PEORIA, Arizona -- During the game tonight, Rachel reminded me that the last time she had been to a baseball game was three years ago in Baltimore. She had fun that day at the speed-pitch booth and the Cubs beat the Orioles 7-6.
Tonight, she and her friend Julia had fun running all around the lawn and three different times we all came close to catching balls and the Cubs won again in her presence, 12-6 over the Padres.
Before the game, we had a mini-BCB convention on the RF lawn. San Diego Smooth Jazz Man stopped by again (more on him later!) and we were also joined by AZ Saluki and his ... well, I wasn't clear. Wife? Girlfriend? He introduced Chris (Kris? Hey, you can't always get spellings down right, can you?) and it turned out she went to the same school that the Jazz Man went to (Western Illinois, if you have to know!), so we all had some lively hometown and Cub conversation before gametime, which seemed to come up pretty fast... in part, because the traffic down highway 101 was absolutely awful heading to Peoria from Scottsdale. The Phoenix area is definitely beginning to get LA-like traffic congestion, a far cry from a few years ago. They can't seem to get highways built fast enough out here.
Greg Maddux had a shaky first inning in which he gave up a dink infield single to Mike Cameron, then walked Brian Giles, and then gave up a three-run homer to Mike Piazza (incidentally, in walking across the lawn I saw a guy, sitting by himself, wearing an orange Mets Piazza jersey)... and then nothing, or nearly so. The only hit Maddux allowed after Piazza's bomb was a line single by Padres starter Woody Williams in the 2nd. Otherwise he retired fourteen of the last fifteen batters he faced -- and also doubled down the line, advanced to third on an infield out, and scored the tying run on a Todd Walker flyball.
Oh, and he speared a high bouncer about ten feet over his head and threw Vinny Castilla out at first easily.
I'd say Maddux is ready to start the season. He went five today, will likely go six in his next start against the White Sox, then most likely start the 2nd game in Las Vegas on Saturday, April 1, and be ready to start the home opener the following Friday.
Meanwhile... go figure. When Maddux came out of the game, Ryan Dempster (who was supposed to go yesterday but was rained out of his appearance at Mesa) threw an uneventful inning and then was pinch-hit for by Dylan Johnston.
Brian, who was late getting to the game and wound up getting a seat right behind the dugout, came out to the lawn to visit and told me that Johnston looked about 18.
That is, actually, quite accurate, Brian. Johnston was a 2005 fourth-round draft choice out of a Phoenix-area high school, Chandler Hamilton, and will celebrate his 19th birthday on Saturday, and whose professional experience consists of 44 at-bats for the Mesa rookie-level team last summer.
To celebrate his upcoming birthday, he smacked a long home run off Padres closer Trevor Hoffman -- which was the first ball we all came close to. Rachel & Julia decided they wanted to visit the souvenir store, and were on their way there when Johnston's HR flew over their heads and into a scrum of college-age men fighting over it.
Scott Williamson threw a scoreless inning and continues to impress; like Dempster a year ago, it appears that it took just that long for Williamson to recover from his surgery, and I expect him to play an important role in the 2006 bullpen.
After that, Dusty Baker emptied his bench and the scrub Cubs scored seven runs off just-acquired Padre reliever Alan Embree (not even on the roster list, I had to get his name out of the boxscore since the PA was only half-audible). To be fair, a Mark Bellhorn error (sound familiar?) helped open the doors for five subsequent Cub hits and a scary-looking HBP to Felix Pie (he's OK, he stayed in the game); thus, only one of the seven runs off Embree was earned. The key blows were a loud double by Brian Dopirak and a two-run screaming 2B hit by Chris Walker, who'll likely play at West Tenn this year.
Jae-Kuk Ryu came in to pitch and decided to make it close, turning 11-3 into 11-6 by allowing a couple of flappy singles and a Brian Giles triple -- which should have been a double, only Michael Restovich tripped over his own feet in the right field corner chasing it down.
Ryu didn't really impress me -- to think this guy is actually being considered for a fifth-starter's role seems silly based on tonight's performance; Sean Marshall, for his comparative lack of experience, has a great deal more stuff, poise and mound presence.
In the 9th, Angel Pagan hit the second ball that came almost right to us; it bounced in front of our blanket and a guy in a University of Alabama sweatshirt fought off the college kids to get it.
Rachel couldn't understand why her near-middle-aged dad wouldn't fight off about ten inebriated college men for the ball.
Hey, she's thirteen. Let her have her illusions about her dad for a while yet. Right after this the Jazz Man called me and asked me the same thing, why didn't I get the ball?
Damn. Maybe I'm going to have to start bringing my glove out there.
About Pagan, I have to say I'm mightily impressed by him. He plays a nice LF, has speed and power, and hits lefthanded. Why the Cubs are even considering trying to get Luis Matos, when they already have in Pagan a younger and better version of Matos, is beyond me. Frankly, I'd like to see Pagan on the team even over someone like Marquis Grissom, who started tonight and went 0-for-3. Speaking of oh-fer's, Jacque Jones didn't have one, but in his seemingly daily strikeout, he once again looked lost. I guess this is what the anti-Jones clan have been warning us about.
The third and final ball that came to our area was heaved at us rather than hit; Felix Pie threw his 9th-inning warmup ball at the college-guy clique... and I wasn't going to fight for that one either.
It wound up being a fun night for the kids (who tried, at my insistence, to hand out some BCB cards; they came back saying they had succeeded in giving out a few, but at least one was refused), a fun night for me, and a fun one for the Cubs. And really, what more can you ask for at spring training?
Julia, Rachel & Al at Wednesday night's game -- photo by AZ Saluki