MESA, Arizona -- For almost an hour before today's game, Lou Piniella stood outside the first-base dugout with Matt Murton. They were rather animatedly discussing various batting stances and approaches to hitting -- it was easy to tell this because they were pantomiming batting stances, and, all right, I'll admit it, Bruce Miles came out to the lawn and told me he'd seen it up close.
What a difference. Can you imagine Dusty Baker doing this? No, me either.
Clearly, it helped Murton today, as he had a single and two doubles, and also drew a two-out walk in the tenth inning, just before Ronny Cedeno (yes, that's not a misprint, Ronny Cedeno) won a breezy mess of a game with a walkoff three-run homer, 13-10 over the Royals.
The Royals are a really, really bad team. And the Cubs at first came out and played like they were going to beat them by twenty runs -- they scored five in the second inning off Jorge de la Rosa, after Rich Hill had given up back-to-back doubles to start the game, and the Cubs had tied it in the bottom of the first. It's not very often that you see a manager remove a pitcher in the middle of the second inning of an exhibition game, but Buddy Bell trudged out to the mound to replace de la Rosa with Jason Standridge.
I only know it was Standridge, incidentally, from the boxscore -- because you can't hear the PA speakers from the LF lawn, it was nearly impossible for me to figure out who the Royals' subs were today. They put fourteen different players into the game after the starting ten (ten, because again the Cubs agreed to use the DH today, to get Cliff Floyd some more AB's), and I had only heard of a couple of them -- Shane Costa, who went into RF in the fifth, and Octavio Dotel (how did he get to KC, anyway?), and David Riske, whose name I never heard announced. There were Royals wearing numbers 84, 95 and 96 today.
At the same time, their young third baseman, Alex Gordon -- now there's a player. He's a consensus pre-season choice for AL Rookie of the Year, and his homer off Michael Wuertz in the fifth gave the Royals an 8-6 lead, after Wuertz had allowed a three-run dinger to the previous batter, Mike Sweeney. Gordon made two outs in his previous at-bats, but both of them were hard-hit balls, and the second one was a screaming line drive to 1B that Derrek Lee made a very nice play on, in the fourth inning.
Rich Hill was a bit shaky with his command today; you could tell after the first inning that this game was going to drag on forever, and it would have even if it hadn't gone into extra innings. Hill's line is bad -- 8 hits, four earned runs; but he didn't walk anyone despite his lack of command, and two of the runs charged to him scored after he left the game, on the HR that Wuertz allowed. Wuertz did finally get out of the inning by striking out Emil Brown, and struck out the Royals' other hot prospect, infielder Billy Brewer, in the sixth, but he didn't have a good outing today.
The game slogged along, with the Cubs tying it up partly as the result of an error by Brewer on what should have been an inning-ending DP ball by Angel Pagan in the sixth; Ryan Theriot and Matt Murton then followed with gap doubles to right-center. The Cubs had eight extra-base hits among their twelve today (five doubles, a triple, and two HR, the Cedeno walk-off and yet another HR from Aramis Ramirez, who's just about as hot now as he was last spring). It was quite windy today, turning the sky in the Valley that puky yellow-gray color you sometimes see in Chicago when we have one of those summer heat inversions, but none of the five HR needed any help at all. I had left my spot on the lawn to stand down the LF line at the end of the game, otherwise I'd have had a fair shot at catching Cedeno's, as it hit off the scoreboard directly above where I usually sit.
In that LF corner, a few of us had some fun with one of the Royals and one of their training staff -- and for the life of me, I could NOT figure out who they were, even though I checked quite a few of their player profiles. The trainer (might have been a coach, except he was wearing a Royals pullover and shorts, not uniform pants) was putting the player (a Latino, and I only know this because I could hear him speaking with an accent) through some exercises. A few people started chanting "Let's go, Cubbies!" -- to which the player started clapping and helping lead the cheer.
Then someone asked the coach/trainer guy if Alex Gordon was the real deal. Reply: "He's had a great spring." The questioner then mentioned the recent profile of Gordon in Sports Illustrated, to which the coach/trainer replied, "That's the kiss of death!" -- to general laughter.
The game went about half an hour longer than it should due to a Ryan Dempster blowup. When he struck out Brewer on three pitches to start the 9th, I decided to keep a pitch count on Dempster. Bad idea, as the next three hitters all had solid hits. I gave up on the pitch count after that, because the third hit, a ground-rule double that scraped the chalk in LF as Murton tried to make a sliding catch, tied the game 10-10. The next hitter hit a comebacker to Dempster, who speared it in a way that you could tell he was angry with himself for having given up the three hits.
That set the stage for a dramatic last-of-the-ninth win, and we thought we had one when Cliff Floyd, of all people, beat out a slow roller down the third base line -- no, that's not a mistyped phrase, the ball died in the grass and 3B Mike Aviles couldn't field it. But that rally ended when Mark DeRosa grounded to Aviles, setting the stage for Cedeno's heroics.
The best part of Cedeno's at-bat, apart from the fact that it won the game, was the fact that he worked the count well. So did Murton before him, and so did Cesar Izturis before Murton, drawing a four-pitch walk. This is another part of Teacher Lou's approach -- oddly enough, for someone who never had much of a reputation as paying attention to things like on-base percentage, he's got virtually the entire team, including guys who used to hack away like Izturis and Cedeno, taking pitches and working counts.
Today's result is, I believe, a direct result of such teachings.
"Teacher Lou". I sure didn't think of him that way. But these Cubs are responding to his teachings, and the hour he spent with Matt Murton is just a very visible example of how Lou Piniella has put his stamp on this franchise before his club has played a single game that actually counts. That's a good thing.
And, Lou made it official before the game -- Wade Miller has won the fifth-starter slot, which means that Mark Prior likely starts the season at Iowa. Yes, he can be optioned, not placed on the DL and put there for a rehab assignment (thanks, Maddog, for clearing that up for me), and I think this is what will happen. Prior likely won't be very happy about it -- but it seems the best choice. We'll know more about him after tomorrow's game, which he will start against the Rockies.
With the group here over the weekend now scattered back to various places around the country, I expected to sit by myself today -- only to be greeted by Donna, who is a bleacher season ticket holder out visiting for the week, and in an odd coincidence, she happened to know the people whose blanket was next to mine. I also said hi to BCB reader "Ghost of Fred Merkle" (great username, BTW) and his two kids; his daughter very emphatically said that Matt Murton is her favorite player. So, she had a nice day watching him today!
Finally, during the Congressional hearings held today on the controversy surrounding the MLB Extra Innings package, Sen. John Kerry hinted that if the parties don't come to a deal, legislation might follow:
"Obviously, we're interested in it, a number of senators suggested the possibility of Congress doing something, but I'd like to see the parties get together in the next four days and hopefully resolve this," he said.
"If they can't get together, we are where we are and we'll look at what we're going to do."
Kerry asked the parties to put everything on hold till the Baseball Channel debuts in 2009, and allow inDemand and Dish Network to carry EI until then. They've got four days. I do think some sort of deal will be hammered out at the last minute. Stay tuned, as they say in the biz.
UPDATE [2007-3-27 21:49:15 by Al]: Late news from cubs.com -- Lou says he might actually go with an extra outfielder and send Angel Guzman to Iowa. They're still debating whether to keep the 12th pitcher -- personally, at least for the first two weeks where there are two off days, I'd send Guzman to Iowa, let him start twice, then maybe bring him back.