I live in Austin, Texas. If any of you have been here, you might know some of the city's charms. The self-proclaimed "Live Music Capitol of the World", Austin is a city with a wonderful heartbeat, a very live pulse, and home to some of the most creative, engaging people I've ever met. It has natural beauty amongst its hills, lakes and springs, hike and bike trails, network of parks, and alas, its inhabitants. It's also a wonderful sports town with plenty of great beer joints and well-informed baseball enthusiasts. In a word--it is Paradise.
Just north of Paradise is Round Rock, Texas--home of the Round Rock Express, AAA affiliate of rival Houston Astros. I begrudgingly support the Express, but mostly out of a sense of loyalty to my Texas community. This loyalty, however, does not extend into the Major Leagues. Not even my disenchantment with Dusty Baker, my distrust of the training staff (or whoever is in charge of the golden arms that belong to our mythical band of pitchers), nor my frustration and disappointment with the team's personality and performance in the past two seasons could uproot my love for the Chicago Cubs in favor of any of the MLB teams in the Republic of Texas. There's just no way around it--growing up with Harry Caray, WGN, Ryne Sandberg, 1984, Mark Grace, 1989, Steve Stone, and Greg Maddux, makes it a done deal: I'm a Cub Fan for life.
With renewed acceptance of my existence, this off-season and spring I have kept as watchful an eye as ever on the Cubs organization. Plenty of it has to do with the discovery of several wonderful blog sites, Bleed Cubbie Blue being my favorite (thanks Al!), that have kept the fountain of Cubbie information flowing like wine.
Armed now with seemingly bottomless information on the Cubs organization, I have developed an obsession with Cub prospects, forecasting them into the immediate, near, and distant future. Names like Pie, Patterson the Younger, Hill, Guzman, Ryu, Aardsma, Sing, Marmol, Pawelek, Marshall, Veal, etc. dance through my mind creating excitement and controversy and countless imaginary futures (all of which include Orange Guy as our staple Left Fielder).
Thus, even a looming deadline for my Master's thesis couldn't keep me from witnessing at least one game in the four-game series between the hometown Express and the visiting Iowa Cubs.
So it came to be, Saturday night I wore my Chicago Cubs hat to Round Rock's Dell Diamond like a banner.
Established in the early 2000s, Dell Diamond is one of the newest, poshest minor league ballparks in the circuit. Seating almost 11,000 spectators in relative luxury and equipped with a swimming pool, heated Jacuzzi, and a rock-climbing wall just beyond the outfield fences, I almost think the place is too posh. I could also do without the antics from the Turbo JumboTron that distract me from watching the live event with the full powers of contemplation. Although, instant replay has its merits, especially tonight on a couple of close plays to first.
Upon arriving at the stadium, I was greeted by an enclave of Minor League umpires who were picketing the game. They held up signs and banners and cautioned us as we walked in, "high school umpires are working tonight". With the information I learned later, I hope these umps get what they want, which is a standard of living pay increase. Since 1989, these umps have been stuck at an annual salary of 15 grand a year for working 144 games. This information came from the gentleman sitting next to me, who was a former minor league ump. This gentleman, Bob Sullivan, also played in the Cubs organization in the early 60's and was signed by the same scout who found the venerable Ron Santo.
My friends and I found our seats, which were on the second row just to the 3rd base side of home plate. Totally sweet tickets for 12 bucks. Totally sweet Shiner Bock pints for 5 bucks. You gotta love minor league baseball for that.
As the visiting team, we got our hacks first.
First batter up: The Main Attraction. Felix Pie, the much-hyped, much-debated phenom who draws comparisons ranging the entire spectrum from "a left-handed" Roberto Clemente to Corey Patterson. During tonight's game, I'm happy to report, Pie played with much more fire, determination, skill, and awareness than I've ever seen in Patterson the Elder.
In his first at-bat, Pie didn't show very much. A fake bunt attempt taken as strike one, followed by a lazy fly ball hit to medium-deep center field.
It was in Pie's later at-bats that he truly impressed me. Pie's second time to the plate was the game's first RBI opportunity. Round Rock's lefty pitcher, surnamed Barzilla (great name!), tried to sneak a first ball heater past young Felix. Pie turned the fastball around, ripping it past a diving Royce Huffman at first base and into the right field corner for a run-scoring double. Cubs lead, 1-0 in the top of the 3rd.
In at-bat number 3, Pie coaxed a four-pitch walk out of Barzilla. This walk impressed me as much as any of Pie's at bats. I was surprised at Pie's control of the strike zone, as all four pitches were near the plate, but not worth swinging at. It is the seeming development of a new kind of plate discipline (he came into the game with a 4/6 BB/K ratio in 36 ABs following a relatively weak career BB/K ratio) that gives me hope about Pie turning into a legitimate force in the Majors.
Pie's 4th at-bat found him in another RBI situation. Runners at 1st and 3rd, thanks to a throwing error on journeyman Joe McEwing. Not learning from his last mistake, Barzilla tried to sneak another first-ball fastball past Pie. This time, Pie roped it down the right-field line where it one-hopped the wall, plating Augie Ojeda and stranding Rich Hill at 3rd. This RBI double stretched the Cubs lead, making it 3-1.
In Pie's last at-bat, he worked the count to 2-2 after falling in the hole. He fouled off a pitch before swinging through a pitch a little high and off-the-plate. He chased it a little, but I forgive him.
In all, I was very encouraged by the way he played. He came through with big hits when Iowa needed them most, he displayed a lot of presence on the field, he controlled the strike zone really well, and just plain looked awesome out there.
Also Showing: Rich Hill
I am not a Rich Hill fan. His strikeout numbers are impressive, but they come from a pitcher who was most mostly older than his competition. And they come with a lot of walks (4.84 w/9 in his minor league career), and a really bad HR/IP ratio (1.42 hr/9 in 146 IP in AA and above). Plus, dude got shelled during his cup of coffee last season. I've always thought he was overhyped.
However, I might be seduced into changing my thinking. After laying an egg in his first few spring training appearances this year, he finished out the Cactus League with a really strong showing in his last few outings--walking very few batters, giving up very few runs. His first start at Iowa was encouraging: 6 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 6K.
With this information bouncing around my brain, Rich Hill's performance Saturday at Dell Diamond has me thinking we might do better with him in either the rotation spot now being clogged by Glendon "6-HRs-allowed-in-9 Innings Pitched" Rusch or in the bullpen instead of Will "27.00 ERA" Ohman.
On Saturday night, Hill had his whole game working in a way that makes me thing he's actually improved. For one, his pitching line was outstanding: 7 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 10 K. And all in only 91 pitches!
Hill, for the season: 13 IP, 7 H, 2 ER, 1 BB, 16 K. 1-0, 1.38 ERA. 1 HR allowed in 13 IP.
Beyond his box line, his peripherals and intangibles, and the way in which he achieved his results on Saturday all seem to be signs of a pitcher who has matured into something. Watching the game, I noted that many of his strikeouts came on his 88-91 mph fastball, not his big 12-6 curve. In fact, I don't think he even broke out the big curve more than 8-10 times during the game. Probably less. This makes me think he might have developed that elusive "second pitch" that BCB readers have lamented about.
Also, Hill showed me something by working out of a big time jam early in the game. With a runner on first and nobody out, Round Rock pitcher Phillip Barzilla laid down a sac bunt. Third Baseman Casey McGehee charged the play and made a perfect throw to Augie Ojeda covering 2nd base for a potential double-play. The throw was so perfect that Augie dropped it, putting runners on 1st and 3rd with nobody out, instead of a possible no one on, 2 out inning. A pitcher with a lesser emotional threshold would have melted (see Carlos Zambrano versus Cincinnati, April 13th, 2006). Hill stepped it up. He punched out the next batter on four pitches. The next man up popped up to 3rd base. And then during the next at bat, in a very weird play Barzilla got thrown out trying to steal second base while not even running at full speed. It almost looked like he was sleep-running down to second. Geovany Soto gunned him down, ended the inning and keept the score 1-0 Cubs. Hill went on to finish the game strong, and was lifted after pitching 7 very impressive innings.
Several other Cubs prospects are worth reporting on:
David Aardsma relieved Hill in the 8th and pitched 2 pretty strong innings. Aardsma throws a lot harder than I thought. He was poppin' the radar gun at 94 and 96 mph. The Express's bats were slower, and Aardsma carved them up to record his 2nd save of the year. I was expecting to see Roberto Novoa pitch the 9th, but I just got the news that the Cubs swapped him out for Michael Wuertz, which only seems fair given their comparable performances for the ML team last year and their rather disparate numbers during the spring and early season.
I also enjoyed watching Buck Coats play. I realize Coats is not at the top of the organizational prospects radar, but he looked good in the field (he was in RF Saturday) and at the plate. He roped a couple of singles, controlled the strike zone well, making good at bats even on his two K's.
Lastly, I feel mixed about what I saw from Brandon Sing. He has struggled early in AAA (.185/.267/.185 = .452 OPS, with 2 BB/ 9 Ks in 27 ABs) and chased a few balls out of the zone. But he did look poised at the plate, getting his 3rd BB of the season, and putting some sting into a fly ball out.
In all, it was an encouraging team performance for the Cubs. Their top players stepped up, and the team gutted out a close victory after a tough loss the night before.
I look forward to the next visit from the Iowa Cubs, which won't be until very near the end of the season. By then, there may be a whole new crop of players grinding it out, a rotation of living-wage umpires on the field, and a brand new rock wall for folks to climb. But one thing will remain the same for all of us Cub Fans--no matter what changes around us, we'll all always be Cub Fans for life. On nights like Saturday night in Round Rock, that's actually a good thing.
Rock on Cub Fans,