Creeping Inexorably Toward A Worthwhile Sub-Heading.
Sunday, May 02, 2004
Game Notes 23: Even Up
I was notable in my absence yesterday, and it was due primarily to an unfortunate lack of an internet connection. I'm not entirely sure what happened, but by the time the unnamed service provider (I'll give you a hint: rhymes with BOMBAST) got the issue fixed, it was close to game time. Besides, as I hungrily trolled for other's takes, I found that Brian Gunn at Redbird Nation had said most of what I would have. Yes, he's a Cardinals fan, but he's smart, fair, a damn fine writer (not to mention, a good guy), and his breakdown of the critical moments from the first game of this series are spot on. Even when we're not playing the Cards, he's worth a daily read. I know I do, and so should you. But on to the business at hand....
While not exhibiting the same outright murderous tendencies he showed in his last start, Matt Clement was nearly as effective last night, giving up only five hits and a walk over eight smooth, solid innings. The only blemish on the board for which he bore responsibility was due to the resurfacing of his chronic inability to consistently remove left-handers from the equation (to say it's wrong when every plate appearance by Tony Womack rips open your heart and pours in cold, black dread, does great injustice to all the world's wrong things).
Last time out it was the whip-smart slider making batters flail like a gaggle of angry Gilligans, but this time around it was his sinker that was on, inducing harmless grounders time and again. Clement struck out 5 and recorded 5 fly outs, while inducing 14 groundouts, including three double plays. It was efficient and masterful, and the timing couldn't have been better after the previous game's disappointment.
However, if there's a disturbing trend in these two games, it's the Cubs' total abandonment of anything resembling discipline at the plate. We can all agree that this isn't a patient team to begin with, but they were doing nicely during the last homestand. If they weren't walking, they were at least seeing some pitches. That's not the case so far in St. Louis, and I think it's a combination of two factors:
The team is pressing. Everyone understands the import of this series, even if it's only May. It's an opportunity for the club to make a statement about their fate this season by beating their arch-nemesis where they live, and where the Cubs have been a wholly owned subsidiary of Cardinal Nation since 2000. The pressure they put on themselves shows in every first pitch swing
So far, the starting pitchers seen in this series are of an ilk that has long been anathema to hitters schooled in the "Cubbie Way." They don't throw it hard, and they don't have a vicious out pitch, so everything they toss looks tantalizing. Yet, like a sausage lover at a secretly vegan barbeque taking the first bite of his hot dog, when the Cub hitters go after that that initial offering, they find to their dismay that it's meatless.
I'm not calling for the team to draw more free passes - fantasy is a fine thing, but inappropriate for this discussion - rather, I'd like to see them get into more hitter's counts. They were doing it before they went to Arizona, and I know they can do it again. Sure, good things can happen when you swing on the first pitch - A-Ram's three-run bomb last night being an excellent example of a positive outcome - but positive results are the exception to the rule.
Last night, the Cubs put the ball in play on the first pitch nine times, with only two resulting in a man on, for a .222 BA and .222 OBP. In the other 28 times the Cubs went to the plate, they reached base 10 times, resulting in a .280 BA and .357 OBP. I hear the sirens of the Small Sample Size Police outside my window, so let me say that this is nearly as anecdotal as saying "Aramis hit a dinger on the first pitch, so swing away boys! Woo hoo!"
However, the latter approach makes more logical sense, no matter how little evidence I present. There's no such thing as a first pitch walk, and in the pantheon of "hitter's counts," 0-0 is not on display. I have some understanding when hitters are anxious not to get down two strikes for fear of the ever awful K, but the pitchers the Cubs have faced the last two games are not the type to engender that variety of calumny. This is the biggest offensive issue this club has, and if the year ends in disappointment, I believe it's root will be found here.
As for the next chapter in the current series, this afternoon's tilt may be the most hotly contested of the bunch, with the Cardinal's best pitcher, Matt Morris, going up against the mercurial Big Z. The first two contests have been nail biters, and I expect no less today. A Cub win today will go a long way toward exorcising the team's Busch related demons.