HOUSTON -- Yesterday did not begin well.
When I got to O'Hare, all the automated check-in machines were down. So, there I am, with only a carryon bag and my laptop, having to stand in a really long check-in line.
With the money troubles United is having these days, I'm surprised they didn't try to charge me for having an actual person check me in. And if you think that sounds ludicrous, sometime later this month they are going to start charging for curbside checkin.
Then I took a cab to my hotel, got out of the cab, went to check in, found out the room wasn't going to be ready for an hour -- and reached for my cellphone to discover it was gone. It had fallen out of my pocket in the cab.
Thanks to being observant -- I had, for no particular reason, taken note of the cab company name -- and to the desk staff at the hotel, they managed to track it down in a couple of hours. It would have taken less time, except that the driver had been conscientious and turned it in to his supervisor, which resulted in an extra trip to reclaim it and then drive it back to the hotel; it arrived after I'd already left for the game.
Which is why, by the time the game started, I really needed a good ballgame, and I sure got one.
The Cubs beat the Astros convincingly 4-1 last night, and the star of the show, as he has been so many times in his career, was Greg Maddux.
Maddux gave up a ringing triple down the RF line to Willy Taveras on the first pitch he threw.
The rest of his seven innings, he threw only sixty-nine further pitches, and gave up only a line-drive double into the LF corner to Adam Everett, who was subsequently gunned down stealing by Henry Blanco; a bunt single to Taveras, and two harmless walks to Lance Berkman.
He was masterful. He had five strikeouts and everyone else was beating the ball into the ground. I was a bit surprised when Dusty pinch-hit <sigh> Jose F. Macias for him in the 7th (especially considering he had driven in the first Cub run with a bases-loaded, fifty-foot single in the 2nd); Maddux was actually standing on deck, but after Corey Patterson stole second, putting two runners in scoring position, I guess Baker figured "put a hitter up there."
I wish he had done that. Todd Hollandsworth, mediocre as he's been this year, would have been a better choice. Macias did hit the ball on the nose, but it was caught by Craig Biggio, who doubled Patterson off second.
The rest of the pitching staff did just as well. The newly-rejuvenated Kerry Wood had a nine-pitch inning which included two strikeouts, and I thought Baker might leave him in for a two-inning save.
Unfortunately, managers just don't do this sort of thing any more -- they seem programmed with the mantra "Go To The Closer In The Ninth No Matter What", and that's what Baker did. Ryan Dempster didn't look so great -- he didn't walk anyone, but threw only four strikes out of his ten pitches. Fortunately, one of those four was hit by Morgan Ensberg into a game-ending double play.
So, the Cub staff combined for 89 pitches. That's remarkable, considering at times Cub starters have thrown that many in the fifth inning. That's about as few as I've seen from a Cub staff since this masterpiece, Jon Lieber's 82-pitch one-hitter against the Reds in 2001. Maddux, in fact, once threw a 78-pitch complete game against the Cubs at Wrigley Field. And we may have gotten, in the last few days, a sneak preview of the way the setup and closing roles could work in 2006, only in reverse.
Kerry Wood could absolutely become a dominant closer in the majors, and though I think Ryan Dempster has done a good job in that role, I also think he'd be well suited to being a setup man -- presuming Jim Hendry can convince him of that AND re-sign him, as he's a free agent.
The crowd at the Juice Box seemed somewhat more subdued than it was when I was here a year ago; it was about 10-12,000 short of capacity, and there were far fewer Cub fans in evidence than before, although we were loud and clear (and got booed down) when Aramis Ramirez homered to lead off the sixth inning. The Cubs had several timely hits last night, taking advantage of situations, from Maddux' RBI single, to Ramirez' RBI double in the 3rd, to Patterson's pop fly driving in a run after a walk to Nomar and Matt Murton's reaching base on an error.
This is not something we are accustomed to. Neither are we accustomed to seeing Cub pitchers shut down hot hitters -- every time I looked at the video board, it seemed it had some stat for a Houston hitter claiming he was hitting .650 or something in the last couple of weeks; even Orlando Palmeiro, getting a rare start in LF, was hitting .365 since July 1, until Maddux shut him down with an 0-for-3 last night.
Based on this comment left in yesterday's game thread, I asked some random Astros fans why there were pumpkins in the car behind the train that runs above left field. I actually got a couple of people to admit that the big orange things did look like pumpkins, but apparently they're supposed to be oranges -- you know, Minute Maid Park and all. That was my main complaint about the park last year -- that although it's interesting-looking, there are just too many "themes". It's a jumble of orange juice, train metaphors and design (it's on the site of an old train station), the ridiculous hill in CF; I could go on and on, but you get the point.
Just before the 9th inning started, an idiot ran on to the field in the RF corner -- I'm not quite sure exactly where, because my view of the corner was a bit blocked from my seat. He ran across the RF wall, high-fiving some fans in the front row, and then tried to climb back into the seats near the Astros' bullpen, before being tackled (and quite roughly, I might add) by several security guards and three uniformed Houston police officers.
This is something I wish they'd do at Wrigley Field, too -- they have uniformed cops at most ballparks, and having even a few of them at Wrigley, would keep such behavior at a minimum. To be fair, it's been pretty peaceful at Wrigley Field this year, more so than in other recent seasons.
Just my $0.02.
And so, I remain undefeated in the state of Texas -- 3-0 last year here, and last night's win, and with Z going tonight, even against Roy Oswalt, who's usually tough on the Cubs, I feel good about the streak continuing.