"People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball. I'll tell you what I do, I stare out the window and wait for spring." - Rogers Hornsby

al yellon rants about the Cubs, the universe, and everything
:: welcome to 'and another thing!' - voted by readers as Best Cubs Blog 2004

:: Cubs' final 2004 record: 89-73, 3rd NL Central, -16. Last game: 10-8 win over Braves
:: Al's final 2004 record: 51-41, .554 (44-37 home, 7-4 road)
:: Cubs' 2004 record in all other games: 38-32, .543 (1-0 home, 37-32 road)
:: Next spring training game: Thursday, March 3, 2005, vs. A's at Phoenix, 2:05 pm CT
:: Next game: Monday, April 4, 2005, vs. Diamondbacks at Phoenix, 4:40 pm CT
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:: Saturday, July 10, 2004 ::

Lesson Learned

Here's what we learned today:

Glendon Rusch stinks out of the bullpen.

He's been so good as a starter replacing Kerry Wood, that it looked like the Cubs would have a good extra lefthanded arm in the bullpen now that Wood is back and definitely pitching tomorrow.

Uh, no.

Jim Edmonds hit Rusch's first pitch for a single and by the time Rusch was mercifully removed for Francis Beltran, the Cardinals had turned a potentially winnable 3-2 deficit into a 5-2 Cardinals win over the Cubs this afternoon, the eighth win in a row for St. Louis and the Cubs' fifth loss in a row, matching the longest losing streak of the year so far, and dropping them to eight games out of first place.

Those of you, who, like me, have tried to compare this to last year ought to quit it right now. Each season is different -- this year alone, we've seen the Giants, who were supposedly dead and buried, 10 games out of first place (and 8 games under .500) in May, run off a ten-game winning streak, and find themselves in the thick of contention; the Marlins, who a couple of weeks ago seemed to be running away with the NL East, are now in fourth place, and at .500. Heck, even the Devil Rays won twelve in a row this year.

It seems to be a streaky year for many teams, and there are still seventy-six games remaining. So many things can happen in seventy-six games.

However, the Cub offense has to revive itself from its moribund state. In the last six games the Cubs have scored the following number of runs:

Two, zero, two, zero, one, two.

And the first one of those was a 2-1 win over the White Sox, which, incidentally, is the last time the Cubs even had a lead.

I call again on Jim Hendry to release Rey Ordonez (who was forced into action today when Ramon Martinez sprained his ankle trying to beat a relay throw, on which he was called out, though replays indicated he was probably safe), and replace him with... well, anyone. Benji Gil. Ricky Gutierrez. Walter the scorecard vendor who sells me my scorecards. ANYONE.

Aramis Ramirez was on deck today when Jose Macias struck out to end the game, and while normally I'd say that was the wrong guy in the game, I suppose it doesn't make any sense to put someone out there who's not 100% (Ramirez) when you are three runs down. If the score had still been 3-2, then Ramirez would have been the right guy in that situation. We hope Ramirez can play tomorrow night, when Kerry Wood makes his return. Is he a savior? No. But you also cannot downplay the psychological lift it ought to give the ballclub. Any team can go through an offensive slump, and this one just seems to have come at the worst possible time. Matt Clement again pitched well enough to win -- 3 earned runs in six IP, but he'd have had to throw a shutout today to guarantee victory.

It simply is not realistic to think that the Cardinals will play for two and a half more months at this level, nor that the Cubs will be this bad for two and a half more months.

Sammy Sosa was about the entire offense today, as he doubled and scored the first run, then sent his 554th career homer into the right-field seats in the sixth, making the score 3-2 at the time. The Cub contingent of fans was particularly loud today, or maybe that was just how the Fox audio people were making it sound. Today's crowd of 50,569 was the largest in St. Louis since they removed a lot of the CF upper-deck seats in a 1997 renovation.

While the Cubs were snoring through their latest offensive non-production, I finished "The Fenway Project", the book I'd started last night.

Kindred spirits to the Cubs, the Red Sox lost that June 28, 2002 game to the Braves 4-2.

On that same day, that the Cubs put up an 8-0 lead against the White Sox, only to lose 13-9. As I was walking out of what was then still Comiskey Park that day, I heard the usual "Cubs suck" calls. I turned to one such Sox fan and said, "I can't argue with you today."

:: posted by Al at 3:47 PM [+] ::
...
If The Cubs Win Today...

Give credit to blog reader Sam Gerros, a Chicago native who now lives in Belleville, near St. Louis, and who e-mailed me this morning:

I got a call from a friend last night asking me if I wanted to go to the game today. He had two extra tickets five rows behind the Cubs dugout. What was I supposed to say - I said yes, I'd take them. I'm bringing my youngest - he's eight. I'm wondering, what exactly is the technique for dropping the tomato piece on the scorecard. I might as well try it; it can't hurt, can it? The line-up needs help - desperately!

He's right, of course. I just e-mailed him instructions and I hope I got them to him before he left for the ballpark.

The Tomato Inning has great power. Watch for a big inning sometime today.

:: posted by Al at 10:57 AM [+] ::
...
Uh-Oh...

Well, this isn't good. The Cubs have gone 8-30 in St. Louis since 2000, and that's with a 3-4 record this year before last night.

It got so bad that I hid behind a SABR research journal last night from last fall, that I had set aside and not read.

So while the Cardinals were slamming their last couple of home runs, I was reading about pitchers who had the most 1-0 career victories. Did you know that Fergie Jenkins won 13 such games? And that he also lost six times by 1-0 in 1968 alone? Why am I torturing myself by reading about games where teams don't score runs?

Seriously, you had to know that the Cubs weren't going to win this game when the starting lineup included Rey Ordonez (who managed to raise his average six points by going 1-for 4), Paul Bako and Greg Maddux. Yes, I know Maddux was pitching, but unlike previous years, he hasn't hit well at all this year. And so, facing a potent Cardinal lineup, this is like playing six hitters against nine, and you simply cannot win that way.

I also read a little bit of SABR's "The Fenway Project", in which 64 SABR volunteers each recorded their perspective of a June 2002 game at Fenway Park. Highly recommended.

If those people had watched last night's decisive 6-1 loss to the Cardinals, they might have thrown down their notepads in disgust. About the best thing I can say about Maddux' performance is that he didn't walk anyone.

What that also means is that with the three homers he allowed (Jon Leicester served up the last one, to Tony Womack, of all people), he has now allowed more homers (20) than walks (18).

Jason Marquis, who is a similar pitcher to Maddux and was his teammate for several years in Atlanta, outpitched his mentor last night, giving the Cubs eight singles and a home run by Derrek Lee, but inducing three double plays, including a game-ender on a nice pick of a line drive by Albert Pujols, who doubled off Lee.

Let me play the optimist for a moment here, because having now given up all the ground gained with the four-game winning streak of last week with a losing streak that's reached four, we need some.

The Cubs still maintain the wild-card lead, by percentage points over the Giants. If you look at the entire National League, what most teams are doing is unprecedented. Leaving out Colorado, Pittsburgh, Montreal and Arizona, the other twelve teams are all within 9 1/2 games of each other, something unheard of halfway through the season. Eventually, this will sort itself out.

The Cardinals are the hottest team in baseball right now and the Cubs are about the coldest, and this sort of thing doesn't last forever. The Cubs are 17-13 since the "tough" part of the schedule began on June 7, and I think we'd have taken that if we had known this ahead of time.

That said, winning the next two games and going into the break with a bit of momentum is pretty much imperative. So is getting Aramis Ramirez back in the lineup.

I'm going to give the last word today to Joe Baker, who is an occasional correspondent from Philadelphia -- and even though he's primarily a Phillies fan, he's got the situation well scoped out:

Just watched another pathetic performance by the Cubs. Every team goes through slumps through a 162 game season, but the Cubs look like Dead Men Walking. The whole team might have to see "The Wizard of Oz" because they have to get a heart, brains and courage.

I hate to say the turning point of the season might have been that game in St. Louis on June 23rd where the Cubs blew that 4 run lead. The Cubs haven't been the same team after that game.

What move either by Dusty or Hendry can be done to get the ship on course? You won't win too many games with Rey Ordonez, Paul Bako and Ramon Martinez.


:: posted by Al at 5:40 AM [+] ::
...
:: Friday, July 09, 2004 ::
Striking A Chord

You know, it figures that the thing that I've written about that's gotten me the most feedback isn't about baseball, but about the screaming idiot (who shall STILL not be named) who was heard loud and clear in Milwaukee Wednesday night.

Here's just a sample of the e-mail I've received since then.

From Tim:

Blasted freakin HELL man!! THAT was annoying, and I just heard it for
a few minutes as I was driving to work!

Don't hold back, man. Tell us what you really think!

From Rich, who remembers that last year I called him the "human air-raid siren":

I live in Florida so I listen to Pat & Ron over the Internet and mute my DirecTV MLB package audio on the TV, and he was coming through CLEARLY almost the whole game.

I've only been around him a few times at Wrigley. It's terrible. I understand that you call him the 'human air-raid siren'...but I have to disagree. Air-raid sirens at least serve a purpose.

Good point!

From Chris:

When I was listening to the radio broadcast of the game [Wednesday] night I heard some idiot screaming at the top of his lungs during every at bat and it was driving me nuts! I wanted to strangle the guy because he was giving me a headache - is this the same guy you were referring to? The guy I heard was screaming rhythmically and was able to keep his voice through it all.

Yeah, that was him. It's odd -- it's not really screaming. I've seen him do it enough to notice that it doesn't come from the throat, it's kind of pulling air in and expelling it out in that loud, irritating fashion. I think that's why he can do it for hours.

From Dick:

I was listening to Pat and Ron [Wednesday] night as I watched the TV (I become physically ill or enraged when exposed to Chip Caray), and gradually I became aware of this incessant pounding in my brain. It was the individual you referred to. After noticing him, it became unbearable to listen. So I turned the radio off as well, picked up the paper, and read it as I glanced up to take in the last two innings. This was all the attention that game, and the team, deserved [Wednesday] night.

From Claude:

Nothing like great public relations. Now we know what we have in common with Brewer fans. That guy is supposed to have very little money. How does he get into the games? How does he get up to Milwaukee? Or out to Arizona?

I had heard that when Mark Grace and Mickey Morandini were Cubs, they used to pay his travel expenses. How stupid of them. Think they'd like having him sit next to them in the dugout screaming for two hours? Later, I think one of the goofy morning radio DJ's paid some of his costs, and now, incredibly, he makes his own public appearances, has a CD (now, that'd probably break your speakers) and a website -- no, now you didn't really think I'd link to it, did you?

Finally, this post from the Cubs newsgroup:

Could hear it on TV, too. I caught the end of the game and Chip and
Steve were laughing at the Brewers' fans who stared at Ronnie like he was from another planet. They looked like they wanted to shove every brat in Milwaukee down his WOO throat WOO.

Wish they had.

Got this late e-mail from Kasey Ignarski:

I have hated Ronnie since the early 70's when I was starting to sit in the bleachers. Unfortunately, there are people who have paid to get him tickets and to help him travel. I have also heard Grace himself say that he used to leave tickets for him. I remember one time in the 70's, a petition was distributed to have him banned... unfortunately nothing happened. People who come to the park once or twice find him "Cute". I saw him the other day in front of the park trying to get some cute girls to hula hoop with him. They were giggling as they fell for his lines. That's what keeps him there. It's really pathetic. Since I work by the Water Tower, I remember seeing him at the Brickhouse funeral (it was up the street from me) in full uniform. He is a walking joke. Have you heard his radio commercial for some office products company? It's horrible. Really makes me think that if I needed their services, I would find a competitor fast.

So would I, Kasey.

Seriously, I hope all of this brings more attention to the fact that security at Wrigley Field and other ballparks can put a stop to this. I say again, there's nothing wrong with him being a fan, and making his weird noises if he wants to.

But if you happen to be unlucky enough to get stuck next to him, and you ask him politely to stop, he ought to just do it, and if not, he should be escorted off the premises.

He didn't show up at the Cubs/Sox series at the Cell this year, and I think for good reason. He's been thrown out of there more than once.

:: posted by Al at 12:20 PM [+] ::
...
:: Thursday, July 08, 2004 ::
This Has Got To Stop

I'm not even talking about the games; I'll get to that in a moment.

What I'm talking about is a person who shall not be named here, because I refuse to give him what he wants, which is recognition. But even without that you'll recognize right away who I'm talking about.

In the 8th inning of last night's telecast you began to hear loud sounds in the background and realized that it was the idiot who thinks it's funny to sit and yell at the top of his lungs in the Wrigley Field bleachers, whether you want him to or not. He had sneaked down into a front-row seat at Miller Park.

He was yelling so loud that the young woman sitting next to him (wearing a Cub jersey, incidentally) had her hands in her ears, and people nearby were looking around for help. Steve Stone even said (half-jokingly, I think ) that there was a guy a few rows behind brandishing a bat (the shot did show someone holding up one of those miniature souvenir bats). Stone also called him "unique", and you could just tell that Steve had more choice words to use, but decided to hold his tongue.

What these people should have done was immediately called Miller Park security, or the Milwaukee police, and have him ejected from the ballpark. This is unacceptable behavior. Having been subjected myself to this wailing in my ears for half an hour at a time, I can tell you that it is absolutely horrendous, and you know -- I do understand that he is a Cub fan, and that's OK, but when it's annoying and you ask him to stop, he should just stop.

Since he is apparently incapable of understanding polite requests to stop yelling in your ear, I am in support of any and all measures necessary to stop it. Fortunately, he has not been in the bleachers that much this year, apparently because he hasn't been able to get tickets and security has not let him in.

If you want this sort of thing, go to a circus. Me, I want to watch baseball.

Oh, and Chip Caray was wrong about one thing. Chip said that this individual went to Japan when the Cubs were there in 2000. Having been on that trip myself, I can tell you Chip was wrong -- he wasn't there. I suspect the Japanese authorities would have locked him up.

The Cubs lost to the Brewers 4-0, while all of this was going on, and there's not much more to say about that. Even Rachel's Cub cap didn't help last night. She's worn it for a week now, and perhaps it needs a day off.

The offense managed to generate two runs and only 16 hits in the three games, and as solid as the ballclub looked in the week ending with the exciting win on Sunday, that's as bad as they looked against the Brewers. You can see how clearly the Cubs miss Aramis Ramirez, and we hope he plays Friday, but there are no guarantees of that. Derrek Lee in particular looked like a lost little minor-leaguer during this series, going 1-for-12. It's quite a turnaround from last year, when the Cubs didn't lose a single game at Miller Park, and it is the first time the Cubs have been swept in a three-game series since Sept. 24-26, 2002. Only ten players (Sammy Sosa, Moises Alou, Corey Patterson, Alex Gonzalez, Kerry Wood, Matt Clement, Mark Prior, Joe Borowski, Kyle Farnsworth and Francis Beltran) remain from that sorry squad that lost 95 games.

I'm sure the naysayers and sky-is-falling types will say, "Trade for a closer! Trade for a shortstop! Trade for this! Trade for that!"

But let us not lose sight of the fact that the Cubs' record is still the second-best in the National League, that even if the NL Central is out of reach (and I don't think it is), that the wild card is a distinct possibility, and once you get in the playoffs, anything can happen -- as we found out to our amazement, both good and bad, a year ago. Six games behind is hardly insurmountable with seventy-eight games remaining.

However, it had better start soon. The Cubs are 3-4 in St. Louis so far this year (and 4-3 against them in Chicago, 7-7 overall) and it is imperative to win at least two out of three.

Pitching matchups for this weekend:

Friday, 7:10 CT: Greg Maddux vs. Jason Marquis (TV: WGN)
Saturday, 12:20 CT: Matt Clement vs. Jeff Suppan (TV: Fox, regional)
Sunday, 7:05 CT: Kerry Wood vs. Matt Morris (TV: ESPN)

Now, the final decision on Wood's start will wait till after his side throwing session on Friday, but based on his appearance at Iowa on Tuesday, I can't imagine he won't start. That should give the club a boost. If for any reason he can't go, Mark Prior will start on Sunday.

:: posted by Al at 9:02 AM [+] ::
...
:: Wednesday, July 07, 2004 ::
The Domino Effect

It didn't seem so important at the time; a little tweak of the groin putting Aramis Ramirez out of Friday's game against the White Sox.

And when the Cubs won that day and the next two, it really didn't seem that meaningful.

But the last two days, losses to the Brewers, including last night's frustrating 4-2 defeat, show how much the Cubs miss Ramirez, and with Todd Hollandsworth on the DL, the lineup and bench are resembling, at this time, what we saw from the club during the first half of 2003.

With Ramirez out, Dusty decided to start Triple-A callup Brendan Harris, to make his ML debut. This is a move I agreed with, because when Jason Dubois and David Kelton were on the roster, they were barely used. There's no sense in bringing up a guy who's accustomed to playing every day, then expecting him to produce getting two at-bats a week.

Harris didn't waste any time making an error, though it was a tough error, on a bunt by Craig Counsell. He probably wouldn't have been able to get Counsell anyway, but his throwing error allowed Scott Podsednik to score the first run of the game. After the game the Milwaukee hometown scorer changed the error to a hit, which made all four runs allowed by Mark Prior earned, instead of unearned, as they should have been. Harris did hit an RBI double for his first major league hit later, but the rest of the offense couldn't do much against the junkballing Victor Santos, Mike "Don't Call Me Terry" Adams, and the relievers who shut down the Cubs on Monday, Luis Vizcaino and Danny Kolb, who anyone could have had a year ago after the Rangers released him.

Prior struggled through a 35-pitch first inning, and by the time he had thrown 92 pitches after four, he was done -- another example of the domino effect, because Tom Goodwin was forced to pinch-hit early, which left the bench pretty empty for the rest of the game. Jose Macias had a pinch-hit, but was stranded, and when Todd Walker had a chance to drive in some runs, with two runners on and two out in the seventh, he grounded out weakly. That was a Todd Hollandsworth situation, and it may not be till after the All-Star break when everyone comes back.

The bullpen kept the Cubs in the game, particularly Jon Leicester, who has thrived in long relief. Among all the rookie pitchers, he's the most likely to stick in the bullpen when Mike Remlinger and Todd Wellemeyer come back.

There is good news today, though. Kerry Wood threw five strong innings at Iowa last night and should be on target to pitch on Sunday at St. Louis. Incidentally, in that Iowa/Albuquerque game, Sergio Mitre threw the last four innings and allowed only one hit, earning his first save of the year. I have always felt that Mitre needed Triple-A experience (he had none before 2004) and though I don't think he's suited to be a starter at the ML level, perhaps he is finding a place as a middle reliever.

I wound up missing some of the Cub scoring last night because I nodded off on the couch watching the game. Or maybe I was hypnotized by one of Fox Sports Net's cameras, which clearly had a technical problem -- in the early innings they kept going to tight shots of Santos before he pitched with the camera jiggling and losing color, only to switch to a perfectly fine CF shot for the pitch. As a director I can tell you that if you have a piece of equipment that is malfunctioning, don't use it till it's fixed! Someone must have fixed or replaced this camera later on, because it worked fine during the later innings.

The Cardinals won again last night 5-3, putting the Cubs five games behind, so a win tonight is almost mandatory, and even under a very optimistic scenario I don't see the Cubs better than three games out when we hit the All-Star break after Sunday's game. That's not insurmountable by any means, even with no games left vs. St. Louis after July 20, and the Cubs are the wild-card leaders and have been for a couple of weeks.

We remain hopeful.

Oh, and you know the Beatles' song "When I'm Sixty-Four"?

The first of the Fab Four turns 64 today. It's Ringo's 64th birthday.

Man, am I getting old.

:: posted by Al at 8:28 AM [+] ::
...
:: Tuesday, July 06, 2004 ::
Movie Review: "Spider-Man 2"

While I'm whiling away the hours waiting for the Cubs game against the Brewers to start at 7 tonight, I thought I'd post this review of this immensely popular sequel, which my son Mark and I saw on Sunday afternoon.

(Mark's review: "It was great!" OK, he's not quite nine. What do you want?)

This movie is a comic book. No, that doesn't mean what you think it does. Yes, it's based on a comic book, and that's the point. Even though it's live-action, you have to look at it that way, and see the characters in that sense, and think of the dialogue and action as comic-book dialogue and action.

In that sense Sam Raimi has made a perfect comic book. Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst do their Spider-Man 1 performances one better this time. I simply cannot imagine Jake Gyllenhaal (who was under consideration as a replacement for Maguire at one point) in this role. Maguire was thinking about dropping out due to back problems that were in part a result of the punishing stunts he did himself in the first movie, and there is a scene in "2" that does a neat little wink at this.

The use of popular music is terrific, even some older songs like "Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head". There's a lot of action, but there are also sweet and tender moments, and not only between Maguire and Dunst, but between Maguire as Peter and the terrific Rosemary Harris as Aunt May Parker.

Alfred Molina gets better in every role he plays (go see him as Diego Rivera in "Frida" for a great example of how great an actor he is), and he's a terrific villain as Otto Octavius, who becomes through a great comic-book style "accident", "Doctor Octopus", or as Peter Parker/Spider-Man's nemesis Daily Bugle editor Jonah Jameson (J. K. Simmons, and rarely has an actor as precisely resembled his comicbook character as Simmons resembles Jameson) terms him, "Doc Ock".

I've read some criticisms of the CGI work in this film -- that it didn't seem realistic, but there's one chase/battle scene that really did work, and seemed completely real, except for the fact that there aren't any elevated trains in midtown Manhattan. But the scene wouldn't have worked as well without it, and for that, Raimi can be forgiven.

Naturally, the ending leads right into sequel territory, and there are plans to make four more of these films, though likely only one more with Maguire and Dunst, who are perfect for the roles but might be too old for them by the time they get around to making Spider-Man 4. Until then, enjoy them and enjoy this one, because as summer escape action fare, it's just about perfect.

Note: this movie is rated PG-13 for "Stylized Action Violence", but I didn't find anything that you couldn't take your average nine or ten year old to.

AYRating: ****

:: posted by Al at 4:47 PM [+] ::
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:: Monday, July 05, 2004 ::
Mirror Image

Let's see.

Two fast-working pitchers mowing down offenses on a cool day.

Second batter for the home team hits a solo home run.

Didn't we see this game last night?

Sure felt like it. The only thing missing was the visiting team, this time the Cubs, hitting the game-tying homer in the top of the ninth off the home team, this time the Brewers', closer, and so the Cubs, despite allowing one run for the second game in a row, had their four-game winning streak snapped and lost to Milwaukee 1-0, the only run scoring on a home run by, of all people, Craig Counsell -- his second of the year and only his 17th in a 2200-at bat career. Aside from the homer, the Brewers had only two other hits, both singles, and six walks from Clement, all of whom were stranded.

Matt Clement deserved better, but he ran into an absolute buzzsaw today in Ben Sheets, who is now 7-2 lifetime against the Cubs. Sheets struck out 12 and the Brewer bullpen (Luis Vizcaino and Dan Kolb) got five of their six outs on strikeouts. I can't fault the Cubs for swinging away today -- Brewer pitchers threw 101 strikes out of 148 total pitches -- but they clearly missed the bats of Aramis Ramirez, still sitting out his groin injury, and Moises Alou, who was given the day off and who was on deck waiting to bat for Rey Ordonez when Jose Macias struck out to end the game.

The crowd, 45,016, second-largest in Miller Park history, seemed about 2/3 Cub fans, and it will be the same for the nine other games 90 miles up the road over the next six weeks. It included Howard and his family and Jeff, who went up as part of a big bus tour organized by some of the folks in the LF bleachers. They had little to cheer about today as despite six hits (two doubles) and a walk, the Cubs never seriously threatened to score.

It was a weird day both here and there. It's unusually cool -- about 68 degrees -- here in Chicago, and we were supposed to take the kids swimming at Carole & Ernie's pool today. That was crossed off the list due to the cool and cloudy weather. So Rachel went bicycle riding -- and took her Cubs cap off. Well, she's worn it through the entire four-game winning streak, when the Cubs were playing, and so perhaps that spell was broken. I think I'll make her wear it tomorrow night. We must all take one for the team.

It was even cooler in Milwaukee -- 59 degrees at gametime -- and thus I think the decision to play the game with the roof open was an odd one. The shadow came over home plate early and almost certainly led to the large number of strikeouts (28, only two short of the major league record of 30 for both teams in a nine-inning game). They should have closed the roof.

The Cardinals won their own fourth in a row today, 4-1 over the Reds, and so the Cubs drop to four games out, two games ahead of the Brewers, who are a whole lot better than I thought they'd be this year. Here's what I said about them in April in my annual predictions (yes, I'll own up to it), picking them for last place in the Central:

MILWAUKEE BREWERS
Offense: Horrid
Defense: Putrid
Pitching: Awful
Intangibles: Could be worse than the Tigers

Well, "could be worse than the Tigers" was at least close -- Detroit's also been vastly improved and is only five games worse than Milwaukee as of this day. The worst part about this is that I made a friendly bet with my new friend John Aldrich from the Phoenix area during spring training that the Brewers wouldn't win more games this year than last (68). So, it appears I owe him dinner at the Pink Pony in Scottsdale next March.

I've digressed again, darnitall!

The good news about the Cardinals win is that it begins to put the Reds where they are likely going to finish in the division, and assuming that the Cubs right the ship the next two days with Mark Prior and Carlos Zambrano going, then playing the Cardinals head-to-head this weekend, this could become a two-team race fairly quickly. As of now the Cubs still plan to have Kerry Wood throw a rehab start tomorrow in Des Moines against Albuquerque (the AAA club of the Marlins), and if all goes well he may start against the Cardinals on Sunday, which means that Glendon Rusch, who has thrown so well, would have his start skipped due to the off day, and would be available in the bullpen (other starters against the Cardinals would be Greg Maddux on Friday and Clement on Saturday).

Wood was at Wrigley Field last night shagging flies and throwing baseballs into the bleachers during BP and looking just fine, so I'd think this would be a logical progression. Having him start that day, would also allow the Cubs to make the post-All Star rotation:

Prior (starting tomorrow, perhaps available to relieve in St. Louis)
Wood (starting Sunday, then on normal four-day rest)
Zambrano (starting Wednesday and appearing in the All-Star Game)
Clement (starting Saturday)
Maddux (starting Friday)

(or, perhaps reversing the 4th and 5th slots)

which is exactly as it was envisioned during spring training. It appears possible that Alex Gonzalez may also return after the break, which means (in addition to the fact that when he returns, you can wave bye-bye to Rey Ordonez, probably forever) that a week from Thursday, July 15 at home against the Brewers, in the 88th game of the season, the Cubs can put their projected Opening Day 25-man roster out there for the first time.

:: posted by Al at 5:11 PM [+] ::
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Correction Section

I got an e-mail from a Sox fan, who corrected me in regards to my comment last night:

This is only the second three-game sweep between the Cubs and White Sox since they began interleague play in 1997 -- the other was also at Wrigley Field, by the Cubs, in 1998.

So, wishing to be fair, I should point out that the Sox did sweep the Cubs at Wrigley Field in 1999 -- in fact, now that I recall, that was one of the events that sent the Cubs, who had started that season out well, into a downward spiral from which they never recovered.

Not that I'm suggesting anything here or anything.


:: posted by Al at 8:25 AM [+] ::
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:: Sunday, July 04, 2004 ::
Sweep!

My day started out with loud noises as during the afternoon, I took my son Mark to see Spider-Man 2 (review coming in a day or so; the short version is -- it's terrific!). And then my day at the ballpark started with a bang -- literally.

Some idiot decided it would be fun to blast off some firecrackers while several hundred people were waiting in line about five minutes before the bleacher gates opened. Luckily, no one was hurt, but they went off about 15 feet from my ears and were VERY loud.

Security attempted to remove from the line the people responsible; naturally, no one owned up to it, so it was let go, apparently.

I was afraid that, with everyone having the chance to drink all day on this holiday, that something like that might happen in the ballpark itself. The crowd was very early-arriving; at gate-opening the line was all the way down Sheffield and curved around half a block west down Addison, and the bleachers were nearly full by 6:00, rare for night games.

Amazingly enough, there wasn't a single incident in the bleachers all night, or anywhere else in the park, either. Everyone was intense, all right -- baseball intense. The Cubs' heart-pounding 2-1 win over the White Sox, their fourth in a row, moving them to another season-high, 11 games over .500, had everyone riveted with almost every pitch, particularly in the later innings when it appeared that Derrek Lee's 2nd inning home run (hit, incidentally, precisely on the Tomato Square on my scorecard. This worked even though Howard wasn't there and I had to rely on a Wrigley Field diced tomato rather than one from Jimmy John's) might hold up for a victory.

I can't say enough about Glendon Rusch's performance tonight -- it was even better than his 9-strikeout gem against the Cardinals on May 22. Tonight, he was in serious trouble only twice -- in the second when Ramon Martinez got him out of it with a nifty double play, after Mark Grudzielanek couldn't quite reach Aaron Rowand's little popup, but wound up with a forceout anyway; and in the seventh when Carlos Lee and Paul Konerko led off with singles, and after a sacrifice the next two hitters made easy outs.

Rusch threw 104 pitches and walked nobody, and deserved a win, which LaTroy Hawkins vultured away from him by allowing C. Lee's home run in the 9th. OK, C. Lee is a good hitter and has always hit well at Wrigley Field. But still.

In any event, Rusch has been a godsend replacing Kerry Wood in the rotation, and lowered his ERA to 3.84 tonight. He got one of the louder ovations of the night when he struck out Frank Thomas, pinch-hitting for Mark Buehrle in the 8th (Thomas is now 4-for-25 lifetime as a pinch-hitter). In fact, Cub pitching overall shut down the White Sox' offense, which seems to either score ten runs a game or none, allowing them only three earned runs (five total runs) in 24 innings.

Buehrle matched Rusch almost pitch for pitch, allowing only four hits other than D. Lee's homer, and two of those were also by Lee, a single in the fourth and double in the sixth.

The fun really started for the Cubs when Shingo Takatsu, he of the 61-MPH junkball, came in to start the 8th. Mike said to me, "I hope someone gets on so he can face Sammy Sosa." He got his wish when Grudz singled. The next hitter was Corey Patterson, and I said, "He will have absolutely no clue how to hit this guy." Right again. Corey struck out and looked bad doing it.

Sammy fought off a couple of weird-looking Takatsu -- well, I can't really call them sinkers, can I? What are they? -- pitches, and then hit a harmless popup to Rowand in center.

In the 9th, Moises Alou, newly named to the NL All-Star team along with Sosa and Carlos Zambrano, led off with a single. D. Lee was asked to sacrifice -- and ladies and gentlemen, you have seen history. That was the first sacrifice bunt of Lee's career.

After that it got fun. It was an obvious move to intentionally walk Michael Barrett to set up the DP, but it took a visit by Sox catcher Jamie Burke and a mound conference, complete with UN translator (no, I made that last part up), to figure this out. Then Takatsu couldn't find the plate and walked Martinez too. We were all glad when Ozzie took him out, because the Marte-Todd Walker matchup was much better for the Cubs. Mike, who has seen a fair number of Sox games too, said that Marte often gets one pitch that he thinks will succeed and keeps throwing it till he fails. Thus he threw four straight high fastballs to Walker; he fouled two of them off, then fouled off a changeup, and then Marte threw ball four, another fastball into the dirt, ending the game.

By then the crowd had been whipped into near-playoff intensity; the last time I can remember hearing a regular-season crowd this loud was during last September's pulsating series with the Cardinals, and as I mentioned earlier, everyone was into the game. There was a small but loud contingent of Sox fans (not in the bleachers, but elsewhere), who loudly cheered C. Lee's homer, but by the bottom of the ninth, it sounded like all Cubs. There almost seemed to be fewer Sox fans this weekend than there are Cardinal fans here when St. Louis is in town -- probably because of the large number of Cub season tickets, particularly on weekends, when partial packages raise the season ticket total to nearly 27,000.

This is only the second three-game sweep between the Cubs and White Sox since they began interleague play in 1997 -- the other was also at Wrigley Field, by the Cubs, in 1998. The all-time series now stands Sox 22, Cubs 20, and though I'm not like some Sox fans (I'll say right now not all of them, though) who feel that these games are their World Series... I will say that it'll be nice to not have to hear from them for a while.

So Howard and Jeff, who opted for fireworks shows tonight, missed the baseball fireworks, and probably the most intense and exciting game of the year so far. Brian brought Kristy tonight, the first time they have been in the bleachers as a married couple (OK, everyone say, "AWWWWWWWWW")... and my ABC-7 colleague Stacey Baca, a big baseball fan, also joined us tonight, along with someone who used to sit with us all the time, but rarely does any more, Bob the Baker (we call him that because he used to work at a bakery) and his wife Deb.

I nearly pulled off the joke of the night by asking everyone if they were staying for the fireworks show after the game. Phil almost believed me. Of course, I doubt the neighbors would ever allow the Cubs to do this after a holiday game -- but who knows? The dire predictions of trouble tonight didn't come true, and the worst thing that happened appeared to be the firecracker incident before the gates opened. Once the game started, it was all baseball -- as it should be.

Sign seen, held up by a young woman wearing a Cubs jersey: "SORRY DAD, I MARRIED A CUBS FAN!"

:: posted by Al at 9:55 PM [+] ::
...
Halfway Home

Well, to be technical about it, the halfway mark of the season will be reached after tonight's game, the eighty-first, but since the game is in fact tonight, this afternoon seems like a good time to run down, as I did a year ago in this space, the season to date, what's gone wrong and right, and what we can look forward to.

The Cubs are 45-35, ten games over .500, three games better than they were a year ago after eighty games. Of course, the expectations are much higher than they were then, but let's look at all the things that have gone wrong so far in 2004:

* The two aces of the pitching staff, Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, have started a total of thirteen (Wood, 7, Prior, 6) of the first eighty games, less than half of what they should have. One of the replacement starters started nine times and had a 6.51 ERA.

* The closer, Joe Borowski, lost 3-4 MPH off his fastball, blew several saves, had an 8.02 ERA and then had to go on the DL.

* No fewer than half the starting eight (Sammy Sosa, Mark Grudzielanek, Alex Gonzalez, and now possibly Aramis Ramirez) have missed significant playing time due to injury.

* Corey Patterson came back from injury but started very slowly and at one point was being booed every time he came up to bat.

* The Cubs signed a backup shortstop who, even after having three extra-base hits in one week, is hitting .143.

* The Cubs' presumed main rival in the division, the Houston Astros, traded for a player said by some to be the best player in baseball.

Well. A team like this ought to be in last place, right? Ten games under .500?

Of course, the Cubs have not only hung in there, but in the last week appear finally to be clicking on all cylinders, and presuming Ramirez is only out the three or four games that is expected as of now, by the time the All-Star break is over, Wood and Gonzalez may return and finally, the team that we expected to see out of spring training will be together for the first time, nearly 90 games into the season.

Some things that went right, or that we expected to happen and did:

* LaTroy Hawkins has pitched as advertised, throwing well in the setup role and then moving seamlessly in as closer. Yes, he's blown a couple of saves, but other than Eric Gagne, what closer doesn't? I particularly like the fact that he has walked only six batters in 45 innings.

* A pitcher released at the end of spring training by the Rangers, Glendon Rusch, has stepped in and started admirably in place of Kerry Wood, and will be an integral part of the bullpen once Wood returns.

* The Todds, Hollandsworth and Walker, both inexpensive acquisitions to upgrade the bench, have performed as advertised, and both stepped in and did excellent work when asked to play every day to replace injured regulars (yes, I know it's true that Hollandsworth's average was .245 when replacing Sammy Sosa. However, that's still way better than Troy O'Leary did when Sosa was out last year).

* Michael Barrett appears to finally have beaten his injuries of past seasons and reached the offensive potential he showed flashes of with the Expos. While he's not nearly the defensive catcher that Damian Miller was, I have seen improvement, notably the terrific unassisted caught-stealing he pulled off the other day against Houston.

* No-names like Jon Leicester and Jose Macias, while not great players, have both contributed to victories this year.

* Derrek Lee, with his traditional slow start, had his traditional hot June (he hit .385 and may wind up as NL Player of the Month) and has been just as advertised, particularly defensively, where I don't think he gets nearly enough credit for his good hands and range.

* The Astros have nearly collapsed under their own weight and age, and even though they did acquire the terrific Carlos Beltran, if they fall farther out of the race (six games out as of now), Beltran could wind up on yet another contender before the month is out.

Though I think we all respected the Cardinals, particularly their offensive prowess, I don't think any of us figured that in another week, the Central could turn into a two-team race, with the second-place finisher most likely being the wild card. With the East and West divisions both looking fairly mediocre this year, that could be the difference between the one-seed and home field in both rounds of NL playoffs, and the four-seed and having to win two series without the home advantage. What worries me most about the Cardinals is the fact that I think they know that their pitching may not hold up over the full season, and that they might go out and pluck, say, a Russ Ortiz from the Braves, if the Braves think they are out of it (which, despite being below .500, they are certainly not right now, only 3 1/2 games out of first place).

This is going to be one heck of a second half, I think, and one thing that seems imperative is that by July 20, when the Cubs and Cardinals play their final game of the season (how stupid is that?), that the Cubs need to close the 3-game gap. This is eminently do-able.

Finally, you're going to get awfully sick of seeing the Brewers. Starting tomorrow, Milwaukee will be the opponent in 19 of the ensuing 39 games.

Let's go get 'em.

:: posted by Al at 12:26 PM [+] ::
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Correction Section

Marty Winn, who is a big Greg Maddux fan, reminded me that Greg had, of course, faced Frank Thomas before yesterday -- last week:

It's your Greg Maddux Braves fan again, ready to pounce on factual errors about Greg Maddux. [He faced Thomas in] the last game that [he] pitched (6/27) when Frank walked, struck out, and grounded to shortstop against Maddux.

[smacking forehead]

Of course. Thanks, Marty. My brain obviously wasn't working too well yesterday, probably waterlogged from all the rain.

:: posted by Al at 5:11 AM [+] ::
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