Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Cubs relief pitcher Jeff Samardzija delivers a pitch during the first inning against the Washington Nationals at Wrigley Field. Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-US PRESSWIRE
Since the Cubs defeated the Nationals 4-3 for their first win of 2012, I suppose I shouldn't complain too much.
And I won't, but I will say that had Starlin Castro not thrown away a routine ground ball by Ryan Zimmerman that would have ended the game, Samardzija would have had his first career complete game and one of the most dominating performances in recent Cubs history. (And here's where I make the obligatory "Bryan LaHair isn't a good defensive player and a good defensive 1B would have saved Castro the error" comment. Feel free to disagree.)
Samardzija can't be blamed too much for letting that error bother him to the extent that he allowed Adam LaRoche to hit a towering home run that bounced off the new party patio and onto Sheffield Avenue, making it 4-3 and prompting Dale Sveum to almost leap out of the dugout to bring in Carlos Marmol. Shark's pitch count was at 110 (79 strikes -- he didn't walk anyone), so it was the right choice to take him out.
There's where I disagreed with the decision -- Marmol threw a ton of pitches on Saturday, not retiring a batter, and Rafael Dolis had been up earlier. Why not bring in Dolis?
The Cubs scored first, on a single by Castro. He took off for second, and when the ball was fumbled by Wilson Ramos, he took third, where he scored on a sacrifice fly by Alfonso Soriano. Soriano was very good today; that was good situational hitting and then he drove in the second run with a single, after the Nats had tied the game with small-ball of their own (a single, a sacrifice, another single and a sac fly).
The Cubs picked up a pair of runs in the eighth; at the time it looked like insurance and that's why they call those "insurance runs", as they needed both of them. Ian Stewart was left in to bat against lefty Sean Burnett (I thought Sveum might hit Joe Mather for him), and he came through with a RBI single after Castro had doubled in a run.
There was also outstanding defense by both teams on a sunny Sunday with the wind blowing a gale toward the right-field corner. Stewart made a great stop on a shot by Jayson Werth that appeared headed down the left-field line for a double and threw Werth out. And the Nats' outfield ran down a couple of fly balls that looked like they were going toward the left-center field gap -- one by Roger Bernadina on a drive by Castro, the other by ex-Cub Xavier Nady on a deep fly by Darwin Barney. (There was virtually no reaction when Nady was introduced as a hitter, either positive or negative -- did anyone actually remember he played for the Cubs just year before last?)
Samardzija was outstanding on Sunday, at one point retiring 15 Nats in a row. He mixed up his pitches well and even in the ninth inning was throwing 95+. He didn't walk anyone and struck out eight. This was essentially what I saw from him the last time he threw in spring training. It is, of course, hard to draw conclusions from one start, but this is definitely an auspicious beginning to Shark being a starter. Maybe it will actually work.
The announced crowd of 31,973 was probably close to 10,000 fewer actually in the house; there were wide swaths of empty seats all over the ballpark, probably due to both Easter and the poor performance the first two games of the season. The game was headed for a sub-two-hour game time until the bottom of the eighth, when a couple of walks and a pitching change slowed it down, and it would have ended with a game time of 2:13 if Castro makes that play. Even so, the 2:22 official time was faster than all but five games from 2011. I like fast-paced games; I'd love to see more like this one.
So the Cubs wind up losing two of three in a series they could have swept with better bullpen work. The Brewers come to town Monday night with the same 1-2 record, and having given up a ton of runs to the Cardinals (20 runs allowed in the three games, and that includes zero allowed on Saturday). It'll also be the return of Aramis Ramirez to Wrigley Field. That reaction ought to be interesting.