There's nothing better than day baseball and last Thursday provided stellar July weather for the final game of the series against the surging Reds. With Kyle Hendricks scheduled to make his first major league start and prospect Arismendy Alcantara up for Darwin Barney, we jumped on the opportunity to sit in the Scout Box Seats when someone dumped their tickets on StubHub. Having sat in a number of locations around Great American Ball Park, there doesn't seem to be a bad seat in the house, but these offer an exceptional view of home and the infield. Highly recommended.
Before getting into the actual game, I want to talk about the outstanding attitudes and customer service we received from everyone employed by the Reds and their vendors. When we arrived at the gate, first the bag checker was warm and friendly and didn't make us feel like criminals for bringing our own food and then the ticket checker asked us where we were from and thanked us for coming to the game in a way that seemed completely genuine. It was a great start to our visit.
Once inside, I realized I'd left my camera in the car, and wound up at the entrance to the premium seating Diamond Club in the parking garage below GABP, which was a much shorter route to the car and back to my seat than if I had to go back out the way we first came in. I explained my situation to one of the Reds staff checking people in, and he agreed to let me come back in at his door. Later, a Reds usher made it easy to go into the concourse and then get back into our section simply by remembering me - no interrogation or having to fish out the tickets again, and she was happy to do it.
While these seats offer wait service from their own concession area, we didn't need it since we had our own food and water. But we did want some ice for the Solo cups we brought in with us without objection. At first, I'd go back to the concessions myself to get it, and every time the counter person was more than happy to fill them up; one even insisted on washing out my glass. Later in the game, our waiter offered to get the ice for us, and did so twice, even though he had no way to charge us for anything, and thus, no way to get a tip into the equation. No one had their hand out or expected anything. They did it because it was what we wanted, and they were there to make that happen.
At every turn, everyone we encountered from the Reds went out of their way to make sure we were having a great time and that we knew our attendance was appreciated, even though it was clear we weren't buying anything during the game. This is an organization that gets it - that understands the long, profitable play is to attend to the relationships and the money will take care of itself. Whatever hiring and training program the Reds are using, the Cubs should copy it verbatim.
Let's start with the primary focus of attention on Thursday, pitcher Kyle Hendricks. In the first inning, he looked like he was pitching underwater. I don't know if it was intentional compensation for the inevitable adrenalin rush, but his wind-ups and pitches looked slow and deliberate, almost as if he were throwing darts instead of baseballs. There was little fluidity, and he seemed to be trying to point the ball instead of pitch it.
When I later read that some feel he was being squeezed by the ump, I was rather surprised. To be sure, there's no way to see the edges of the strike zone sitting behind the ump, but it didn't appear watching live that this was his problem. He just couldn't throw strikes, as if he was afraid what real major league hitters would do to his pitches if he did. After the second walk, he stood behind the mound and hung his head like he wanted to disappear; it's probably what brought Bosio out to talk to him. Then, after getting the guy who was most likely to tag him (all-star Frazier), he couldn't put the next the batter away (Pena), who, after fouling off several borderline pitches, smoked a double down the right field line. That seemed to be the at-bat that burst his fantasy of just how awesome his first start was going to be, and he started lobbing it across the plate and hoping for the best. What he got was the Reds batting around, and having to throw 33 pitches just to get out of the first.
Something must have happened in the dugout between innings; perhaps a longer conversation with Bosio. Hendricks came out in the bottom of the second a completely different pitcher, now throwing with a much more fluid and aggressive motion that seemed to say he had decided that if he was going to get blasted in the bigs, it would at least be the result of him pitching from confidence rather than fear. He struck out Heisey and Fraizer, and both walked away from their ABs with a look of, "what happened to the guy we were just pounding in the last inning?".
From that point on, other than to Ludwick, Hendricks pitched quite effectively, moving the location of his pitches all around the edges of the strike zone, speeding up the bats, and then tossing a change-up lollipop at them they'd mostly miss. Most impressive was his last inning, the sixth, where, after giving up a lead-off single to Ludwick (who missed hitting his second HR earlier in the AB by just a couple feet), he struck out the next batter, hit the next, and then struck out the final two, ending his debut by getting PH Jay Bruce, who has been pretty hot lately, to swing wildly at a change-up he was way out in front on and leaving two men on in a one-run game. While I imagine Ricky Sunshine really didn't want to have to pull Hendricks during the inning because his position in the order was up second in the seventh, it also showed the kid a great deal of confidence letting him face Bruce. Heisey at the top of the order had already K'd twice (and wound up earning an extra-inning Golden Sombrero on the day), so I suppose there's a chance if he didn't get Bruce, Renteria would have let him go one more, but that would have been a very tough decision, especially with the short bench. Big props to him coming through.
What I noticed about Hendricks approach to pitching was that when he remembered to go through his standard routine of starting with his hands at his waist, and then raising them to his chest and pausing, as if he's visualizing the pitch he wants to make, and then going into his wind-up, he was generally quite successful. He also looked fluid and mechanically sound. But every now and then, he'd make a pitch that didn't go the way he wanted, grab the throw-back, and launch right into his next pitch as if he simply couldn't wait to throw it and correct what had gone wrong. The problem was, when he did that, he wasn't taking the approach that seemed to give him his success, and those pitches tended to be worse than the originals he didn't like. He really needs to execute his routine every time.
I know some believe Kyle Hendricks has a future on the 25-man roster, and maybe he does, but I'm afraid that even with his post first-inning recovery, he's got a long row to hoe. There's nothing powerful at all about his pitches. The few times he cranked his delivery up and broke 90 on the stadium gun, he clearly was over-throwing and had little control over where the ball was going. The ones that wind up over the plate are going into the bleacher in the majors. When he stays within himself and pitches to locations, he looks like he's throwing batting practice. He pretty much conquered the Reds batters by out-thinking them - setting them up with 88 MPH fastballs and sliders around the outside, speeding up their bats, and then getting them on change-ups. There was one hitter, though, he had no idea what do with - Ryan Ludwick - and it showed each time he faced him. Ludwick seemed to completely dominate the plate, and Hendricks seemed to be terrified to throw the ball anywhere near him.
I think for Hendricks to stick in the majors as something more than just a spot fifth starter, he needs to develop some serious late movement on his fastball and be willing to put it over the plate so it looks like a meatball until it's too late. He isn't going to be able to out-think / out-guess major league hitters three times through the order on a regular basis, and teams will simply stop swinging at his stuff on the edges and force him to either be perfect or throw obvious strikes. They'll learn to wait for his mistakes, and while there might not be all that many, they'll get launched. Maybe the alternative is for him to remake himself into a sinker-ball pitcher and pitch to contact, but that's definitely not who he is today. He's about moving his location around like Whack-A-Mole and then throwing the change-up when he thinks the batter is wound up and ready to pounce. I will say this on his behalf - I'd much rather see him making starts in the second half of this season than Chris Rusin.
Fortunately, the Cubs had a prospect playing in this game who looks like he belongs in the majors - Arismendy Alcantara. Sure, Alcantara came within a HR of hitting for the cycle (and his double was close to going over the fence), but what really stood out about his game was his smoothness and confidence playing defense, and his speed. Oh, is that speed going to play at the top of the Cubs' order. There's an inside-the-park in this kid's future for sure.
In the seventh, after two were away, Russell walked Frazier (understandably), and then made a pitch to Pena that he smacked in an arc toward short right field. Off the bat, it looked like a sure hit, and the Reds were going to luck into an inning. No problem for Mendy. He simply sprinted back like a wide receiver taking lazy throws at practice and made the catch look routine.
Throughout the game, Alcantara was consistently well-positioned and alert. Whenever a grounder came his way, he glided to it, fielded it cleanly, and made the play. He's quick and showed solid instincts. And given the way he reacted to Pena's looper, he looks like he should be able to handle CF if that's what's available for him. I know Darwin Barney is a gold glover and has started to hit the ball again, at least as well as Darwin Barney can, but Alcantara should be the starting second baseman for the rest of the season. I can't imagine he has anything left to learn in the minors, and what he does need to learn can really only be taught by playing against top competition. Barney seems like a great guy, and he's busted his ass to improve even if the results aren't there, but he's not a part of the future of the Cubs. Arismendy Alcantara is.
Some other observations. First, sitting in these seats really trying to pay attention to the details of individuals made me appreciate how much I've come to rely on all the extra information, and especially replays, available from broadcasts and the Internet. Second, scouts have a lot of stuff they have to bring to the games with them; they all had wide, bulging document bags, a variety of detailed sheets to fill out, and stop watches. One even had a pair of prescription sunglasses kept in a special case he got out just for watching the game. It would be cool to get to sit amongst them and say, "Tell me what you see.".
Rizzo and Castro both looked like they were pressing, trying to carry the team themselves. They really need some support in that line-up so it's ok for them to relax and rely on hitters behind them instead of the black hole of suck it currently is. Nate Schierholtz looked like a robot, with a very mechanical approach to everything, head down and completely contained within himself. It's rather sad to watch a player carrying so much self-defeat. John Baker may not have much of a bat, but he's one of the team leaders. After 12 innings of catching in 80+ degree heat and sun, he was one of the last players off the field and he looked like he just got off a shift at the steel mill.
I didn't see the very beginning of the Rizzo fracas, but it seemed like what set him off was coming from the Reds dugout when he went out to take first, and he was really ready to throw down, so it must have been something. How little do the Reds respect the Cubs? The mid-game trivia question was "How many World Series have the Reds and Cubs won combined in the past 100 years." Any chance to rub it in, I guess. I'm looking forward to the worm turning on this rivalry and pounding the Reds like the proverbial drum every chance the Cubs get.
The Valbuena inside-the-park almost HR was comical. The problem Luis had was that there was only three-and-a-half bases worth of fuel in his tank - he came chugging around third and practically collapsed when he saw how much farther he still had to go. It was a great belly-flop attempt to avoid the tag at the end, though.
Ricky Sunshine demonstrate once again why he's probably not going to be the guy managing this club when the serious play-off pushes begin in a couple years. For some reason, in a tie ballgame and with a short bench, he decided to PH Ruggiano for Sweeney to start the ninth against Chapman, and with the pitcher's spot due up fourth. That forced him to send Junior Lake to the plate when Baker walked, burning two players in one inning. He should have saved that decision until he knew how the inning went, using Ruggiano with a man on, or using Lake to lead off the next inning. He also should have sent Ramirez out to pitch the 10th - he had cruised thru the top of the Reds order the previous inning, the pitcher's spot just made the last out, and he would have pushed the rest of his bullpen back an inning, which he had to be prepared for. The Cubs really needed to win that game, and fortunately it only went 12.
I didn't spend much time in the concourse at GABP, but I did check out the new Brewery District that runs along the third base line. It has a surprisingly good selection of both local and national craft beers, although the prices are a gouging $9.00 for 16 oz., and $13 for 24 oz. Even the Scout Seats concession had a decent selection, including Dale's Pale Ale and Oberon. It's expensive, but at least quality is available these days. IPA fans should definitely taste Truth from Rhinegeist.
The Cubs are back at GABP in late August. It should be an interesting series for both teams, and ends once again with more day baseball, just the way god intended the game to be played. There's a few pics to follow, which I'll post as a comment or two.