SURPRISE, Arizona -- It almost took me longer to drive to Surprise than the length of tonight's game.
It DID take the Smooth Jazz Man longer -- he called me just before I arrived to tell me it had taken him 2 1/2 hours to drive from Tempe to Surprise, and that he could have driven from his home in the San Diego area to Dodger Stadium in that amount of time.
My time was a bit better -- one hour, twenty minutes, not bad during a West Valley rush hour -- and the Cubs' 5-1 loss to the Rangers took an even two hours. Incidentally, when I got there they directed me to park on a grass field, not even in the main parking lot, and I was pleased to remember (Surprise!, forgive the pun) that parking at Surprise Stadium is free.
Anyway, the game could have been even faster than two hours -- the first six innings went by in about 1:20, because both starting pitchers, Carlos Zambrano and R. A. Dickey, were breezing through the lineups as if both ballclubs had players with hot dates after the game.
Hey, who knows, maybe they did. But that's a story for some other blog.
What's a Dickey, you ask? Tonight, it was a pitcher who was totally fooling not only Cub hitters, but the two guys sitting behind me, who spent the first couple of innings reading off each and every pitch speed (Surprise is the only Cactus League ballpark with a pitch-speed meter) -- 61, 54, 50... until I had to turn around and point out that Dickey is attempting to reinvent himself as a knuckleballer. At 31, with a 16-18 lifetime record and 5.55 ERA, this isn't a bad idea.
He did pretty well tonight -- the Cubs were flailing wildly at the knucklers. Particularly pathetic-looking were strikeouts to Matt Murton (called, in the 2nd), and John Mabry (swinging, in the fifth). Dickey gave up only three hits in his six innings of work, one of them a ground-rule double to Murton, who apparently was able to time the knucklers pretty well after his first at-bat.
That's what a knuckleball does -- either it fools no one, or bamboozles everyone, and it was the latter tonight. After five, Dusty cleared the bench, because there's a split-squad game tomorrow, and former #1 draft pick Luis Montanez, who finally spent part of a year at Double-A in 2005 after six (!) years in A-ball, hit a long home run for the Cubs' only run of the night. By that time Brian Shouse, one of the Rangers' seemingly interchangeable sidearmers, had come into the game. Ex-Cub Jon Leicester threw a 1-2-3 ninth, but don't read too much into that: he was facing Angel Pagan, Michael Restovich and Henry Blanco, though he froze Blanco with a nice curveball to end the game on a called strike three.
For Z's part, I thought he looked very, very good, though he ran out of gas in the fifth and sixth innings, and his stat line of four runs allowed doesn't reflect the fact that he mowed down the Rangers with 97-MPH fastballs for the first four innings. He threw one bad pitch in those four innings, and Kevin Mench (you know, the guy many of us wanted to platoon with Jacque Jones) hit it for a 420-foot home run to dead center field. Otherwise he threw strikes throughout, walking only one and striking out five.
After Z batted for himself (this is the second day in a row that the Cubs pitchers have batted, while the opponents used the DH, an odd circumstance but one I actually think is a good idea, since the pitchers WILL be batting during the season, and the opponent the last two days has been an AL team), Todd Wellemeyer came in and pitched himself one step closer to unconditional release. He keeps getting used in situations where perhaps, maybe, a scout might see something he liked, and a deal could be made.
Not tonight. Todd's second pitch was hit for a home run by Rangers catcher Rod Barajas. Oh, well. After that auspicious debut in Milwaukee three years ago, when he struck out the side in the 17th inning for a save in his first game, he hasn't thrown well at all this spring. I'd love to see Todd succeed -- at this point, his outlook is "go back to school and get that degree you promised your folks you'd get".
Since I walked in as the lineups were being announced, I didn't get a chance to sample the food or check out the souvenirs, but I'll do that tomorrow -- I'm returning to Surprise for the split-squad game with the Royals, while the rest of the team plays the A's at Mesa.
They had what was billed as "the one-minute fireworks show" during the seventh-inning stretch. Pretty impressive, actually, considering how short it was.
Finally, the Rangers fans sitting behind me spent the entire evening dissing Phil Nevin, who struck out three times as the Ranger DH and looked bad doing it. Rangers fans appear to really dislike Nevin, who said nasty things about their team when he was traded there against his wishes last summer. Nevin's spent a lot of his career putting his foot in his mouth, and given the stats he had after the trade, perhaps he ought to shut up and concentrate on resuscitating what's left of his career.