MESA, Arizona -- Wins have been few and far between for the 13-18 Cubs this spring, especially at their new home in Mesa, where they were just 4-10 coming into Thursday afternoon's contest with the White Sox.
The Cubs' 4-3 win over the White Sox, then, was a pleasant surprise, and the game was only that close because Wesley Wright, who's on the team primarily to get lefthanded hitters out, gave up back-to-back homers in the ninth inning to lefty batters Adam Dunn and Alejandro De Aza.
That's not good, and perhaps something to be concerned about, but other than that, the Cubs played a nearly flawless game Thursday afternoon. Travis Wood threw three innings and allowed just two singles and a walk, while striking out four and getting out of a bit of a first-inning jam with a double play ball. Carlos Villanueva followed and retired all six hitters he faced, and James Russell also threw a scoreless inning, allowing just one single.
Meanwhile, the Cubs were scoring almost at will. They manufactured a run in the first inning when Emilio Bonifacio singled, stole second, and scored on two groundouts. I like that kind of baseball. I know I was down on Bonifacio when the signing was announced, but I'll freely admit I was wrong about him. He's had a very good spring with the bat; his .251/.309/.412 line isn't great, but for someone who can play multiple positions and has some speed, it's certainly acceptable. I expect him to be a "super-sub," playing all the infield positions except first base at times, and also perhaps in center field.
Ryan Sweeney homered in the third off Felipe Paulino (who is monstrously large, incidentally), his first homer of the spring. After an awful start Sweeney (who also singled) has raised his spring average to a still-bad .156 (7-for-45), but seems to be getting his stroke back after having some injury issues early on. Justin Ruggiano and Darwin Barney drove in the other runs for the Cubs, who had a 4-0 lead and just four hits given up after seven innings.
In the top of the seventh, Chris Valaika, who had come in to replace Luis Valbuena at third base, fielded a routine ground ball hit by Alexei Ramirez, but threw too late to get him at first base. At least that's the way it appeared to me and pretty much everyone else at Cubs Park, but he was called out. Sox manager Robin Ventura asked for a review -- which, amusingly, was going on while Cubs fans were singing "Take Me Out To The Ball Game" for the seventh-inning stretch. This was all happening while Cubs players were standing outside the dugout, apparently ready to go back on the field, expecting the call to be reversed... only it wasn't.
Brian Schlitter, who threw that seventh inning, was asked to also throw the eighth, and would have gotten out of it had Chris Coghlan not pulled up short of a fly ball hit by Blake Tekotte that looked like a routine catch. It dropped in front of him for a double, and Tekotte scored on a single by Marcus Semien. The inning might have been worse except for a spectacular diving catch by Matt Szczur on a sinking liner for the third out.
After Wright gave up the homers, Neil Ramirez was summoned, and struck out Leury Garcia and Alex Liddi to end it. It occurs to me that Ramirez and Schlitter might have among the best stuff of any pitcher in camp. Both were throwing 95-plus Thursday afternoon, and you could make a case for either of them to be in the major-league bullpen. Both will start at Triple-A Iowa, and I'd say they will probably be among the first to be recalled.
The game was the fastest of the spring at two hours, 27 minutes, and if not for the replay review (which took quite a long time, more than two minutes) and the dropped fly ball in front of Coghlan, could have been 10 minutes faster. This isn't unusual for the last spring-training game at a spring-camp stadium; players are anxious to move on, especially the White Sox, who were catching a charter flight to Birmingham, Alabama, to play their Double-A team there Friday night.
Attendance watch: The announced crowd of 15,170 gave the Cubs a season total of 213,815, breaking the old Cubs/Cactus League/MLB spring-training records of 203,105, set by the Cubs at HoHoKam Park in 2009. I think you can see why that record was set that year -- coming off the great 2008 season, and also, there were 19 dates that spring due to the World Baseball Classic. This year's record was set in just 15 dates, with eight of the 15 being sellouts. There were, in my view, three major factors for the huge crowds:
- The unbelievably bad winter in Chicago and the Midwest, which likely made more people want to get away
- The unbelievably great weather in Mesa. Many springs have cool weather for early games; not so this year, when just two games had a game-time temperature below 70 (including today's 68) and several reached into the 80s, and
- The typical new-ballpark curiosity factor
Of those three, just one (great weather in Mesa) is likely to be the same in 2015. I do expect prices at Cubs Park, which this year were pretty reasonable, to be raised... but if they're raised more than a couple of dollars per ticket, that could reduce crowds in spring 2015, unless the team is better. A cautionary tale, I believe, for management -- don't kill the golden goose. All in all, Cubs Park had a successful debut year. It'll still be a while before it feels like "home," as HoHoKam did, and the Cubs need to fix a few things (like the scoreboard issue I've mentioned here previously), but the park is a good one, and the complex overall is first-rate.The Cubs move on to Chase Field for two games against the Diamondbacks, Friday night and Saturday afternoon. Both games will be televised on CSN Chicago; I'll be attending both of them. Friday night, Edwin Jackson gets the call against Arizona's Trevor Cahill.