Yesterday the Cubs beat the Brewers 9-5 in the Wrigley Field opener mostly on the strength of three home runs which plated seven of the nine scores for Chicago. Much like last year and several recent seasons in Chicago, there is concern that the Cubs rely too heavily on the round trippers for their offensive output. So far this year the Cubs have scored 19 of 27 runs via the longball and there’s concern that they won’t be able to produce when the fickle winds of Wrigley turn around.
It is a little disconcerting that the team seems to scuffle for several innings (or games) at a time, failing to make the little plays to score runs and then suddenly open the floodgates with outbursts like they did yesterday. However, this season it appears the Cubs are coming up with more timely hits, even if they still tend to be big flies.
Last season, the team struggled mightily with runners on base and in scoring position, even failing to plate a single run in many bases loaded, no out situations. That occurred again in the 1st inning of Sunday’s game against Cincinnati, when Ryan Theriot, Kosuke Fukudome, and Derrek Lee each reached to open the game against Mike Leake, a pitcher making his first pro appearance on any level.
With the bases loaded, no one out, and cleanup hitter Aramis Ramirez coming up against a kid who last threw a competitive pitch for Arizona State, the Cubs proceeded to pop up, strikeout, and fly out for a scoreless frame. Of course I thought this was a harbinger of another long season of missed opportunities on the North Side, but yesterday’s output showed a different possibility.
I’m not just talking about the deluge of runs, which is a once a week commonplace in recent Cubs history. It’s the situations in which the runs scored that are more important. All nine of the runs came with two outs. The team which I last summer dubbed the “Rally Assassins” was suddenly more clutch than a stick shift, at least for a day. Perhaps new hitting coach/proclaimed miracle worker Rudy Jaramillo is starting to have an impact on this lineup.
In the five run third, the Cubs had runners on second and third with two outs after a double steal on a strikeout. This was a classic Cubs opportunity to blow a good chance. However, Xavier Nady homered, Alfonso Soriano singled, and then Jeff Baker capped it with another homer. The next inning the Cubs would hit safely four consecutive times with two outs to plate three more and they added another two-out tally in the fifth. In all, 9 of their 13 hits came with two outs.
More than the home runs and the gala event of Opening Day, these situational successes should give Cubs fans hope that the slow start is fading and this Cubs team may have what it takes to get back to the top of the division.
Even after the 13 hits yesterday, the club is still hitting a dismal .223, good enough for a tie for 14th in the National League. However, subsequent situational splits offer a glimmer of hope. With runners on the Cubs improve, sort of, to .233 (11th in NL) and with runners in scoring position they clobber the ball (not really) at a .250 clip (9th in the NL). Alright, none of those numbers are what you would call “good” or even “encouraging,” but this last one is. With runners in scoring position and two outs, the Cubs are hitting .333 (2nd in NL) and that’s where games are won and lost.
When pitchers are hanging by a thread, like Doug Davis was all day, a team must be able to provide the clutch hits that send him to the showers and open the bullpen gates. Too often in the recent past, Cubs teams have let pitchers hang around and stay in the game by letting them off the hook with double plays, baserunning mistakes, and by giving away at bats.
Perhaps yesterday is the early turning point for this team that can provide some momentum and confidence in those all-important situations. As the saying goes, “two out knocks get you to heaven,” and with enough of them maybe this team will find the promised land of October baseball.
Despite the new Ice Age that has settled over most of the country, apparently we really are going to have a spring this year, at least in Arizona and Florida. Today begins the grand spectacle of Spring Training and many greater writers than I have pontificated upon this marvel of American sporting life. It’s a time when Alfonso Soriano can still run and hit, when Zack Greinke can single-handedly drag the Royals to the playoffs, and when Stephen Strasburg is all potential and promise.
For the next six weeks we’ll be able to drool over veterans who’ve recommitted and rebuilt their bodies (or decommitted and rebuilt their bodies, a la Jose Guillen) and nameless studs with jersey numbers in the mid-nineties. Every team has added the pieces that will transform them into a winner or has invited to camp the kid who will blossom into a star. Even Ben Sheets has a locker with his name on it. Now we can officially begin scouring the newspapers (er, websites) for box scores and rotation battles and begin chalking up victories in our heads. Everyone’s magic number is the same and every lineup looks dangerous.
The excitement will build gradually: a successful ‘pen session for the rehabbing starter, a long blast by the newly signed free agent, a scoreless inning by the young flamethrower. Eventually we’ll get to pink slips and narrowed rosters and our teams will take focus. Good springs will surely transfer to great regular seasons and bad springs are nothing but slow starts and all will be well when the games really count.
Hitters will blast the ball out of parks in the desert air of Arizona, and pitchers will blast the ball off the tee of golf courses across Florida. Players will regain their leathery tans along with their fastball timing. Everything will begin to unfold slowly and gain steam throughout the summer. By the time the leaves turn and fall most of what we know now will be proven wrong and we’ll be left again to wonder how we didn’t see it coming.
For now though, we’re confident in what we see and feel. Everything is going to turn out right this year. This is going to be the greatest season ever and the summer of our lives. So let’s get out the bats and balls and get this thing going. Turn off the hot stove and forget about the transactions page and hypothetical lineups; it’s time for some real baseball and it couldn’t come a moment too soon.
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Cubs have thus far been one of the bigger disappointments of this Major League
season. They were expected to dominate
the NL Central this year on their way to a third consecutive division crown. However, little has gone the Cubs way this
year and they’ve stumbled to a 31-31 record as of June 18 that has them in 4th
place in the Central, 4 games back.
Part of the
problem has been the team’s inability to field a complete and healthy squad
almost the entire year. Aramis Ramirez
is still out with a dislocated shoulder, suffered way back on May 8. He isn’t expected back until early July at
the soonest. He’s been the team’s best
and most clutch hitter for the past several years and is a major catalyst that
they’ve sorely missed. Derrek Lee has
missed time with various sicknesses and ailments, and Milton Bradley has been
either injured or incredibly unproductive.
Even Carlos Zambrano missed a week when he was suspended for losing his
mind during a start a couple weeks ago.
This team has barely seen its projected regular lineup all together this
lengthy injury report, though, the Cubs real problem has been a complete lack
of timely hitting and the ability to create productive at bats in key
situations. Anecdotally I can tell you
that this team seems to produce fewer runs from situations with less than two
outs and the bases loaded or runners in scoring position than any other in the
league. Time and again they either
completely fail to put the ball in play or rap into tailor-made double plays to
end innings. The Cubs aren’t rally
killers, they’re rally assassins. They
can eliminate scoring opportunities with deadly precision and uncanny
hitting .227 with runners in scoring position, good enough for dead last in
MLB. With the bases loaded they’re
hitting .250, but they’ve struck out 21 times in only 76 bases loaded at
bats. They’ve hit into double plays with
the bases loaded more times (6) than they’ve hit sacrifice flies (5). They’ve either struck out or grounded into
double plays in 35% of their bases loaded at bats. That shows a complete team-wide inability or
refusal to take a good approach and simply produce productive at bats which
stems from their lack of discipline and inability to adjust.
Soriano refuses to take outside
pitches the other way and instead insists on striking out on breaking pitches
several inches outside on a regular basis.
Soto has shown no ability to make adjustments as the league has caught
up to him in his second full year. Lee has
not regained his ability to drive pitches that suddenly disappeared two years
ago. Bradley has been his usual surly
self, but hasn’t produced anything to offset that attitude. Only Fukudome has improved from last year,
when he performed well below expectations.
As a team, the Cubs are hitting a
putrid .244, 14th in the NL and 27th overall. They have 64 HR, 9th in the NL and
19th in MLB. Their SLG
(.394), OBP (.321), XBH (175), and Runs (254) rank 11th, 12th,
14th, and 15th in the NL respectively and 22nd,
23rd, 25th, and 28th in MLB. This is a team that scored 855 runs in 2008,
2nd in MLB and the only NL team to score more than 800. They’re featuring essentially the exact same
lineup. Lee, Geovany Soto, Alfonso Soriano,
Ramirez, Kosuke Fukudome, Ryan Theriot, and Mike Fontenot were all regulars
last year, only Bradley, expected to be an upgrade in right field, is new to
the lineup on an everyday basis.
has provided equal opportunity futility from top (Soriano: .225 AVG, .291 OBP
in the leadoff spot) to bottom (last year’s Rookie of the Year Soto: .217 AVG,
3 HR, 16 RBI). Even occasional bright
spots, like Lee’s recent hitting streak that has his average all the way up to
(yes, up to) .277 has been offset by the continued ineptitude of the other
hitters in the lineup.
The Cubs are 6-7 in June and have
averaged just over three runs per game this month. They should consider themselves lucky that
the pitching staff has performed well enough to allow them to win 6 of those
games. They’ve allowed just over three
runs per game in June, too. Three of
those wins were veritable onslaughts in which they scored 6 twice and 7 once. In the other three wins they managed three
runs twice and two runs once with their pitchers providing outstanding
performances to carry the offense.
Look even closer and you’ll see
that the staff did more than just pitch.
In the 2-1 victory on June 5, Carlos Zambrano hit the eventual
game-winning homer for himself. On June
7 and June 9, both wins, each Cubs starter (Randy Wells and Ted Lilly) had a
hit and a run scored. Perhaps the big
changes that Lou Piniella has hinted at include implementing a lineup with his
starting pitchers batting in the 5-9 spots.
Throughout any year a pitching
staff must carry its lineup for a period and vice versa, but this year has been
a season-long failure for the Cubs offense and it’s forced the pitchers to work
with a razor-thin margin of error. Randy
Wells, for example, has started seven times, averaged six innings per start and
has an excellent 2.55 ERA as a fill in for Rich Harden, yet he’s 0-3 and has
yet to record his first Major League win, though in nearly every start he’s
made a quality start and put his team in position to win.
Without an offense to support their
solid pitching, this Cubs team is going nowhere and with the talent and big names
throughout their lineup they can only be viewed thus far as a tremendous
failure. A second-half turnaround could
put them back in contention in the mediocre NL Central, but nothing about this
team’s play suggests it will improve on the well-documented failures of the
previous two seasons. It looks like next
year is still over the horizon for the faithful in Wrigleyville.