirt for the whiff, then shows a rare glimmer of emotion, his
    expression changing from statue to stoic.

Other highlights:

  • With Barrett on first and one out in the top of the 5th, Hollandsworth
    hits a sharp grounder up the middle that looks like a sure hit. Ozuna
    ranges to his left, makes a diving play, then flips to Harris from the
    ground to get Barrett by an eyelash. This is the Sox backup
    middle infield. The sell-out crowd goes nuts–one of the great results of the
    Pale Hose Parade in the first half of the season has been a big
    response by Sox fans, who haven’t a reason to pack the park in a while. Jammed
    with both Sox and Cubs fans, the crowd, as much as Prior and Garland, lent
    electricity to this game.

  • Not to be outdone, the Cubs defense provides ample support for Prior.
    Ramirez makes a great short-hop stab leading off the 6th against Crede,
    starting a 1-2-3 succession in Prior’s last inning. Burnitz makes a
    running catch at the wall in the bottom of the 5th off Pierzynski, on
    what looked like a sure extra-base hit. Prior’s line for the game: 71
    pitches, 50 strikes, six innings, 0 R, 0 BB, 3 K, 1 H (the Ozuna single).

  • Garland also puts up a strong line, just not strong enough. He starts
    Patterson with two strikes on the outer half of the plate. But on 0-2
    Garland throws a slider that breaks down and in, right into Patterson’s
    wheelhouse. Patterson jerks the pitch down the right-field line for a
    solo homer, providing all the offense the Cubs would need in a 2-0 win.
    Garland goes 7.1 innings, yielding just 5 H, 2 R (one earned), 1 BB while
    striking out five. Kasper and company noted early on that it was the kind of
    game that could get decided by one mistake. If not for the limp slider to
    Patterson, they may still be playing.

  • The Cubs allow just one hit for the game, getting key double plays in
    the 8th and 9th to preserve the lead, Jerome Williams (making a rare relief appearance while the Cubs sort through their rotation)
    and Ryan Dempster deftly wiggling out of jams.

  • Total time of play? Two hours, 14 minutes.

Set Your TiVos and VCRs: The next Prospectus Game of the Week will mark GotW;s first trip to Safeco Field since its recent move to the new Seattle headquarters. The Mariners will host the slugging Texas Rangers, fresh off their eight-homer barrage against the Angels. That’s Channel 746 on DirecTV, 7:05 p.m. start time. Chan Ho Park will battle Aaron Sele as both pitchers try to pretend it’s 2001 again.

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