Kingsburg, California: A win is a win, right? In tribute to Al, I'm going to use the Jack Brickhouse quote that he sometimes trots out after games like this: "When you come by, bring my stomach!"
Personally, I was just annoyed during the ninth inning. My innate Cub fan early-season optimism was still sure that the Cubs were going to win this game, but my Cubs fan pessimism was convinced they were headed for extras, which meant that a long day for me today was going to get even longer. But it didn't. The Cubs and Carlos Marmol escaped a no-outs, runners on the corner jam to defeat the Pittsburgh Pirates, 3-2 and take the three game series, two games to one.
Travis Wood was excellent; really about as good as he can be. Throwing mostly fastballs and cutters around 86-89 mph (except to notorious bad breaking ball hitter Pedro Alvarez), he hit the corners and induced weak contract. He even struck out four in his six innings. Sveum pulled Wood after only six innings and 85 pitches, even though it looked like he could go more. Was it the right decision? He had only allowed one hit. He wasn't losing anything on his stuff, but it is early in the season. I really think we have to defer to Sveum on this one. He knows how Wood felt and what he can do a lot at this point of the season a lot better than we do.
On top of what he did on the mound, Wood singled with one out in the third inning and scored two batters later on a Starlin Castro single. That Castro single was also the first hit of the season for the Cubs with runners in scoring position. Better late than never, I guess. It was beginning to look like never.
It looked for quite a while like that was all the Cubs were going to get off of the Pirates. James McDonald was almost as good as Wood. Throwing only a little bit harder than Wood with a fastball in the 89-91 mph range, he got a lot of easy fly outs to the outfield. You wonder if the win hadn't been blowing in or if the weather had been warmer, some of those balls would have traveled a bit farther. Soriano's flyout in the fourth inning certainly might have gone out on a different day.
That's what makes what Nate Schierholtz did in the ninth inning all that much more impressive. After Rizzo walked with one out and then stole second (?!?), Pirates reliever Jared Hughes struck out Soriano on a 1-2 slider. Facing the left-handed Schierholtz, Hughes threw nothing but fastballs away. Schierholtz swung at none of them. Then on a 3-1 count, Hughes outside fastball caught too much of the plate and Schierholtz made him pay, clubbing the ball through the wind and carrying it over the center field wall. Let that be a lesson about waiting for your pitch. Three-nothing Cubs going to the bottom of the ninth. Game over, right?
Nah, none of you believed that. In comes Marmol to close out what should have been an easy save, but nothing is easy with Marmol these days. Facing the top of the Pirates lineup, Marmol's command was poor and he got one up to Starling Marte, who lined it into centerfield. Then he walked Russell Martin, which was really a mortal sin considering that it brought Andrew McCutchen to the plate as the tying run with no outs. Marmol was lucky that the fat 1-0 fastball down the heart of the plate to McCutchen was only hit over Castro's head for an RBI single.
At this point Sveum started warming up the bullpen, telling Hisanori Takahashi to get ready in a hurry. But Takahashi never had enough time to get ready and Sveum never went to him. The next batter, Gaby Sanchez, hit a ground ball that Rizzo over at first base couldn't corral. The ball was ruled a hit and that was probably the correct call, but I'm betting that Rizzo would tell us that he should have had that one. Still, Marmol was fooling no one, the 3-0 lead was 3-2 and there were runners on first and third with no outs.
Here Marmol dug deep and found his inner Mitch Williams. He struck out Pedro Alvarez on three pitches, the last one was a slider in the dirt that Alvarez swung on, as he is wont to do. Kudos to Dioner Navarro for keeping that pitch in front of him and the tying run on third. After that, Neil Walker grounded into a game-ending 4-6-3 double play and everyone acted like they had the game in the bag all along.
Even though Marmol picked up the save, this performance is going to make the calls to replace him as the closer even louder. On top of that, Kyuji Fujikawa looked awesome in a 1-2-3 eighth inning. The problem with moving Fujikawa into the closer's job is that it would take him out of some high-leverage spots like he pitched today, a 1-0 lead in the eighth inning, and put him in some low-leverage spots like a 3-0 lead in the ninth. Because, you know, he'd be the closer. But it's clear that Marmol right now is going to have problems with even the low-leverage spots. But I don't see how Sveum can stick with him much longer.
The explosive ninth inning obscured what I've seen as a trend so far this season. It's silly to make any pronouncements about a three-game sample, so I'm going to do it anyway. Teams, including the Cubs, seem to be using the shift a lot more and moving their fielders around to where hit charts predict the ball is going to go. Offense seems way down this year. Some of that is the cold and some of that is just pitchers being ahead of the hitters early in the year. But I wonder if some of it is teams knowing where to put their fielders. Alvarez grounded into a rare 5-6-3 double play in the second inning, as Valbuena was where Castro normally plays and Castro was on the first base side of the second base bag. Rob Neyer wrote a column last year about how the "three true outcomes" are way up in baseball. If these advances in fielding hold up over the course of a season, we're going to see more of that as it becomes more difficult to get a hit on a ball in play.
But enough of the teeth-gnashing. Living out in Giants territory, I've gotten to see a lot of Nate Schierholtz play over the past few years and I was excited when the Cubs got him. A ridiculously good cheap pickup. His power was mostly negated by playing all those seasons in AT&T Park, which is death on left-handed hitters not named Barry Bonds. The Pittsburgh series gave us a good idea of what he's capable of. No, he's not an all-star. But he's a lot better than you probably thought before this season started.
The Cubs won their first series of the year, and it was on the road. Sure, Pittsburgh isn't exactly one of the powers of the National League, but they're not a doormat anymore either. The pitching and defense has looked good. Fujikawa looks almost as good in MLB as he was in NPB. The Cubs got timely home runs from Rizzo and Schierholtz.
The Cubs are in first place. Worry about Marmol another day. The complaint department is closed.