When Dusty Baker sent Jose F. Macias up to pinch-hit for Mark Prior in the bottom of the sixth inning with the score tied 3-3, my son Mark said:
We all roared with laughter -- Mark and his friend Mitchell kept us amused all night -- and then just roared, as Macias slapped a two-run single up the middle for the eventual winning runs in a game that lasted 3:08 but never dragged, a pulsating 5-4 win over the Cardinals, winning the series just as Howard told me they would last Wednesday.
Oh, and Happy 63rd Birthday, Howard. May you have many more before October 2.
After Macias' hit, Mark said:
Hey, he's not-quite-10. And since he was there with a school friend, that's probably the context he was considering when he made that remark.
Cracked us all up again.
The Baseball Tonight crew from ESPN set up on the rooftop just across the street from us, and during a commercial break in their pregame broadcast we caught Karl Ravech's attention and he waved back at us. Good thing Joe Morgan wasn't up there, or who knows what might have been said or gestured!
The rain of the last few days, not a drought-buster but welcome (except at Wrigley Field!), finally moved out during the day Sunday, and by the time the ballpark gates opened, a sliver of blue sky was visible in the northwest, eventually leading to this painted-sky vision just past sunset time at 8:00:
And the game was just as beautiful. We all wondered, to ourselves and out loud, "Why can't the Cubs play like this every day?"
Well, maybe they can. This series has to prove to the players in blue pinstripes that they can not only compete with the teams with the best records in baseball (combined record vs. the Cardinals and White Sox: 9-6, 6-3 vs. St. Louis and 3-3 vs. the south side team), but they can beat them soundly with excellent relief pitching and timely hitting.
I won't mention good defense, because Nomar Garciaparra gave us some nervous moments in the 9th inning, throwing pinch-hitter Skip Schumaker's ground ball on one hop into the seats behind the 1B dugout, landing him on second base, where he eventually scored on a single and a ground out to Derrek Lee, who made the right play in taking the out at first -- some around us were screaming for him to try a 3-6-3 double play attempt, but that might have resulted in all being safe.
It was also the right call for Ryan Dempster to then pitch to Albert Pujols, who is only 7-for-34 against the Cubs this year (although with three homers), and he grounded out harmlessly to Todd Walker to end the game, sending what remained (yes, "remained" -- there were a significant number of empty seats by the 9th inning) of the crowd into one of the loudest cheers of the season; this sort of energy has been missing from Wrigley Field most of the year, for good reason, and it was good to see it back.
Mark Prior threw 123 pitches. A few of those were unnecessary, as in the sixth inning when the Cardinals tied the game, Prior had So Taguchi struck out on two consecutive pitches that Bruce Froemming called "balls".
It's really hard to believe this, but Froemming has managed to carry his dislike for the Cubs, which we first saw manifested in his refusal to call strike three in a 8-0 blowout and give Milt Pappas his perfect game, forward for all of a 35-year umpiring career. Congratulations, Bruce. Despite your best efforts, the Cubs won anyway last night.
On the other controversial call of the game, Derrek Lee's apparent home run in the fifth that was reversed by umpire conference, I'll give Froemming credit. This one, they got right, even though it led to loud boos when Lee flied out, and louder boos when the inning ended. Fooled the scoreboard operator, though; when Lee stepped back into the batter's box after the overruling, the message board beneath the CF scoreboard had his stats as "36 HR, 91 RBI". Lee, incidentally, even without that "lost" HR, does have 74 extra-base hits, and with a bit more than a quarter of the season left, has a shot at 100 extra-base hits, something that Sammy Sosa did in 2001; before that it hadn't been done in the National League since Stan Musial did it in 1948.
After Prior left the game for that Macias pinch-hit, Kerry Wood came in to make his fifth relief appearance. This is the first time these two, in whom we had so much hope for being a powerful pitching rotation tandem for years to come, had ever appeared in the same game. And despite the fact that Wood said, after the game:
Personally, if I'm Jim Hendry, I go to Wood after the season and beg, cajole, sweet-talk, whatever he has to do, to get Kerry to be the closer in 2006. Just like Dempster, he seems temperamentally suited to the role -- even his body language on the mound appears different than when he's a starter. The velocity is amazing considering the shoulder trouble he's had, and with a winter of rest and/or being scoped and then rest, it might approach 100 next year -- thus, giving us the guy we always thought we had in Kyle Farnsworth. Dempster could be re-signed to be Wood's setup man.
Odd, isn't it? The three pitchers last night were three-fifths of the starting rotation from mid-April to early May of this year, and here we are in mid-August and two of them are pitching nearly lights-out in a revamped bullpen. Since Wood's return, he has thrown 6 innings, allowed ONE hit, walked three, and struck out ten. Good stuff, any way you consider it.
Firsts last night: Matt Lawton hit his first Cub homer, and also singled. And Cardinals backup catcher Mike Mahoney, who has spent almost all of the last eleven seasons in the minors (several of them with the Cubs -- in looking up his record, I realized why the Cubs signed him as a minor league free agent in 2000; he went to Creighton, Jim Hendry's alma mater) and had only 36 ML AB before this year, hit his first ML homer off Prior -- and it was a no-doubt-about it shot.
Corey Patterson also homered, his first since his return, and a twentyish couple sitting in front of us took some umbrage at our group yelling of "Corey, you still suck!" afterwards, and our praise of Henry Blanco's defensive abilities (the woman said, "Don't you like Michael Barrett?"), and I told them first, that it's "toughlove", and a motivational tool -- but they didn't quite seem to get it.
We do this partly to defuse the tension that this season has given us, and partly because we do love the players and want them to do well. I like Michael Barrett's offense -- combined, in fact, Cub catchers have 29 doubles, 17 HR, 62 RBI and are hitting .272/.329/.404, pretty good -- but frankly, he doesn't throw runners out very well, and for pitch-calling and as a clubhouse leader, as I've written here before, the Cubs really miss Damian Miller.
In any case when the game was over, I told them they sure picked a terrific game to attend, and gave them a BCB card and they promised to pass this site along -- so if you two are here, welcome!
Signs seen: the usual selection of "Sportscenter Is Next" signs, along with one misspelled "Sportcenter", but there was one clever one using the initials ESPN: it read
D-Lee MVP 25.
I liked that one.
Notes: after one game and one relief appearance, John Koronka was sent back to Iowa and Todd Wellemeyer recalled; neither move makes a whole lot of sense. And the game on Saturday, August 27, vs. the Marlins, originally scheduled as a CSN broadcast at 3:05, has been changed to a 12:25 start at Fox-TV's request.
The weather was great. The baseball was well-played, exciting, and the result was satisfying. And though a 3-4 homestand is not acceptable, taking three of four from the Cardinals is not only that, it is delicious. The Cubs have played well against tough opponents, and I would expect nothing less in Houston. Regardless of where the Cubs are now, there are still 44 games -- more than a quarter of the schedule -- remaining, and it does appear, at last and at least, that this team is playing good baseball again.