I'm just not sure about that Aramis Ramirez. He probably can't help the Cubs if he's not 100% healthy. The same could also probably be said about Ryan Dempster, who failed to pitch effectively last night, surrendering 6 runs in 5 innings of work.
Still, these Cubs are a scrappy bunch -- after falling behind 6 to 0, the team managed to battle back and score 3 runs in the 5th and 3 more in the 6th, thanks to the plentiful offensive efforts of the 1-5 hitters in the lineup, especially Aramis "3-Run-Bomb" Ramirez. But that was when the Cubs turned to their bullpen and SHIZ EXPLODED!!
Before last night, the pen had been on a streak of consistency and efficiency. Then, Angel Guzman stepped in and coughed up the lead on a homer to Goeff Blum, before Jeff Stevens and Aaron Heilman allowed the Astros to put it out of reach in the 8th. Perhaps they should develop a (BL) statistic, short for "blame," of which Heilman would surely lead the league as he allowed 2 inherited runs to score, adding a third run credited to him as the proverbial cherry on top.
Speaking of Cub relievers and inherited runners, here are some stats I pulled from Baseball Reference (as inspired by ChuckD of Desipio fame mentioning it in a thread over there)...
IR=Inherited Runners, IS=Inherited Runners Scored, IS%=Inherited Runners Scored Percentage
Jose Ascanio - IR 2, IS 2, IS% 100%
Jeff Samardzija - IR 8, IS 5, IS% 63%
Aaron Heilman - IR 30, IS 14, IS% 47%
Dave Patton - IR 8, IS 3, IS% 38%
League Average - 32%
Carlos Marmol - IR 18, IS 4, IS% 22%
Kevin Gregg - IR 16, IS 3, IS% 19%
Angel Guzman - IR 16, IS 2, IS% 13%
Sean Marshall - IR 30, IS 3, IS% 10%
It's interesting just how poor Heilman and Samardzija have done compared to the league average. It's even more interesting how the Cubs bullpen has been considered erratic-at-best this year and yet four of the team's relievers fall below the league average. Perhaps it would be fair to suggest that the bulk of the team's late-inning problems rest squarely on the shoulders of Heilman at this point? Also: maybe Lou should entertain never using him in situations with runners on ever again? Just a thought.
So, the streak is over, the Cubs are back in second place, and on a night in which they were outhit by 12, they were also outscored by 6. What, did you expect them to win every game?
When the Cubs failed to score in the bottom of the 12th, I was thinking the top of the 13th would be a breeze.
"What they should do here," I said to myself, "is let the NL leader in stolen bases take first on a base hit to lead off. They'll waste an out on Kaz calling for a bunt. Then we walk Tejada, because everyone knows Carlos Lee sucks in the late innings against young pitchers who rely too much on their fastball! Easy DP."
To continue my lengthy soliloquy, I pondered, "Now what would make the most sense for the bottom of the 13th? Lee, Ramirez, and Bradley are due up... They'll probably figure out a way to get on base. What I really want to have happen is for Soriano, the guy with three strikeouts and another out on a bad hustle play, to have to win this game. Naturally, I can expect him to hit a grand slam home run to put the game away and give the Cubs another night in first place."
It made sense then, and it makes sense now.
At times, it seemed as though the Cubs were trying to give this one away. In the bottom of the 9th, Lou seemed to overthink a bases-loaded, one-out situation. Rather than use Jake Fox to try to bring the winning run home, Lou played The Handedness Game, putting in a lefty (Fontenot) to face Valverde.
Things looked more or less fine, until a 1-1 pitch from Valverde went outside. Fontenot tried to bunt, but couldn't get the bat on the ball; at the same time, Milton Bradley broke from third. The squeeze was foiled, and the game slogged on.
Excellent outings from the bullpen regulars. Heilman, Marmol and Marshall were shutdown. On top of that, the Jeffs (Stevens and Samardzija) contributed 3.2 scoreless innings, giving the Cubs every chance to win.
And win they did, in grand fashion. After failing to capitalize on early opportunities, the Cubs finally broke through the Astros bullpen and, after loading the bases with no outs, Alfonso Soriano hit the game-winner in grand fashion.
I saw that one coming, too -- or at least, I entertained the possibility when I noticed the bases were juiced. "It'd just be fitting," I told myself, "for Soriano to not only win the game with a hit, but to win it definitively." Granted, I was in an empty room at the time, and talking to one's self out loud and later admitting to it on a blog is probably on the wrong side of the crazy line, but I was right.
This was one of those games that could mean more than a simple W in the standings. Not that the Cubs necessarily need it -- they've already seemed to find the momentum they've been lacking all year long. But consider that the Astros have been even hotter than the Cubs this month, and yet the bullpen managed to hold them to 0 runs for 6 innings. Then, consider that Soriano has turned a cold streak into a career move, but last night's grand slam is the icing on top of a great month for him.
This was a gutsy win, and a much-needed victory that helps Chicago keep pace in the NL Central. Tomorrow, the Cardinals face Chad Billingsley, while we get Roy Oswalt, and a thin Astro bullpen. Guzman and Gregg should be available for the Cubs.
One random thought on the Cubs-Phillies Games
In the ShoutBox yesterday, one reader suggested that it's difficult to really get excited because the Cubs got beaten by the Phillies not too long ago. But consider the facts...
The Cubs lost two games out of three on the road against one of the best teams in the NL. Their first loss -- a blow-out -- occurred in part because it was Ted Lilly pitching for the Cubs. Lilly has since then been placed on the DL with a sore shoulder and had his knee scoped. Might it be fair to suggest that on most days, Lilly and the Cubs do not surrender 10 runs to the Phillies?
The second game, which they also lost, took 13 innings of play. The Phillies didn't exactly win with authority.
And the third game was a Cubs route. Just saying -- with a healthy Lilly on the mound, the Cubs may not have lost two games there -- and even the loss that came "honestly" was one that also came in extra innings.
Their star lefty pitcher is also on the DL and will miss at least three weeks with knee surgery.
Their star slugging left fielder is batting .253 and got dropped 5 spots in the lineup this season.
Their star center fielder is worth perhaps a quarter of his 12-million-dollar-per-year contract.
Their star slugging right fielder is batting .248 and, four months into his first season, has already been the subject of trade rumors.
Their star slugging third baseman missed two months with a shoulder injury that will require surgery.
Their new second baseman? Couldn't hit lefties if somebody held them up for him.
Their ace setup man is as wild as a drunken Lindsay Lohan and as consistent as an amateur's souffle.
All of that, and, after a three-game sweep of the Cincinnati Reds, the Chicago Cubs are the first place team in the NL Central. Go figure.
They did it this series by just beating the hell out of Reds pitchers. The Cubs collected 33 hits and 11 walks this series, including 15 extra bases (7 of which were homeruns).
The Cubs starters, meanwhile, all went 6 innings, all held the Reds down, and all benefited from good relief pitching -- the bane of the Cubs so far in 2009. In 9 innings of relief this series, Cubs relievers held the Reds to 8 hits, 3 walks, and 5 earned runs while striking out 9. (Okay, fine, so the bullpen bled runs, but only, it seems, when it didn't matter.)
Chicago now holds a half game lead in the Central, but they lead by 3 games in the loss column. They've knocked the Reds back to 7.5 games out of first (and 9 games under .500) and their next challenge is the 3rd place Astros, who are 50-48, 2.0 games out.
Current Record: 51-45
Position in the NL Central: 1st place, .5 games ahead of St. Louis
Magic Number: 65 (thanks to cubsmagicnumber.com)
Best Possible Record: 117-45
Worst Possible Record: 51-111
Record needed to win 110: 59-7
On Pace For: 86-76
This game looked like it was going to be a complete and utter thrashing during the bottom of the first inning. The team had hit for the cycle within the inning, and the bases were loaded with one out for Koyie "Iron Man" Hill.
Stupidly, Koyie swung at the first pitch. Arguably, the rout was over.
Regardless, the Cubs continued to battle, and good pitching kept the Reds in check throughout the game. Nice win!
Fortunately for the Cubs, Kevin Hart was able to settle in after a mildly shaky top of the first. Hart's final line: 6 IP in 94 pitches, 5H, 1BB, 4SO, 1ER. Smashing!
The Other Stuff:
If not for the gutty performance from our starting pitcher, Alfonso Soriano might have to have been named the Player of the Game for today. The Fonz went 3-for-4, including a solo shot to deep left on a low breaking ball. I don't know what's gotten into him, but I am very much in favor of it. Whatever it is. (Common sense? Nah.)
Also adding on to the late Cub lead was Milton "The Rumors Are False!" Bradley (Note: despite rumors that stated otherwise, it appears that Milton will remain a Cub this season). It's encouraging to see him go deep every once in a while; he and Aramis Ramirez now have the same number of homers.
Also, speaking of A-Ram, Clutchy McClutcherson continued to rack up RBIs today, driving home two runs on a first inning homer. God, it's good to have him back.
The starting pitching and offense were solid, and for the most part, the bullpen was too. Aaron Heilman had a rare bad outing, serving up two jacks to Reds hitters before KG came in for the one out save. But Marmol struck out the side, and Guzman was super kewl.
Now let's sit back and enjoy the Phillies' drubbing of the Cardinals. Ladies and gentlemen, it appears as though tomorrow may present the Cubs with an opportunity to assume first place in the Division.
As in, OMGWTF?!?!?!?!?!?!?
Strangely, unlike any of the times Wood and Prior went down in '04, I'm not so worried about the loss of Lilly, be it for 2 weeks or 2 months. The Cubs have a deep rotation, and perhaps Ryan Dempster will return next week with more luck than he had before he went on the DL himself. Amusingly enough, by the time Dempster starts another game the Cubs may already be in first place.
Today's game was a happy reminder of what things were like when Aramis and Derrek were offensive forces for the Cubs. The two corner infielders combined to go 6 for 10 with 2 doubles, 2 homeruns, and 5 of the Cubs' 8 RBI. But their 6 hits made up just a portion of today's hit parade, as every Cub regular managed to collect at least 1 against Aaron Harang and the useless Reds bullpen.
As for the Cubs pitching, Randy Wells collected his 6th win of the season -- I am now convinced that he will easily be a 10 game winner, although Phillies pitcher J.A. Happ might have something to say about Randy's Rookie of the Year chances. Wells went 6 innings, surrendering 3 earned runs -- all off a homer in the 2nd -- while striking out 5. Behind him Aaron Heilman and Carlos Marmol pitched 2 hitless, walkless, scoreless innings in relief while Kevin Gregg coughed up 2 garbage runs in a 9th inning non-save situation.
The Reds at this point are proving to be a team without a chance of competing, which is really saying something in the shaky NL Central. These are the games the Cubs should win, just like the recent four game set in Washington.
I guess all it takes to wake up the Cubs' bats (other than two days of suck) is an ancient lefty soft-tosser. Something about the line-up being predominantly right-handed, need a lefty power bat, can't get it? Whatever.
Anyways, the Cubs won today! Woo hoo!
Lots of Cubs had multiple hits today (Theriot, A-Ram, Bradley, and Soriano). Also, Ryan Theriot stole three bases. I guess that means he'll get picked off twice tomorrow.
Despite the offensive onslaught, only two of our 13 hits went for extra bases (both doubles), and only one of our runs scored with two outs. So, still no soul-crushing big hits, still no clutch performances, but 11 singles and 9 walks should get you somewhere.
Z was actually really hittable today, giving up 10 hits in his start, along with three walks. But it was good enough for today, thanks to all the Cubs that got themselves safely to first over and over.
As far as the series goes, I for one think these three games were pretty indicative of what we can expect from the team here on out.
Some days they'll slap a bunch of singles off a crap starter having a bad day, and some days all those pokes will roll right to infielders and will mostly turn into outs. Against top line starting pitching (guys like Rodrigo Lopez and Joe Blanton), the Cubs will have trouble scoring runs. And the whole time, the pitching will be more or less good enough to give the team a chance to win.
We will continue to hold out hope for this offense. It'd be great if Soto could heal up by, say, tomorrow. The Baker/Fontenot platoon at second base looks pretty alright. If Bradley can get better, and Soriano can stay hot... well, then, who knows what might happen.
Getting Dempster back soon will make the pitching that much better. I hope the Cubs quit jerking Samardzija around and just stash him in Iowa for the rest of the season when Demp does come back (we need him to start, not handle mop-up).
Beyond those things, what else can you really do?
Current Record: 48-45
Position in the NL Central: 2nd place, 1.5 games out
Best Possible Record: 117-45
Worst Possible Record: 48-114
Record needed to win 110: 52-5
On Pace For: 83-79
We here at GROTA have spent a lot of words trying to convince the reader that the regular season is just that. The Cubs don't look good now, sure, but if they can just figure out a way to slink into the playoffs, etc. etc.
Tonight's game had every bit of a playoff atmosphere. We got an outstanding performance from one of our extremely talented starting pitchers (who apparently is way better at night on the road than at home during the day? Whatever.). The bullpen did its job as well, shutting down one of the best offenses in the sport for a really, really long time. And it all happened on the road, in front of a hostile crowd, against one of the best teams in the league.
But once again, a common theme from this season reared it's ugly head.
The offense failed.
Based on their performance tonight, I think we can safely say that the Cubs' pitchers can hold their own against damn near anybody. They got through the likes of Utley, Howard, and Ibanez over and over throughout the night.
But the offense just didn't look good. Maybe I'm overreacting (actually that's a near certainty) and maybe I don't really know what I'm talking about (another near certainty). But this offense didn't seem to have hard hit balls find gloves for outs. It's not that their bloops hung too long, or their long balls just missed.
At-bat after at-bat, ESPECIALLY in the late innings, they simply looked inept. Dribblers slowly died in the infield; hackers swung at crap well off the plate. Were
there really any fly balls to speak of after Blanton left? Like, at all?
To me, this was the best look at how the Cubs would respond to a playoff game we've seen all season. And as one might expect, the pitchers performed, and the hitters simply didn't figure it out.
Of course, there's plenty of time left for these guys to figure it out. For example, I have NO idea what Reed was doing in the leadoff spot. Or, I think it really hurts to have Jake Fox essentially stuck sitting on his ass because Soto is out. And, it sucks having to deal with Koyie Hill's essentially automatic outs every few innings. And then there's the whole Milton Bradley thing.
Is there hope yet? Sure. But it's gonna take a lot to convince this Goat that the Cubs are ready to win in October.
Ted Lilly did not pitch well. He gave up home runs with men on base, as well as many hits overall.
On the positive side, the bullpen did pitch well. Jeff Stevens, Aaron Heilman, and Angel Guzman allowed one hit (a Ryan Howard solo shot) and no walks over the last four innings of the game.
Now, back to the negatives.
The offense sucked. They had six hits. Half of those were collected by Alfonso Soriano. The other three were doubles by Kosuke Fukudome, Ryan Theriot, and pinch-hitter Andres Blanco.
That means our 3, 4, and 5-hitters all posted oh-fers. The same goes for the 7 and 8 spots (Font and Hill) as well.
So, yeah. Not a good game. My consolation for you this morning? Remember this--just as 11-3 drubbings of the lowly Nationals count as one win, 10-1 beatdowns at the hands of the Phillies only count as one loss. If it were 10-9, or 1-0, a loss is a loss.
Let's try calling this one a bad night and see where it gets us for the rest of the series.
Ah yes. A 10-run drubbing, also known as "the reason dopey Cub fans feel vindicated for doubting." You know, I know, even the Phillies know that, more often than not, Ted Lilly's not going to get his ass kicked the way he did last night, not by the Phillies nor by anybody else.
Still, Philadelphia has a scary offense. Actually, though, I think their pitching is overrated -- at least by Kyle, who complimented them in his Series Preview. If they weren't desperate for arms, they wouldn't have sprung for Pedro.
Anyway, as a fan I'd almost rather get blown out than see the team lose a close one. Last night wasn't really painful -- it was comical. A loss tonight, however, would be painful. So, memo to the Cubs: don't lose.
(with even more great pics complimentary of Yarbage)
Four games into the second half of the season and the Cubs stand alone in second place, tied for first in the loss column, despite 3.5 long months of mediocrity. Either the NL Central is terrible or the Cubs are just that goo-naw, the NL Central just plain blows. But at least they aren't the Nationals.
So far this year, Washington has managed a .286 winning percentage -- that makes them rivals with the Detroit Tigers from a few years back as being The Single Worst Baseball Team In the History of the Modern Era. Therefore you are right, Caustic Cub Fans. Sweeping the Nats doesn't mean much. But losing to them even once might have said a lot about the Cubs.
Instead, yesterday at least we found a Cubs team that could not be stopped by Nationals pitchers. The offense combined for 16 hits and 5 walks, resulting in 11 runs. Among the heavy hitters were Kosuke Fukudome, who has at least temporarily shaken off his mid-season druthers so far this second half. Yesterday he went 2 for 4 with 2 walks, hitting his 19th double, driving in 1 and scoring 1 more.
Also impressive were hitters without gloves Jake Fox and Micah Hoffpauir, who both went 3 for 5. Part of Fox's 3 for 5 day included a 3-run homer and he finished the day with 4 RBI.
On top of that, Alfonso Soriano went 2 for 3 with a walk, a double, and a homer -- his second straight day with a long ball -- and Mike Fontenot went 3 for 5 with a double as well. All told, 8 Cubs collected at least 1 hit and 7 Cubs drove in at least 1 run.
On the pitching front, Kevin Hart collected his first big league win of the season, pitching 5 innings, surrendering 5 hits, and walking 5 Nationals. Still, he only surrendered 2 runs, so ugly win or not I'm sure he's happy.
Since Hart was unable to last past 5, though, Lou tried to rest his over-taxed bullpen by allowing the seldom-used Jeff Samardzija to pitch 3 innings, with Jeff Stevens finishing the game in the 9th. In their 4 innings of relief, the two Jeffs combined to allow just 2 hits and 1 walk.
The Cubs will be in Philly tomorrow, taking on the best team in the NL East. For a lot of Cub fans this is the true gauge -- will the Cubs get hammered, or will they be the hammer? Not to be a parade-rainer-onner, but sweep or be swept it won't mean much as far as October is concerned except in the standings. In other words, it won't decide the season and it will not serve as an accurrate predictor of how the Cubs would do against the Phillies in the playoffs. These games don't have implications of future failure or success, except that the Cubs won't get a shot at success if they keep getting their asses kicked by teams like the Phillies. But at least they have "sweeping the worst team in baseball" down pat. That's one less thing to worry about.
Current Record: 47-43
Position in the NL Central: 2nd place, 2 games out
Best Possible Record: 119-43
Worst Possible Record: 47-115
Record needed to win 110: 53-9
On Pace For: 85-77
The Cubs looked as if they were going to get hammered in last night's game with the Nationals -- Randy Wells gave up 4 runs in the first 2 innings, and just like any federal government, we all know how rarely the Chicago offense can be relied on to overcome deficits.
But thanks to a Theriot triple and unlikely homeruns from perpetually-slumping Cub players (Soriano and Fontenot) the Cubs were able to overcome their early deficit and turn Wells into the winning pitcher.
More exciting than the come-from-behind, though, was the bullpen. The combined efforts of Guzman, Marshall, Marmol, Heilman, and Gregg managed to hold the Nationals to 1 run over the last 4 innings, despite 3 hits and 5 walks. The defining moment came in the 8th, when Aaron Heilman made an out before he loaded the bases, resulting in Lou calling on his closer. Goggle-Man Gregg stepped in, surrendered a sac fly that was put on Heilman's tab before walking Adam Dunn. Then with two outs, the bases loaded, and a full count Gregg was able to induce an inning-ending ground-out. Woof.
Gregg then returned for the 9th and ended it with 3 easy outs. Hopefully today's game won't be so close, as he threw 29 pitches and probably won't be available to aid the Cubs as they play for a rare 4-game, road trip sweep (even if it's only the Nationals).
As for Wells, yes, today was a cheap win for him. He didn't exactly pitch in a way that earned it. Then again, how many great games did he pitch in which he either received the L or a no-decision?
Oh, and for whatever it's worth, Chicago is now only 2 games out of first place. I'm sure it means nothing.