Many years ago in one of his famous and seminal Baseball Abstracts, Bill James did a study of how players performed on their birthdays, and concluded that on balance, most players did quite well on their natal day.
That was the case last night for Derrek Lee; he turned 31 yesterday, and came up with the Cubs trailing 2-1 in the 8th inning after yet another botched throw home by Ronny Cedeno (has he EVER made this play?) with the bases loaded. And perhaps for the first time this year, Lee made his commanding presence felt by hitting a grand slam on the first pitch he saw from Matt Capps. This marks the fourth straight year that Lee has homered on his birthday.
The Cubs went on to beat the Pirates 7-2, to reclaim fifth place, as fans excitedly watched the scoreboard operators move the Cub flag from sixth to fifth, and cheering throngs left the ballpark holding up their hands yelling, "We're Number Five!"
No, that's wrong. No one did anything of the sort. Nevertheless, it was nice to see D-Lee, for perhaps the first time since April, hit a baseball with real authority. This is exactly the reason NOT to shut him down for the year -- because if the Cubs had done so, it would be almost like missing the entire season for Lee, and thus it would take him that much longer to get back into top-notch form. Yes, I know, it's only the Pirates, but if he can build on this in the last 23 games, perhaps wind up with 10 or 12 HR and maybe 40-45 RBI in a little over 200 AB, that'd be a productive third-of-a-season and give some hope that he could resume his MVP-type form of 2005, next season.
The victory last night went to Michael Wuertz, and that's a shame, because Rich Hill threw yet again another very, very fine game, and this time showed clearly the form he had shown all year at Iowa -- striking out eleven Pirates, many of them on curveballs, some on changeups. I said, as you know, months ago, that I didn't think Hill had made the adjustments necessary to win at the major league level. Clearly, that has changed -- he HAS made adjustments, or perhaps more accurately, has gone back to what made him successful at every other level of baseball and made it work for him in the major leagues. If he can continue to develop an effective third pitch, I think at least one open rotation slot in 2007 has been locked down.
Incidentally, Dusty Baker was booed loudly when he came out to remove Hill -- even though, at 111 pitches, it was time for him to come out -- and then, after a warm ovation for Hill, Baker was booed again as he returned to the dugout. I suspect there is going to be quite a bit more of this as the month continues; hey, maybe THIS is the way a Cub pitcher will finally throw a complete game -- just because Baker doesn't want to come out of the dugout and get booed.
One slot in the lineup has to be open. Cedeno simply cannot play major league defense. It's almost a daily routine -- someone hits a ground ball to Ronny with a runner on third, and he throws it away, giving the opposition a run. Hill, unfortunately, helped lead to this with a throwing error of his own, which gave back the 1-0 lead that he had carefully nurtured into the 8th inning -- a lead, in fact, that had been given to the Cubs as a gift earlier on a Ronny Paulino passed ball.
Record watch: Bob Howry threw the ninth inning -- he would have qualified for a save, because he started warming up when the score was still 5-2 (the side scoreboards had it totally wrong, first adding the Lee grand slam to the Pittsburgh total, showing PIT 6 CUBS 1, then changing it to PIT 1 CUBS 5, and then getting it right), and that was his seventy-fifth appearance of 2006. If he appears in ten of the remaining 23 games, he will break the club record. If he appears in fifteen of the 23 -- possible, given the state of this pitching staff -- he will become the first pitcher to appear in 90 games since Kent Tekulve in 1987.
The announced crowd was about 1,000 more than announced on Tuesday night (32,557), and it appeared that there were a few more folks in attendance, it being a very pleasant evening with a red-sky sunset and an orange/yellow full moon rising over the ballpark; I'd estimate about 15,000-16,000 in the park, about 1,500 in the bleachers altogether -- and I'd expect a MUCH larger gathering this afternoon, with the weather forecast calling for near-perfect baseball conditions: sunny, 80 degrees, light wind (almost too warm for Jon, who showed up in the 8th inning, having been in the neighborhood setting up for a gig for his band, and having a ticket in hand -- he said he's planning on coming today, too).
And with that, on to this afternoon's matchup.
|Today's Starting Pitchers|
Shawn Chacon, who two years ago had 35 saves for the Rockies with a hideous 7.11 ERA, and last year was a reasonably effective starter for the Yankees, has this year become the Pirates' version of Glendon Rusch -- he has more walks than strikeouts, so no, that's not a typo, and has allowed 16 HR in 84 IP. Imagine that you are the Yankees' fifth starter, which even at that ought to get you a seat on the playoff bench, and suddenly you're dealt to the last-place (well, for now, anyway) team in a six-team division. Chacon did throw five scoreless innings last Saturday against the Cardinals, but wound up with a no-decision.
Sean Marshall is an enigma. There have been times this year -- example, July 5 at Houston when he's looked like a world-beater. And then, games like his last start last Saturday, when he allowed 3 HR in 5 IP vs. the Giants and looked like he couldn't beat the Lemont Little League team that was honored at Wrigley Field on Tuesday night.
Today's Tribune reports that Carlos Zambrano will miss his next start, originally to be Saturday in Atlanta, and "might" miss the rest of the season. Jae-Kuk Ryu will likely start in his place. That article also contains the following bizarre Dusty Baker quote about the Cubs clubhouse:
"That's one thing I stress in spring training. That you guys come together, stay together and dig each other. That's not the problem. The problem has been we just haven't played that well on the field."
Finally, I wore my Riverhawks cap last night to honor Dave's team, who played their first divisional playoff game -- and they won, 5-0, taking a 1-0 lead in the best-of-five series.
Discuss amongst yourselves.