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.