Too often, we criticize or bitch about the manager or head coach of our favorite team. This is a pastime for fans of just about any team in any sport. The players fail, but it must be the manager's fault. We do this all the time regarding Dale Sveum.
So let me give Sveum some credit, for calling a daring double steal in the ninth inning of a tie game in Washington Sunday. It caught the Nationals by surprise, and catcher Kurt Suzuki threw wildly toward third base; the ball went into the left-field corner and Alfonso Soriano scored what turned out to be the winning run in a 2-1 Cubs win over the Nats. The Cubs thus won a series in D.C. for the first time in almost three years.
For much of the game, it looked like Scott Feldman's shaky first inning was going to wind up resulting in the only scoring of the game. Feldman threw 29 pitches in that inning, and after a double and a walk, Ryan Zimmerman lofted a fly ball to right field. Scott Hairston took a bad route to it and it went in and out of his glove, scoring a run.
But after that Feldman settled down for his fourth consecutive solid start; he threw 102 pitches over six innings and gave up just three more hits, striking out six in all. Unless something radically changes over the next couple of weeks, I'd say that makes Carlos Villanueva the odd-man out when Matt Garza returns -- and that's not such a bad thing, because Villanueva has thrown pretty well overall. That will strengthen the bullpen when Villanueva has to make way for Garza in the rotation.
Gio Gonzalez retired the first 15 Cubs he faced before Dioner Navarro singled to lead off the sixth. It was the second straight game that Cubs hitters did nothing early, but then produced offense in the later innings. The Cubs didn't score in that inning, but in the eighth, Navarro singled again and was replaced by pinch-runner Travis Wood. This turned out to be significant when Wood was bunted to second. Wood tagged up and went to third on a foul pop-up behind first base caught by Adam LaRoche. There's no guarantee he would have scored from second base on Starlin Castro's RBI single; the advance was smart baserunning. Wood was a position player as well as a pitcher in college (some outfield), so he knows his way around the bases. The Cubs thus scored their first run off one of the league's better relievers, Drew Storen.
And the Cubs got their decisive run off Nats closer Rafael Soriano, also tough usually to score on. Soriano faced Soriano (for the eighth time ever), and the Cubs' Alfonso singled. Then Julio Borbon, who everyone thought was going to bunt, lofted a soft single to left-center before the decisive double steal/error.
Kevin Gregg entered for the ninth, and as Jim Deshaies pointed out on the WGN broadcast, Gregg's saves have been mostly relatively easy 1-2-3 affairs (unlike the Carlos Marmol heart-palpitation-fests we're used to). Gregg retired the Nats 1-2-3 for his sixth save in six tries, and to complete Suzuki's day, he was ejected by plate umpire John Tumpane after being called out on strikes. The TV pitch tracker seemed to show it a bit inside, but Tumpane had been calling that pitch a strike all day; Suzuki should have been used to that, you'd think.
This was a very satisfying win, coming against a good team that the Cubs have had all kinds of trouble defeating in their home park. The only complaint I can register about Sunday's game -- and really, it's a minor one -- is about Hairston. I had my doubts about him even when the Cubs signed him; despite the 20 homers he hit in 2012, Hairston struck out 83 times in 377 at-bats and had a .299 OBP. This year, starting and playing almost exclusively against LHP, Hairston is hitting .110/.128/.359 against those lefties. (4-for-39, one walk, three of the hits home runs).
Seriously, how much worse could it be just putting Nate Schierholtz in right field every day? Hairston isn't a particularly good outfielder, either. This is starting to remind me of the Xavier Nady signing, only Nady was coming off an injury, and he wasn't nearly this impotent at the plate.
Oh, and Bryce Harper reminds me of the big kid in high school who grew a beard because he could, never mind whether it suited him or looked particularly good on him (Hint, Bryce: it doesn't).
The Cubs come home to face the Rockies in a three-game series starting Monday night, having won three of their last five, and, apart from that blown lead against the Cardinals last Wednesday, looking like a much better team.