MESA, Arizona -- I love spring training.
I love it because it's the beginning of baseball again. I love it because the weather is almost always perfect -- even when it's a bit too hot as it has been this past week (and yes, I know all of you would trade Chicago winters for 95-degree heat anytime). I love watching Cubs young players in each stage of development, watching workouts and drills up close, watching a "B" game where 100 people are in the seats and you can hear everything.
I love sharing times with friends, some of whom I see in Chicago, others who live in Arizona or who I meet up with here. The ballparks are smaller, the atmosphere more intimate than regular-season stadiums even though the spring parks have grown ever larger over recent years and it's become another profit center for teams.
And wins and losses don't really matter. You can relax and just watch the game and not hang on every pitch, every at-bat.
Another Cactus League season is in the books for the Cubs (the two games at Chase Field this weekend, though exhibitions, technically aren't part of the "Cactus League"), and they sent it out by pounding four more home runs in an 11-7 win over the Brewers, their fifth straight victory.
Today's home run power was provided by Dexter Fowler, Tommy La Stella (his first), Jorge Soler and Anthony Rizzo (to the opposite field into the teeth of a pretty strong wind blowing out to right). The Cubs tied the Dodgers for the most spring homers, with 47. That's a pace for 246 homers in a 162-game season, which would blow away the team record and be very close to the National League mark (249, by the Astros in 2000). The first three homers were off Brewers starter Kyle Lohse, who had a bad day, allowing eight hits and walking four. The last of the four home runs, the one by Soler, was a two-run shot off Will Smith in the fifth inning, a ball that at first didn't seem as if it was heading toward the berm. It just kept carrying and made the distance easily.
Of course, hitting homers in the thin air and warmth of Arizona isn't nearly the same as hitting them in the cold, damp weather of a Midwestern April. But this is a nice power display nevertheless and I hope it continues, in some form or another. For comparison, the Cubs hit 37 homers in 34 games last spring.
Fowler had the best offensive day of anyone before he was excused after the sixth inning, going 3-for-3 with a walk, a single and a leadoff triple to add to his homer. I wouldn't necessarily expect that sort of power from Fowler, but every once in a while, it's nice to see.
Meanwhile, Jason Hammel had a nice tune-up outing, allowing just one run in five solid innings. Hammel didn't walk anyone and struck out five. Justin Grimm, who hasn't pitched much this spring, relieved him and faced four hitters, all of whom reached base. Joe Maddon had to pull him; Hunter Cervenka got out of the inning. Neil Ramirez looked good in his one inning of work and his velocity looked fine to me. Ramirez' innings are likely going to have to be managed to keep him away from injury, but he looks ready to start the season.
The announced attendance was a little short of a sellout, but still a very good turnout for the last day of spring training after most spring-breakers have gone home and the opponent isn't really a draw. 13,375 paid to see Wednesday's game, making the season total 222,415, breaking last year's record by about 9,000. The average per game of 14,828 is also a record -- and these records aren't just Cubs records, but for any team in spring training.
Cubs general manager of spring-training business operations Justin Piper and director of spring-training sales Mike McAdams were at the home-plate gate thanking fans as we all departed for another year, a nice touch, appreciated. This is a year where optimism runs high. There's been a buzz around camp all spring that was far different than last year's vibe. Only time will tell whether this season really will produce the jump into contention we all hope for, but I, at least, leave Arizona knowing I've seen at least the beginning of something special.
I'll be heading out on the road starting tomorrow morning to head back to Chicago. We'll have plenty here at BCB all day Thursday, while the Cubs have an off day, including the second part of Erik Peterson's series on what to look for in April, and Rob Huff with 10 predictions for the Cubs season.
Friday, the Cubs will play the first of two games against the Diamondbacks at Chase Field. Edwin Jackson will start for the Cubs against the D-backs' Jeremy Hellickson.