Before you begin reading this recap of the Cubs' 2-0 loss to the Braves Saturday night, I thought I should let you know that some of you aren't going to like parts of this.
Forewarned, let me begin with the removal of Jeff Samardzija from the game after six innings and 69 pitches.
Yes, I know. There was an hour-plus rain delay. It was reported that Shark threw about 30 pitches in the bullpen during the delay. Yes, I know he threw 126 pitches in his last start.
But this is a pitcher who has had no arm trouble whatsoever in his career. A pitcher who, for lack of a better term, is an old-fashioned "horse." It really comes down to this, in my view: do you want to win the game, or is this more extended spring training? Here's what Shark said:
"I felt good and could have gone back out (for the seventh inning), but we agreed that it was a long rain delay," said Samardzija, who used a cut fastball effectively and limited the Braves to two hits while striking out seven.
Translation: "I wanted to pitch, but got overruled."
Maybe the point is moot, because the Cubs didn't score any runs. It was the sixth time in Shark's eight starts that the Cubs scored two or fewer runs, and he is now dead last (151st) among all qualified starters in run support (1.7 per start), while just slightly behind Johnny Cueto (1.45, to Cueto's 1.43) for the major-league lead in ERA.
I'm well aware that this is not "the old days" when Fergie Jenkins would throw 20-plus complete games a season (something he did eight times in his career). Baseball is different now. But surely the Cubs could find a middle ground between "every pitcher completes every start" and the current sad parade of relief pitchers and mound meetings that slows down modern baseball.
And, as you might have guessed, that's my lead-in to another one of the things I care about, the pace of the game. Leaving aside the rain delay, the first six innings Saturday night were completed in one hour, 25 minutes, a blazing-fast pace. Much of that, of course, was both teams' failure to score runs. But the pitchers worked fast and did throw a fair number of pitches, because many of the outs in those six innings were strikeouts, both by Samardzija and Braves starter Ervin Santana, who was lifted after the seventh inning for a pinch-hitter (Ryan Doumit) who wound up driving in the only run the Braves would need.
The Cubs' bullpen (Brian Schlitter) failed. The Braves' bullpen didn't. And that was the difference in a game that, even with the slowdowns inevitable in a game when relief pitchers start marching in, lasted two hours and 19 minutes, the fastest Cubs game this year by a considerable margin (20 minutes shorter than the next-fastest one so far).
Pacing of the game isn't everything, and of course I'd take a slow Cubs win over a fast Cubs defeat. But watching a fast-paced game, in my view, is much more enjoyable, whether in person or on television, and I think the players would tell you the same thing. Paul Sullivan wrote on this topic in today's Tribune and though it's behind a paywall, the gist of the article is this, quoting Commissioner Bud Selig:
Selig has been concerned about the issue for years. As acting commissioner in 1995 he asked former umpire Steve Palermo to submit a report on recommendations to speed things up. "When a pitcher gets the ball he should throw it," Selig said in '97. "There's too much stepping in and out, pitchers fooling around." Among Palermo's recommendations were for hitters to stay in the box, pitchers to stay on the mound, p.a. announcers call the batter's name sooner and MLB institute a time limit between pitches when no one was on base. In 1963, games averaged 2:25. Last year it was 2:58, tied for the record set in 2000.
Obviously, we're not going back to the 1963 pace, when pitchers (mostly) completed games and inning breaks were shorter. But the things noted by Selig 17 years ago are still happening, only more so. Sullivan also goes on and on about player walk-up music, which to me is a minor factor. The recommendations noted above would help, a lot, especially the time limit between pitches when no one's on base, a rule that's already on the books, yet not enforced.
There are a couple of other notes about this game. First, the Cubs can kiss the .500 mark goodbye. They are 11 games under .500 after Saturday's loss; no Cubs team in franchise history has ever come from more than 10 games under .500 to finish with a .500 or better record. The only one that came from 10 games under: 1968, when a 35-45 Cubs team finished 84-78. The 2007 Cubs had a low point of nine games under (22-31) before winning the N.L. Central at 85-77.
And, the defeat was the 9,999th in franchise history. A loss today would have them join the Phillies and Braves as the only clubs to lose 10,000 games.