Justin Verlander of the Detroit Tigers throws to the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by John Gress/Getty Images)
Best laid plans and all, I thought I'd have a pretty good shot at writing a recap of a perfect game, or at least a no-hitter, with Justin Verlander facing a mostly impotent lineup of Chicago Cubs on a beautiful afternoon at Wrigley Field.
Of course, predicting that sort of thing is folly; you can't. No-hitters and especially perfect games are serendipitous, not the kind of thing you can expect.
So the Cubs got five hits and two runs off Verlander, which is pretty good, all things considered, but lost the game to the Tigers 5-3 primarily because Dale Sveum wouldn't do the blindingly obvious.
In the seventh inning, with the score tied 2-2 and a runner on second with two out, it was obvious, obvious, obvious to put Austin Jackson on first base. OBVIOUS, Dale. The next hitter, Brennan Boesch, is lefthanded and James Russell is on the mound.
Nope. Sveum pitches to Jackson, bang! Single, 3-2 Tigers lead.
With the Cubs still in the game in the ninth inning, Shawn Camp gave up a sinking line drive to pinch-hitter Don Kelly on which Tony Campana made an ill-advised attempt at a diving catch. The ball went through Campana to the wall; Alfonso Soriano, running as fast as he could, which, truth be told, isn't very fast, got the ball in and the Tigers held the slowish Kelly at third base. The relay was bobbled a bit by Starlin Castro; Kelly probably should have tried to score, he'd likely have made it.
Guess who's the next hitter? That's right, Austin Jackson.
Hey Dale! PUT HIM ON FIRST BASE!
Nope. Dale opts to have Camp pitch to Jackson, and two pitches later, Jackson deposited a baseball into the left-field bleachers, 5-2 Tigers. I've said that you can't really judge Dale Sveum too much because he doesn't have much of a team to work with, which is true. But when you have strategic decisions that do pretty much everything short of announcing themselves on the PA system, Dale, just do them.
Oh, one more, if you're in the mood: with the Cubs trailing 3-2 in the last of the eighth, Darwin Barney leads off with a single. Dale Sveum, the bunting maven, didn't have Luis Valbuena attempt a bunt. Result: double play. Maybe it was because Valbuena didn't participate in the spring-training bunting tournament, having not been acquired until the day before Opening Day. Then again, those participants haven't done so well with bunting, either.
Thanks to the Jackson homer, the run the Cubs scored in the bottom of the ninth off Jose Valverde on a Campana double (yes, double, just his fifth extra-base hit of the year), a fly to right and a groundout was a consolation run instead of a game-tying run.
Such are the 2012 Cubs, back to a .333 winning percentage, a 3-10 record in June and again on pace for 108 losses, if not more after the expected trades happen over the next few weeks.
All of this was in front of 42,292 announced (probably close to that, 41,000 in the house), at least half of whom were loudly cheering for the Tigers. Detroit fans were friendly and though they took over Wrigley Field for the week, it didn't feel like a bad thing, instead it was like hosting your neighbor whose car you envy but you're never going to get one just because, and you felt like being nice, and the neighbor came and ate all your good snacks, but you still didn't mind because he's such a nice guy.
It was probably the largest contingent of visiting fans for anyone except the White Sox and Cardinals. The Cubs sold 124,782 tickets for the three games, the largest total for any weekday series in Wrigley Field history. Close to half of those were probably to Tigers fans; this weekend's series vs. the Red Sox should also draw three full or near-full houses. It will be instructive to compare these totals to the next homestand vs. the Mets and Astros, same dates of the week, but much poorer drawing teams.
Most of the Tigers fans' cheers were for Verlander, who was loudly applauded simply for his pregame running, then cheered louder and louder each time he came to bat. Twice he executed a perfect sacrifice bunt. Say, Dale -- maybe you could hire Verlander as a bunting coach in the offseason. (Kidding. I think.)
As to why the Cubs were able to hit Verlander even as much as they did, I suspect the answer lies in the reason they can hit Roy Halladay. Verlander throws strikes almost all the time; including today he's issued just 23 walks in 101⅔ innings. In this game he threw 73 strikes in 103 pitches. The Cubs, as we know, are a free-swinging team. When a team like that faces a pitcher who's in the zone, swinging away, they're likely to make contact and get hits, at least some of the time.
And now, the Red Sox. Can't wait to hear what the national TV announcers (Fox, Saturday, ESPN, Sunday) have to say about the terrible condition of the Wrigley Field turf (which, I heard today, is going to be replaced starting Monday).