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Open Thread And Five Questions, Cubs vs. Astros, Friday 9/23

I've done Five Questions with several fellow bloggers of opposing teams this year; this time it was Joshua from Crawfish Boxes who asked me to do this.

Since I didn't get his answers till early this morning, I'm going to combine the game thread with the five-questions thread.

Today's Starting Pitchers
Glendon Rusch
G. Rusch
vs. Wandy Rodriguez
W. Rodriguez
7-8 W-L 10-8
4.59 ERA 5.43
103 SO 73
51 BB 50
12 HR 17

Here are my questions to Josh and his answers:

Q: What happened with Roger Clemens? Why couldn't the Astros score when he was pitching? Shouldn't he be about 18-2?

A: I think the question is leading the witness to a certain extent. The Astros have struggled to score runs for Clemens, but also for every other pitcher on the staff except Wandy Rodriguez.

Clemens should be 18 - 2 only if you figure that great pitchers like Chris Carpenter, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Jake Peavy aren't good enough to "deserve" the shutouts they've thrown while opposing Roger. It's kind of discriminatory to say that Clemens is the one who should have won a particular pitcher's duel--especially when he didn't. The four guys mentioned above will either win a Cy Young award, or have led their league in wins, or in ERA. And yeah, they beat Clemens in close games this year. If you're an ace--as Clemens definitely is--you're going to face the best, consistently.

Also, while guys like Carpenter and Mulder, and beyond those four, Willis, have pitched complete games, Roger--because he no longer throws them--has relied on the bullpen more than some other pitchers. I do not, however, understand why all three of Brad Lidge's blown saves have ruined games for Roger. Russ Springer--who has been very good this year, for the most part--has also blown a save for Rocket. So bad luck is certainly part of it.

And believe it or not, Clemens has also been outpitched at times. Greg Maddux, Brad Halsey, Chris Carpenter (in another start), and Tomo Ohka have all had games where they gave up some runs, but still pitched better than Roger.

Last thing is that recently, Clemens just has not been that good. I think it's his hamstring, but he has a 5.40 ERA in September, a period of time when Roy Oswalt, for example, has had less run support than Roger.

Q: What is the single most important reason the Astros are about to clinch the wild card?

A: The temptation is to say Morgan Ensberg, but the answer really is our starting pitching. Disregarding Ezequiel Astacio--who made some spot starts and filled in for Brandon Backe when he was hurt--Houston's starting pitching is 67 - 45. Which means, what? That our bullpen (plus Astacio) is 27 - 24. As of right now, no member of the starting rotation has a losing record, and they've all won ten games.

Even # 4 and # 5, which have been perceived as weak links from time to time, have pitched and won important games, repeatedly. Look at Brandon Backe Thursday. It appears as if he might finally have recaptured his command, and if so, he is a very dangerous # 4, with an outstanding curve and a 90+ fastball with tailing movement. Astros fans've been waiting for Brandon to pitch like he did at the end of last season all year. Maybe the wait is over?

And now that I think of it, let's give a little credit to Astacio. He got shelled more than a couple times, and is now 2 - 6, but the team was 6 - 8 in his starts, not bad for a number six guy. Beyond that, he gave the team some consistency, where it's not a revolving door at the end of the rotation. I believe that's gotta help the team outlook.

Q: Which team would you most like to face in the playoffs and why?

A: The Braves, 'cause they're weak right now, literally backing into the playoffs, as their vulnerable bullpen becomes more and more exposed. And my God, imagine if Andruw Jones gets hit on the hand with a pitch or something. . . . Plus the Stros've got some baggage that we'd like to unload on their asses. Last year was only a start, is what I'd like to believe.

Q: Which team would you LEAST like to face in the playoffs and why?

A: The Cardinals. Because they're the best team, and 'coz they've won 11 of 14 from us. Even the games we've won, like the minor classic September 2nd, it's been like the labors of Hercules just to get a freaking W. . . .

But I don't think anyone seriously doubts that at least 50% of the LCS, if not more, will be played in St. Louis.

I'm sure I don't speak for the players when I say this, but Albert Pujols in a clutch situation scares the s*** out of me. He beat the Astros in the thirteenth inning with a homer to deep center July 15, after going 0 for 4 over the first ten frames. He continuously does that kind of stuff to Houston, and has a 1.006 OPS over the last four years against the Astros.

And Jim Edmonds? The man gives an Astro fan nightmares. I'm sure you know about the catch he made in the LCS that may have cost us a trip to the Series; that kind of stuff is pretty much SOP for him. He has a higher OPS against Houston over the past four years than Pujols.

Q: Other than Clemens, Ensberg and Lidge, who is the Astros MVP this year?

A: Andy Pettitte. Although it looks like he might be tailing off lately, he was quite simply the NL's best pitcher in the second half. He's also been the league's best lefty. Clemens has had the problems dicussed; Lidge, while back atop his game, has been from time to time inconsistent. And Ensberg was slumping a bit before he got hurt. But Pettitte has been a rock since June 20th. Throw him out there, get the win. . . . .

And now, my answers to Josh's questions, which you can also find at Crawfish Boxes, his Astros blog:

Q: Carlos Zambrano: Ace of the 2005 Chicago Cubs, and beyond. True or False?

A: Absolutely true. While Mark Prior & Kerry Wood, the supposed aces from 2003 and who were going to lead us to the promised land, spent most of the last two years on the DL, Z has been the staff ace for the last two years, not missing a start, throwing what many of us consider an unconscionable number of pitches (he threw a 136-pitch complete game earlier this year), but he seems to have the stamina to handle this sort of workload.

I like Z's passion for the game, too -- he just has to learn to keep it under control. Sometimes it's hard to remember, considering that if Z wins his last two starts he'll have 50 career wins, that he turned 24 in June. Lots of guys 24 years old are still pitching in Double-A.

One of the things Jim Hendry has to do this off-season is sign Z to a long-term deal. The Cubs have the payroll room to do this.

Q: Fill in the blank, like they did in "Match Game 77," if you remember that:

If the Cubs could have just successfully (blanked) this year, they might have progressed to the playoffs.

A: "Match Game 77"? Hey, I'm old enough to remember the ORIGINAL "Match Game", hosted by Gene Rayburn. OK, so I watched with my grandparents. But anyway: What can fill in that blank? I could say a lot of things, but many of them are not printable in a family-oriented blog like this one. The best answer is "put together a better pitching staff". The staff didn't have anyone as good as Z, other than Z; there were too many injuries, too many guys (Mike Remlinger!) who just were no good, and the failure of management to install Ryan Dempster as closer till mid-May doomed eight games to blown saves prior to that event. LaTroy Hawkins, a good setup man, was forced into the closer role when he wasn't suited to it last year, and Dusty Baker pigheadedly stuck with him, not only blowing games but pretty much ruining Hawkins' career and forcing the trade (which could wind up really benefitting the Cubs, if Jerome Williams, who is also only 24 in December, can become the top-notch starter he appeared to be as a Giants prospect).

Q: As a fan of a team that has done very well against the St. Louis Cardinals, do you have any insight into what the Cubs may have had that caused the Cardinals problems? Beyond Derrek Lee, I mean.

A: The Cubs are likely going to finish within a couple of games of .500 either way -- they have to go 6-3 to finish .500, 7-2 to finish over. They are a CLASSIC .500 ballclub, which is to say they play up or down to the level of their opponent. The Cardinals are a good example; so are the Astros, for that matter; the Cubs have played 5-4 ball against them and played very well in Minute Maid Park. Speaking personally, I have seen five Cubs/Astros games at Minute Maid in the last two years -- the Cubs have won all five of them.

The opposite side of this coin is the Cub record against the Cincinnati Reds, a really poor team with a putrid pitching staff. The Cubs were 6-9 against them.

More evidence of this .500ness: the Cubs have scored 675 runs, and allowed 678.

Q: To the extent that 2005 can be considered a failure for the chicago Cubs, how would you assign blame (in %) among the following likely culprits:

25% Dusty Baker
50% Jim Hendry
15% Latroy Hawkins
10% Kerry Wood
0% Neifi Garciaparra

"Neifi Garciaparra"? That's a good one. Nomar's injury was a freak, and he's hit well since he returned. Neifi did a good job for a couple of months, but he is not an everyday player.

Q: This is free space, if you want it, to construct your argument for Derrek Lee, MVP:

A: Well, it's really simple: depends on what your definition of this award is. Many think it's a "Player Of The Year" award -- that's Lee, who is leading in so many offensive categories and has a chance to have 100 extra-base hits, which has been done only once in the NL since Stan Musial in 1948 (Sammy Sosa, 2001).

If it's value to your team, Lee could win it on that basis too, as let's say they had had to play Todd Hollandsworth at 1B all year. They'd have finished somewhere in the Pacific Coast League.

But they didn't win even with Lee. So, maybe it's Albert Pujols. But the Cardinals would have won the division anyway -- St. Louis won mostly with pitching. I love Derrek Lee and he has had a wonderful year. He may very well win the Hank Aaron Award, which is a tortured MLB creation to try to settle all the MVP arguments. It has failed. Much as I love the Cubs and Lee, the NL's MVP, in my humble opinion, is Andruw Jones, who has set a Braves franchise record for HR in a season (and remember, that's a 130-year-old franchise that has had two 500+ HR guys play there, Aaron and Eddie Mathews), and pretty much carried that club while their pitchers and hitters were all getting hurt.

Discuss amongst yourselves.