Wednesday, September 30, 2009

And then there were two


I refer to the number of undecided races remaining in baseball's hunt for October. It has been an inordinately uninteresting stretch run, with only the NL Wild Card (the Rockies lead the Braves by three games) and the AL Central (the Tigers lead the Twins by two games after the two teams split a doubleheader yesterday) races undetermined.

All the way back on September 10, the Yankees had built up a nine-game lead over the Red Sox, and the Angels and Phillies had five-game leads over the Rangers and Marlins, respectively. The Rockies had reduced their NL West deficit all the way down to two games, but the race lacked drama because the average fan knew only that the Dodgers had built up a seemingly insurmountable lead early in the season. And as you'll begrudgingly recall, the Cubs were approximately 70 games out of first by the time the September 10th rolled around.

The Tigers and Twins are 11 and 9 games over .500, respectively, and are vying for the chance to play the Yankees, who are 46 games over. Anything can happen in a best-of-five series (cough 2008 Cubs cough), but the two AL Central contenders would seem to be battling for the chance to get trounced and bounced by the Yanks. I hope I'm wrong. I'm especially rooting for the Tigers after reading this cliched ("Detroit's economy is struggling," etc., etc.) but still interesting story about the importance of a strong season for a team representing a city with a 29% unemployment rate and an average home price under $12,000.

There is actually one other race to watch: the Cardinals and Phillies are battling for home field in the first round of the playoffs. After yesterday's games, the Phillies are one up on the Cards. While the NLDS match-ups won't be determined until the Wild Card race is over, only one of those teams will host a series next week. So while it would seem that the Cardinals and Phillies are simply playing out the string at this point, every win still matters. With the Phillies owning the tiebreaker by virtue of their 4-1 record against the Cards this season, the Cardinals would have to end up with a better record than the Phillies in order to earn the home field advantage, so the Phils are effectively up by two games. (Note: technically, the Dodgers haven't yet clinched a better record than the Phillies or Cardinals, but they're close enough that we're going to ignore that for the sake of the sanity and readability of this paragraph.)

Tuesday: Cubs 6, Pirates 0


Ryan Dempster is starting to make the four-year, $52 million contract he signed last November look a little more reasonable. After tossing the third complete game shutout of his career, he's 11-8 with a 3.51 ERA on the season. He has a 1.39 ERA in September, and will hit the 200-inning mark if he can last just five innings this Sunday against Arizona. His stats definitely aren't akin to the ridiculous 17-6, 2.96 he put up last year to earn that contract, but he's finishing the season on a very high note.

And while it hasn't been talked about much of late, Gordon Wittenmyer reminded us today that for Dempster, the real drama this season has taken place off the field. Dempster and his wife have had to deal with their infant daughter Riley's unique affliction, and no doubt it took a toll on his on-field performance.

From the article:
Ryan's early season involved commuting from Chicago to Arizona, crib-side vigils when possible, giving blood for surgical procedures and countless sleepless nights followed by mind-numbed starts for a team that was supposed to contend for a pennant yet couldn't find its footing.
And:

As recently as a few starts ago, Dempster's most recent rough start coincided with another hospital procedure for Riley.

''He's human,'' pitching coach Larry Rothschild said. ''And he handled it better than most people. But that doesn't mean it didn't have an effect. It did. Clearly.''

While Riley still suffers from DiGeorge's Syndrome, she is now home and doing better than she was, and hopefully Riley will continue to get better and 2010 Dempster will look more like today's version than the guy we saw in the first half of 2009.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Bear Down!

Week 3: Bears 25, Seahawks 19


Jerry Angelo traded for Jay Cutler for one reason: he thought his arm could turn potential L's into W's. And sure enough, for the second straight week, Cutler orchestrated a fourth quarter comeback victory.

There's a word for what Cutler and the Bears displayed against the Seahawks on Sunday: moxie. They trailed 13-0. They were on the road in one of the toughest venues in the NFL. They lost Hunter Hillenmeyer for much of the game. But they outscored Seattle 25-9 in the final three quarters to move to 2-1 on the season.

Cutler threw an interception early in the game, but found Greg Olsen, Johnny Knox and Devin Hester on separate occasions to finish with three touchdowns and a QB rating of 126.4. Four different receivers caught at least four passes as Cutler spread the wealth en route to a 21/27, 247-yard performance. And it didn't hurt that for the second straight week, the Bears saw the opposing kicker miss two makeable field goals.

Early on, it looked like the the only good thing to come out of the game would be the fact that the Bears were a day closer to playing the Lions next Sunday (congrats to Detroit on their first win since December of '07, but make no mistake: they beat a terrible team that will likely see a coaching change before Halloween, though what they really need is a change in ownership). In the first quarter, the Bears had no tackling, as they allowed Julius Jones to sprint down the sideline for a 39-yard touchdown. They had no pressure, as they allowed Seneca Wallace to get comfortable in the pocket and look like a real quarterback. They had no holes for Matt Forte, as the running game once again failed to gain any traction.

Actually, the Bears never did fix that last problem. Can we now officially worry about the running game? Forte had 66 yards on 21 carries, an average of 3.1 yards. After averaging over 75 yards per game last year, Forte is averaging just 50 per game this season. More worrisome is the fact that Seattle came into yesterday's contest ranked 31st in the league in run defense, but the Bears had virtually no success on the ground ... again. Cutler and the receivers have beared down and put up a fight with a might so fearlessly through three games, but the Bears will need to introduce some balance at some point if they want to keep winning football games.

But the defense and the passing game were enough for them to chalk up a win yesterday, as Cutler hooked up with Devin Hester for the game-winning TD with under two minutes to go. It is believed to be the first tackle Hester has broken as a wide receiver, and he had a great day overall with five total catches for 76 yards. Cutler has now had three opportunities in three games to lead game-winning drives, and twice he's succeeded. No doubt Jerry Angelo is patting himself on the back, and rightfully so.

But this is all incidental. The fact is, we all knew the Seahawks were going to lose the moment they came out of the locker room wearing those hideous uniforms that remind you of your grandma's kitchen. Who was responsible for the Uniforms Gone Wild? Why would they wear those? Why oh why oh why would they wear those?

Earlier in the day, it looked like the Bears would have a chance to tie the Vikings atop the division, but Brett Favre waved his evil, magic wand and pulled off a miraculous last-second victory over the Niners. But the Bears have not only survived the first three weeks of the season--they've posted victories against two tough teams, and will now be rewarded with a home game against the Lions and a guarantee that either the Packers or Vikings will lose--they'll do battle next Monday night.

I must mention that I was in Washington, D.C. for yesterday's game, and I was able to catch the action at one of the greatest places on Earth. Beth Dennis tipped me off to the Billy Goat Tavern in downtown D.C., and it was an absolute blast for reasons including, but not limited to:

1) There were no fewer than 30 jersey-wearing, Bears-obsessed fans on hand.

2) I had a delicious cheezborger.

3) Free shots for all after any Bears score. We'd all get our shots, hoist them in the air and say "Daaaaaaa Bears," and then slug them back.

4) Bartender Mike gave me two of my beers for free. Not sure why, but I wasn't going to ask questions.

5) "Bear Down, Chicago Bears" was blasted over the speakers after every score.

Yeah, it was freakin' awesome. Thank you, Beth, and thank you, Billy Goat Tavern!

Side note: People who live in the nation's capital have no idea where anything is. Three separate people (whom I first confirmed lived in the area) did not know which way east was, and no one could tell me how to get to my destinations without the help of a fancy phone's map function. Keep in mind that each time I asked, I was within one mile of my destination. They couldn't even tell me where the street was, or which direction it might be. This, my directionally challenged friends, is why you are taxed without representation.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Bears head west on a Qwest for win #2


I was watching a pretty cool show on Sunday night, must have been on NFL Network or something. It was all about this new stadium in Arlington, Texas. Seats over 100,000 people, has a ridiculously huge scoreboard, cost over $1 billion. They just went on and on about it, interviewing the guy who paid for it, talking about how much it means to the team that plays there, exploring the ins and outs of the place. Good show, but it went on for too long. The thing was over three hours! And they picked a strange time to film the show, right when a football game was going on. I kept getting distracted by the action on the field, but the producers did a good job of focusing in on the stadium, the stadium, the stadium. It was good stuff, but I sure wish I could have seen that football game ...

Bears vs. Seahawks preview

The Seahawks won just four games last year, but were riddled with injuries. With Julius Jones at tailback, new addition T.J. Houshmandzadeh (he of Madden boycott fame) at wideout, and another legit receiving threat in former Viking Nate Burleson, the offense can put up some points. Additionally, Deion Branch should be ready to go after missing the first to games. The Bears will need to watch the middle of the field as well, as tight end John Carlson leads the team in receptions and yards.

Seattle pounded the dreadfully awful St. Louis Rams 28-0 in Week 1, but then faltered in San Francisco with a 23-10 loss. But most importantly: Matt Hasselbeck suffered a broken rib in the loss, and it is "extremely unlikely" that he will play against the Bears.

There's no doubt that the expectations for this game hinge on Hasselbeck's status--if Seneca Wallace gets the start, this becomes a game the Bears have to win. Wallace played eight games in place of Hasselbeck last year, and the team went 3-5. His QB rating of 87 was by no means awful, but with the Bears already favored by the sportsbooks, it would be very disappointing to see them lose with Wallace taking all the snaps.

That said, Qwest Field is no picnic for opposing teams. With their famed "12th man" crowd, communication is often an issue and things can get sticky in the red zone. Though Cutler and his receivers--especially Johnny Knox--appeared to be much more in sync last week, it's certainly not ideal for them to be playing in one of the loudest stadiums in the NFL.

For the Bears, Alex Brown, who had two sacks against Pittsburgh, should be ready to go on Sunday. As I write this, it appears that Desmond Clark and Pisa Tinoisamoa probably won't be rushed back to action this Sunday.

Keys to the Game

Something's gotta give. The Bears are ranked 31st in rush offense, while the Seahawks are ranked 26th in rush defense. Matt Forte had six games last year in which he rushed for more yards than he has in his first two games total (84). But Seattle was gored, literally, by Frank Gore and the Niners last week: 207 yards for the San Francisco star, including TD runs of 79 and 80 yards. The noise at Qwest Field sometimes makes running the ball the safer bet, and the Bears need to get their running game going to keep the Seahawks' pass rush at bay. If Forte is going to get going at some point, this would be a good time to do it.

Penalties. Courtesy of ESPN's Jeff Dickerson, Qwest Field has seen visiting teams commit an average of 2.49 false start penalties per game since 2005. The Bears had 10 penalties for 80 yards against Pittsburgh, and though they pulled out a close victory in that one, it'd be best not to shoot themselves in the foot like that on the road.

Greg Olsen. Everyone was talking about the impeccable chemistry between Cutler and Olsen during the preseason. And while Olsen caught three balls for 41 yards last Sunday, we haven't really seen them get locked in yet. With linebacker Leroy Hill out for Seattle, look for Olsen to have that big game we've been waiting for.

Taking advantage of injuries. While the Bears will be missing some key players on defense, the Seahawks will be missing their left tackle, Sean Locklear, as well as cornerback Josh Wilson. Middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu's status is up in the air as well.

Where'd he come from?

QB Matt Hasselbeck, Boston College
RB Julius Jones, Notre Dame
Lofa Tatupu, USC
TE John Carlson, Notre Dame
P Jon Ryan, Regina (Canada)

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Ron Mahay wins not-really-all-that-coveted 13th Year Player Award

From the Wait 'til this Year Humor Vault

Ron Mahay, shown here in the midst of one of his many average-to-slightly below average outings.

NEW YORK--Rookie of the Year. Cy Young. MVP.

These are the annual baseball awards that get all the attention and hoopla. But the baseball world shouldn't forget (or maybe it should) about the 13th Year Player Award, an honor bestowed upon the best player who happens to be in his 13th year in the majors.

Twins reliever Ron Mahay was announced as the winner of this, uh, prestigious award earlier today. Mahay has had a so-so season, going 2-1 with a 4.53 ERA and five holds. He spent most of the season with the Royals, but was released and subsequently signed by the Twins in August.

Mahay was clearly honored by the distinction, saying, "I won what now?"

The Illinois native follows in the footsteps of other baseball greats players who have won the award, including Mets reliever Elmer Dessens and Phillies infielder Matt Stairs.

Mahay had to fend off several other non-household names, including:
  • Henry Blanco, C, Padres--batting .235 with five home runs
  • Aaron Boone, IF, Astros--underwent open-heart surgery in March
  • Frank Catalanotto, OF, Brewers--1 home run, 9 RBI
  • Glendon Rusch, RP, Rockies--Said MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, "There's no doubt in my mind he would have gotten a lot more votes had any of the sportswriters been aware of the fact that he is still playing baseball."
Also kind of worth noting: Giants pitcher Randy Johnson is the winner of the 21st Year Player Award, and Phillies pitcher Jamie Moyer beat out absolutely no one to take home the 24th Year Player Award.

Said Moyer, "Jesus, I've been playing for twenty-four years? This is ridiculous. I retire."

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Unbe-Lee-vable


And while I know, based on my track record,
I might not seem like the safest bet
All I'm asking you is don't write me off, just yet

So sang Hugh Grant in the movie "Music and Lyrics," a movie which I've never seen and one that I would almost assuredly hate since Drew Barrymore is in it. But nevertheless, these lyrics seem fitting when discussing Derrek Lee's season.

With a home run and a run-scoring double in Tuesday's 7-2 win over the Brewers, Derrek Lee set a new career high with 109 RBI. He ranks fourth in the National League in RBI, seventh in HR, 10th in batting average, 13th in OBP, second in slugging, and third in OPS. The only guys having hands down better seasons than Lee are some guy named Albert Pujols and half man/half beast Prince Fielder. Lee will probably get very few votes for MVP because the Cubs are 10 games out of first, but based on statistics alone, he deserves to be about third or fourth in the voting.

What has made this season even more impressive is that on May 16, Lee was batting .194 with three home runs and 15 RBI. I, and many others, pretty much wrote him off at that point. But then Lee went off, putting up a .333/32/94 line since mid-May. That's a good season, and Lee has compiled those numbers in just four months. Very good news for the Cubs as they look forward to 2010.

Moving from a veteran to a rookie, congratulations to Tyler Colvin, who drove in a run in his first ever major league plate appearance with a sacrifice fly on Monday. After a year of absolutely awful fundamentals by the Cubs, a sac fly is even more impressive than a base hit! But since he wasn't sure I would feel that way, he got himself his first big league hit in his next plate appearance. He added his first major league run last night, and robbed a home run for good measure.

I don't know how many times I've asked this, but it's enough that I can now be reasonably sure Lou Piniella doesn't read my blog:

CAN ANYONE TELL ME WHY JAKE FOX ISN'T PLAYING MORE?

"Maybe he's slumping?"

Nope, he's had at least one hit in four of his last six games.

"Maybe there's a veteran standing in his way?"

Nope, Bobby Scales has gotten the lion's share of the playing time in left field recently.

"His power numbers must be down."

No sir. His 11 HR and 41 RBI translate to 26 and 98 over 450 at-bats.

"His defense must really be hurting the team."

Eh, not really. His .953 fielding percentage is below average, but after three years of Alfonso Soriano, it's hard to complain. And Bobby Scales is a career infielder (he played 93 games in the infield at Triple-A this year) who had a ball bounce off his glove for a home run in Saturday's game.

If the Cubs are worried about Fox's potential to play defense every day in 2010, isn't this the time to figure out exactly how bad he is with the glove?

And even if they don't think he's a legitimate everyday option, shouldn't he at least be auditioning for a potential trade to an AL team where he could DH? This roster has been mismanaged worse than a certain office in Scranton, Penn.

Fox did play last night, but even that was a last-second lineup change.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Hey look, I found something: it's Jim Hendry's cojones


By suspending Milton Bradley for the rest of the season, Jim Hendry made an important statement: there is a line--albeit one that is very hard to cross--when it comes to things you can get away with in a Cubs uniform. Perhaps this step will lead to a change in clubhouse culture.

Zambrano refused to hydrate himself for years, and nothing happened. He told the media he's not a huge fan of doing his abdominal and core workouts, and nothing happened. It took Piniella three years to stop cowtowing to the World's Worst Leadoff Hitter. And Bradley was treated with kid gloves all season despite disrespecting the media, fighting with his manager and generally acting like a spoiled brat who didn't get his favorite toy even though Piniella has sent him and his 12 HR and 40 RBI out to right field nearly every day.

After taking himself out of Saturday's game, refusing to pinch-hit and arguing with hitting coach Von Joshua, combined with recent comments about "negativity" surrounding the team and hoping each home game goes only nine innings so he can get home as quickly as possible, Hendry finally decided enough was enough. His most recent comments don't constitute his worst offense as a Cub, but they were the proverbial straw that broke the Cub's back.

With Hendry laying down the law, his teammates taking Hendry's side, and the Tribune asking if Bradley is the worst free agent signing in Chicago sports history, the Milton Bradley Experiment is officially over, having exploded into a million little Milton pieces. But Hendry's real work will begin in the offseason when he tries to unload as much as he can of the $21 million left on Bradley's contract. Hendry has worked some magic in the past, but this is going to be like trying to sell cancer to a healthy person.

Speaking of healthy people, Milton Bradley is not one. I'm not trying to be funny--I think Bradley has some serious issues. He always thinks everyone's out to get him and he turns every molehill (even ones that are seen only by him) into a mountain. When I mistakenly said before the season that he might add some much needed personality to the Cubs' clubhouse, I thought he was a character who would say what was on his mind. I didn't realize his mind was a bit warped and that NONE of the things on his mind were EVER positive.

So Hendry made a big mistake by signing Milton Badly, and now he faces an uphill battle in his attempt to rectify the situation for next year. At least he's taken a step in the right direction, boosting clubhouse morale by removing this cancer for the remainder of the season.

Monday, September 21, 2009

A look into the future

Tyler Colvin, shown here celebrating a home run by Jake Fox in Spring Training 2007. In a rare display of self-restraint, Cesar Izturis is nearby but NOT ringing Colvin's bell.

2006 first-round draft pick Tyler Colvin has been called up by the Cubs, and could start tonight vs. the Brewers. The 24-year-old lefty batted .300 with 14 HR and 50 RBI at Double-A Tennessee this season. He can play all three outfield positions.

The Cubs didn't want to throw Colvin to the wolves this year, but with the suspension of Milton Bradley (more on that tomorrow) and injuries to Alfonso Soriano and Sam Fuld, they needed an extra body.

An arm and a leg

Week 2: Bears 17, Steelers 14


The Bears led the Steelers for 15 seconds on Sunday. But they were the right 15 seconds. (Hat tip: Brian Brennan)

They flirted with 0-2, improved to 1-1, and could be 2-0. Robbie Gould gets the shaving cream pie (wait, they don't do that in football) after he battled the wet turf and nailed a 44-yard field goal to send the Bears home with a victory over the reigning Super Bowl champions.

At times, the Bears offense looked stuck in 2008. Check that--it looked like John Shoop put on a Ron Turner mask and took control of the offensive play calling. Run for one yard. Pass short left for two yards. Pass short right for no gain. That was an actual Bears series.

Second-and-14, pass for one yard. Third-and-13, run for five yards. That really happened, too.

But the Bears saved the best for last with 10 unanswered points in the fourth quarter. Jay Cutler and the offense got the ball back at their own 33 yard line with 3:18 left, and they proceeded to orchestrate a game-winning drive as time wound down. The Bears pushing the ball down the field to go ahead with barely any time left on the clock--this is why God created the seventh day. The assist goes to Jeff Reed and his two missed field goals in the final frame.

Cutler had quite the redemptive performance with 236 yards, two touchdowns and nary an interception. And it looks like he may have a new best friend in Johnny Knox. Knox racked up 70 receiving yards after piling up 82 in Week 1, and he pulled in the game-tying touchdown in the fourth quarter. It's way too early to write this in pen, but could the Bears have found a #1 receiver in their fifth round draft pick from Division II Abilene Christian?

Solid defense was on display as well, as the Bears held Ben Roethlisberger to an 80.8 QB rating, sacked him twice (both by Alex Brown, who unfortunately left with an injury), and forced two turnovers.

One negative, though, and it's a big one: Forte rushed for just 29 yards on 13 carries. Where oh where has the running game gone? Ron Turner certainly must have sensed that Pittsburgh was scheming against the run, as he had the offense throw the ball on 10 consecutive plays at one point. When was the last time the Bears had a QB drop back 10 straight times?! All in all, Turner called 38 passes compared to only 18 rushes.

While Forte couldn't get the wheels churning, can we give some credit to Adrian "Almost Didn't Make the Team" Peterson? He spelled Forte on the Bears' first half touchdown drive, picking up 16 yards on three carries and 11 more yards on two receptions. Can we PLEASE make him the first option off the bench?

The Packers bungled their way to a loss at home against Ochocinco and the Bengals, while the Vikes took care of business against the hapless and winless Lions. So the Vikings are off to an early lead in the division, but the Bears stayed right on their heels with this huge home victory.

Next up is Seattle on the road, and we'll have to pay attention to the news out of Washington--Matt Hasselbeck left yesterday's game against the Niners with a rib injury, though he says he'll be fine.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Will Harden be back?


Rich Harden is done for 2009, and likely done as a Cub.

The Cubs have reportedly decided to shut Harden down after two miserable starts in a row. Tom Gorzelanny will replace him in the rotation.

No one knows what Rich Harden will command as a free agent this offseason. In fact, SI's Jon Heyman asked one GM about a number this year's upcoming free agents, and he wouldn't even hazard a guess as to what kind of offers Harden might receive.

While Buster Olney suggests that the Cubs should have the inside track on Harden if they want to pursue him, I'm guessing that his terrible finish to the 2009 season (to put it more accurately: the fact that he won't even finish the 2009 season) will secure his fate with a team that 1) likely won't have a ton of extra money to toss around, and 2) has enough injury-prone, big-money players already on the roster. It doesn't bode well that Harden supposedly was not aware of his shut-down status until a reporter mentioned it to him after Thursday's game.

If Harden isn't getting any sniffs, and is one of those free agents still available come January, I think he's worth a short-term investment. But if teams come at him with multi-year offers at $9 or $10 milion a year or more, I say walk away.

Harden's got great stuff, and the trade for him was well worth it (Sean Gallagher, Matt Murton, Eric Patterson and minor leaguer Josh Donaldson went to Oakland), but he's inconsistent, can't pile up innings, and goes to the DL as routinely as most people go to the dentist.

I'll take "Illogical" for $200, Alex

Jorge Posada and Jesse Carlson were each suspended four games by Major League Baseball earlier this week, but those suspensions were then reduced to three games on the condition they don't appeal.

Huh?

Isn't that like reducing a convict's sentence on the condition they don't plea bargain? Or reducing the cost of something on the condition the buyer doesn't try to barter? Why would MLB dole out four-game suspensions if they were willing to drop them to three so long as Posada and Carlson ... did nothing?

Friday, September 18, 2009

Can the Bears steel a win?

Zack Bowman played at cornerback for nine snaps against the Packers, but he'll have a lot more chances this Sunday against the Steelers.

Bowman will take over the starting job from Nathan Vasher this weekend. While Vasher didn't do terribly in Green Bay (Rodgers was 17/28 for 184 yards), he let Greg Jennings get way, way behind him on what turned out to be the game-winning 50-yard touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter. Bowman will need to bring his A game against Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes.

The Bears will be forced to make another change as well, as Pisa Tinoisamoa says there's no way he can play this weekend. Nick Roach, who played the second half against the Packers due to Tinoisamoa's injury, will play at strong-side linebacker.

Bears vs. Steelers Preview

So other than trying to keep the remaining players healthy and on the field, what do the Bears need to do in order to keep from falling to 0-2?

The Steelers will be well rested, having played the NFL's opening game last Thursday at home against the Titans. They eked out a 13-10 win in overtime, and were unable to put the game away in regulation partly because they never got their running game going. Willie Parker averaged a paltry 1.5 yards per carry, and the longest rush by any Steeler was eight yards.

Roethlisberger, normally a game manager more than a gunslinger, carried the load with 43 pass attempts. He completed 33 of them and piled up 363 yards, adding a touchdown and two picks. The aforementioned Holmes and Ward both went over 100 yards receiving.

Here's some good news for Bears fans: though Pittsburgh allowed just 10 points, the Titans had 320 yards of total offense. And on top of that, safety Troy Polamalu sprained his MCL and will not be on the field this Sunday. There's no question in my mind that this is a bigger loss for Pittsburgh than Brian Urlacher is for the Bears.

Keys to the Game

Run the ball to set up play action. The Bears' pass/run ratio of 54/46 in the game against the Packers wasn't all that bad. But with the line unable to open up holes, the Packers were free to sit back in coverage, and cover they did: Cutler was just 17/36. The Bears need to have success in the running game, and the earlier the better. This will allow Cutler to settle in in his first home game, and will open up the possibility of the play action pass.

Tell Big Ben what time it is. And by that terrible, extreme stretch of a pun, I mean that when defenders get the chance to hit Ben Roethlisberger, they need to clock him (sorry, I can't help myself). Big Ben's biggest strength is his ability to shed defenders and keep the play alive. If the Bears get their hands on him, they need to bring him down.

Don't throw four interceptions. I know, brilliant analysis, right? But seriously, Cutler needs to remain at least slightly calmer than a gremlin that's just been exposed to bright light. In trouble? Throw the ball away if need be. Throw it at a guy's feet where at least the defender can't catch it. Just don't throw it to a guy wearing black and gold.

Special teams. One would think Pittsburgh's low-scoring, 13-10 victory in Week 1 was no fluke. Another defensive battle is certainly not out of the question, if not likely. That means Devin Hester's 7.5 yard punt return average from Week 1 won't cut it, and hopefully Brad Maynard can keep up his 49.5 yard punting average.

---------------------------

I'm not great at knowing where NFL players went to college, so for my benefit but also hopefully for yours, I present to you:

Where'd he come from? (a look at the alma maters of some of the notable players whom the Bears are about to face, and not so notable players who attended a college of note)

QB Ben Roethlisberger, Miami (OH)
RB Rashard Mendenhall, Illinois
LB LaMarr Woodley, Michigan
RB Willie Parker, North Carolina
WR Santonio Holmes, Ohio State
WR Hines Ward, Georgia
S Troy Polamalu, USC

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

This roster move is soooooo Taguchi


The Cubs have called up So Taguchi, formerly of the Cardinals and Phillies, to replace the injured Sam Fuld. The 40-year-old (nope, not a typo) batted .248 with a .347 OBP at Triple-A Iowa this year.

I had forgotten Taguchi was even in the Cubs' system. He was signed this past January.

Z ya later?


The Chicago Tribune's Paul Sullivan stated that the Cubs "plan on shopping" Carlos Zambrano this offseason. Big Z has three years and about $53 million remaining on his contract, along with a possible player option for 2013. He also has a no-trade clause.

I say: shop away. Zambrano's $18.75 million annual salary is ninth in baseball and second only to Johan Santana among pitchers. He's paid like a top tier, top notch starter who deserves to be at the top of one of the top rotations in baseball. And while his numbers are consistently good, they're not that good.

The knock on Z is generally his inability to pile up wins or have that dominant 20-win season, but his wins have actually ranked pretty highly over the last few years:

Year------W------MLB rank
2009------8-----------81
2008-----14-----------26
2007-----18-----------7
2006-----16-----------8

But we all know how misleading wins and losses can be. Case in point: Clayton Kershaw is 11th in the majors with a sparkling 2.89 ERA, and has just eight wins to show for it; Ricky Nolasco is last among qualifying starting pitchers with his gaudy 5.46 ERA--he's got 11 wins.

Let's look at how Zambrano has stacked up in ERA and innings pitched in recent years:

Year--------ERA------MLB rank
2009--------3.77-----------33
2008--------3.91-----------43
2007--------3.95-----------40
2006--------3.41------------8


Year--------IP--------MLB rank
2009--------143-----------82
2008--------188-----------53
2007--------216-----------12
2006--------214-----------22

Again, these numbers aren't bad at all. He finished in the top 25 in innings pitched twice in the last four years, had the eighth best ERA in the majors in 2006, and has never in his career finished a full season with an ERA over four.

However, each of those rankings that are over 30 scare me. Ranking outside the top 30 essentially means that on average, every team in the majors has a pitcher who's outperforming you. The fact that the Cubs' so-called "horse" has ranked 53rd and 82nd, respectively, in innings pitched the last two years doesn't exactly make you thrilled that he's making over $500,000 every time he takes the mound. His ERA over the last three years has been solid, no doubt, but has not ranked in the top 30 in any of those seasons.

Let me remind you: he's making over $18 million a year. That's more than CC Sabathia, more than Cliff Lee, more than Chris Carpenter ... you get the idea.

I haven't even mentioned his tendency to get tossed from games, his recent admission that he isn't exactly 100 percent committed to his workout regimen, and his propensity to lose his cool when things don't go his way on the mound.

And look at what some top pitchers have netted teams in recent years (with an assist to Jerry Crasnick at ESPN):

2002: Indians trade Bartolo Colon and Tim Drew to Montreal for Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore, Brandon Phillips and Lee Stevens.

Sizemore has made three All-Star teams and won two Gold Gloves, and Cliff Lee's been, you know, okay. They shipped Phillips to the Reds, but he's averaged 21 HR and 84 RBI in five seasons in the majors.

2004: Oakland sends Mark Mulder to St. Louis for Dan Haren, Kiko Calero and Daric Barton.

Billy Beane got the better pitcher, though he traded Haren to Arizona three years later. Haren is 13-8 with a 2.82 ERA this season. Kiko Calero had a couple good years out of the 'pen, and Barton hasn't proven himself at the major league level yet, but is still just 24 years old.

2008: Baltimore sends Erik Bedard to Seattle for outfielder Adam Jones and pitchers George Sherrill, Chris Tillman, Kam Mickolio and Tony Butler.

Jones made the All-Star team this year at age 23, Sherrill had enough success as closer that the Dodgers traded for him at this year's trade deadline, and Tillman has had a great season at Triple-A.

These trades don't always work out (see: Tim Hudson's trade to Atlanta in 2004), but GMs are often willing to overpay for an ace, or even a perceived one. There's no question that Zambrano would have to bring quite a haul to make it worth Jim Hendry's while, but there's nothing wrong with window shopping.

Look, the Cubs could do a lot worse than Carlos Zambrano at the top of their rotation. And if the bell rings for the 2010 season and Big Z is on the mound in Atlanta (where the Cubs will play the Braves on Opening Day), I won't have a problem with that. But Z is a sometimes a joker, often a king, and too rarely an ace. If Hendry can obtain a king's ransom for him and open up some room in the payroll for, say, a second baseman, I wouldn't be opposed.

Worst deadline pickup?

That would be Jarrod Washburn. Acquired by the Tigers at the deadline from the Mariners, the lefty struggled in six August starts, going 1-2 with a 6.81 ERA. September hasn't been much better for the veteran, as he allowed three earned runs in five innings against the Royals and then, with an opportunity to redeem himself against the AL's worst team, he allowed four runs in just one inning of work yesterday.

To sum up: 2.64 ERA with the Mariners, 7.33 ERA with the Tigers.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A second-best season, a statistic, and a surgery

Monday: Cubs 2, Brewers 0


Derrek Lee now has seven home runs in his last 10 games, and has essentially guaranteed himself the second best season of his career. His 33 home runs rank second behind the 46 he smashed in '05, and his 98 RBI are tied for second, also behind '05 when he knocked in 107. His .303 average, by the way, ranks third behind '05 and the .317 average he had in '07.

Kudos to Ryan Dempster, who reached double digits in wins for the fifth time in his career, and has now allowed zero earned runs in three of his last five starts. Dempster is the third Cubs starter to get his 10th win, and both Harden (9 wins) and Zambrano (8) are within striking distance.

***ALERT*** The following statistic took me FOREVER to find, so please read it. Thank you for your cooperation.

The Cubs have not had five pitchers with double-digit wins since 1972. Their rotation when they accomplished the feat?

Fergie Jenkins
Burt Hooton
Milt Pappas
Bill Hands
Rick Reuschel

Think about that. The Cubs very well could accomplish a rather impressive pitching feat, one that requires both talent and depth. Going into the season, no one would have compared this year's rotation to the one listed above (and in fairness, that rotation combined for 69 wins, whereas this year's has 50 right now), but it might become the first group with five double-digit winners in nearly 40 years. And yet the team is just six games over .500 and has had quite a disappointing season.

See you in 2010

Alfonso Soriano will have knee surgery today and is out for the season. First Urlacher, and now this?

Okay, so maybe this news won't make quite as many waves in the Chicago sports world as did Urlacher's dislocated wrist. In fact, one could argue that this is good news:

1) Piniella has coddled Soriano for the last three years, and no doubt he'd be playing if he were medically cleared to do so. But the surgery means Piniella can't possibly put him in the lineup any more. That will give guys like Fuld, Scales and Fox the opportunity to get some audition time down the stretch.
2) Maybe, just maybe Soriano's struggles at the plate and pathetic defensive performance this year were related to his knee problems. The fact that he needs surgery reinforces this possibility.
3) This goes back to the silver lining to the season that I mentioned earlier--several players, including Soriano and Zambrano, will have played fewer than normal innings this year, perhaps resulting in a healthy and reinvigorated 2010.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Take your pick

Packers 21, Bears 15


I expected Jay Cutler to lose a game or two for the Bears this year with his gun-slinging mentality and penchant for interceptions (after all, he did throw 18 of them last year). But I didn't expect one of those games to be the first one, and I didn't expect him to be so bad that he'd essentially guarantee a loss. I'm not even ready for Halloween, but Cutler's already celebrating Christmas with gifts to division rivals.

There's no doubt that others deserve blame too. Offensive line? Hello? You there? Cutler made bad decisions when he was flushed out of the pocket, but he was put in those situations time after time because of subpar protection.

And the receivers. They showed big play ability with two bombs down the right sideline, one by Knox and one by Hester, but they also showed their inexperience by breaking off routes when they needed to finish them and finishing them when Cutler thought they were going to break them off. Cutler and the receivers weren't just on different pages--they were in different literary movements.

But still. Exactly what species of prehistoric butterflies were those in your stomach, Jay?

The amazing thing is that the Bears were in it. They were winning with under two minutes to go! But then Nathan Vasher got blowed up on a third-and-1; if the secondary had a question mark after it heading into the game, it now has two. And then Cutler and Knox cooked up another pick, and that was that.

Kyle Orton, by the way, never threw four interceptions last year. Cutler choked in his Bears debut even worse than Orton's beard must have choked him all of last year. (Did you happen to catch the ridiculous conclusion to Orton's Broncos debut yesterday? And yes, that's announcing deity Gus Johnson on the call.)

The running game wasn't much help, either. Fifty-five yards on 25 carries for Forte; just over two yards per carry. That said, though, it seems like Ron Turner got pass happy even though so few of Cutler's passes ended happily.

The Bears did hold their own on defense, especially when you consider that Urlacher and Tinoisamoa missed most of the second half. If the defensive line had a question mark after it heading into the game, it's now an exclamation point. Someone on the line needs to have a significantly better year than they did last year, and it looks like it will be the guy who's in a contract year: Adewale Ogunleye had two sacks and helped the Bears tally four total sacks, including one that resulted in a safety.

The game went pretty much the opposite of what everyone expected. About the only thing more relentless than the surprises were the injuries. Urlacher. Tinoisamoa. Desmond Clark. Offensive lineman Frank Omiyale. Backup corner Trumaine McBride.

And the news on Urlacher isn't good: he's out for the season. Ouch. Most people, including myself, believed that Urlacher had to have a big year for the Bears to return to top form. I'm way too excited about the Bears season to give up on it already, but this one hurts. A lot.

Perhaps a trip home will help settle Cutler's nerves. I sure hope so, because when we looks to redeem himself this Sunday, he'll be looking across the line at the Super Bowl Champion Steelers' "D."

Shot of the Day


Saturday, September 12, 2009

A predilection for prediction


While Sports Illustrated picked the Bears to win the NFC North and go to the Super Bowl, ESPN has no such love for da Bears. Just one of their 16 experts picked them to win the division, and just two others picked them to grab a Wild Card spot.

Minnesota and Green Bay share ESPN's adoration pretty equally, and while I don't fault them too much for respecting their respective rosters, the Bears' near-complete absence from their predictions seems a bit odd.

SI seems too hot on the Bears, ESPN too cold. No doubt my prediction will be juuuuust right.

The Bears finished 9-7 last year, and choked in the season's final game against the Texans with a playoff spot on the line. The Vikes won the division with a 10-6 record while the Packers went 6-10 and pulled up the rear in what essentially turned out to be a three-team division and will be once again in 2009.

Minnesota

The Vikings return the core of last year's 6th ranked defense, including the "Williams Wall" of Pat and Kevin Williams, who still have not served their respective four-game suspensions. In fact, it looks unlikely that the legal proceedings will be completed during the 2009 season.

Ranked 25th in passing last year, the Vikings have gotten stronger at the QB position with the addition of some guy named Brett Favre. Like the Bears, they lack a true #1 wide receiver with Bernard Berrian, Sidney Rice and Bobby Wade running routes for the 40-year-old vermin.

They do, however, have the best running back in the league in Adrian Peterson. But therein lies the problem: Will Favre be able to handle playing second fiddle to the running back all season? Can the primo primadonna of sports take the back seat? Not to mention there have already been stories about Favre not fitting in in the locker room. Things could get interesting when Favre--the QB with the most interceptions of all time--puts the ball in the hands of the defense a few too many times down the stretch. You'll recall that his Jets went 1-4 in their final five games last year, with Favre throwing nine interceptions during that stretch.

Prediction: 9-7

Green Bay

The Packers had the 8th best offense in the league last year, but were done in partly by their 20th ranked defense and mostly by suffering seven losses by four points or less. They made a bold move by moving to the 3-4 defense this season, and return most of the key players on both sides of the ball.

They figure to be able to light up the scoreboard with aaron Rodgers, Donald Driver, Ryan Grant, et al. It remains to be seen whether their new defensive scheme will be an overdue adjustment or a misguided misuse of personnel. Aaron Kampman, formerly a defensive lineman, will now be the fourth linebacker. Force him to cover a speedy tight end (cough Greg Olsen cough) and you might be able to exploit their D.

Prediction: 10-6

Chicago

And now to the Bears. While Brett Favre's return has drawn more attention than the health care debate, the quarterback garnering the second most headlines this summer was Jay Cutler. As time went on, rumors of his prowess became exaggerated, like a senior citizen telling the story of when he singlehandedly won the state championship 60 years earlier: "I heard he once threw three touchdowns in a game ... with his left hand." "I heard he stopped eating anything yellow or green once he was traded to the Bears." "I heard he agreed to build the Olympic Village all by himself if Chicago gets the bid."

The Vanderbilt grad has played just two full seasons in the NFL, and his passer rating ranked 16th of 32 last year. Dan Marino he is not. However, he did throw 25 touchdown passes and finished third in passing yards. Cutler is young, his stock is rising, and given that Bears fans have dealt with a conspicuous lack of talent at this unfamiliar position known as the "quarterback" for the past few decades, fans have every right to be excited.

Plus, when Cutler's not slinging the ball downfield, he'll be handing off to 1,000-yard rusher Matt Forte. And having Adrian Peterson to put in there every so often is just fine with me--Peterson averaged 5.0 yards per carry last year and has averaged 4.1 for his career; Forte averaged 3.9 last year.

But lo, that receiving corps. Greg Olsen should have a great year at tight end, but I can't help but worry about a group of wideouts led by a guy who's never caught a pass in the NFL (Earl Bennett) and return man turned cornerback turned return man turned receiver Devin Hester. The first few games might be a bit of an experiment when it comes to the passing game, and if Aromashodu, Knox, Davis or Iglesias steps up big at some point, they could find themselves in the starting lineup pretty quickly.

Worries aside, the Bears are all but guaranteed to improve upon their 26th ranked offense from a year ago. They should be able to keep opposing defenses on their heels a bit more by staying out of predictable patterns such as always running on first down or always running on third and short (I refer you to Cutler's play action bullet to Desmond Clark on third-and-1 against the Broncos). And the offense should be able to move the sticks even when they can't score points, keeping the defense off the field more than they did last year when they ranked 28th in time of possession.

Speaking of the defense, they get the lion's share of my concern. They ranked in the bottom third of the league last year, and with Tillman coming off back surgery, Kevin "Missed Tackle" Payne at strong safety, and a very similar-looking defensive line as the one that invited opposing quarterbacks to enjoy a sandwich and a cold glass of milk before throwing the ball last year, you can see why I'm concerned.

The Bears had just 28 sacks last year, less than half that of the league leader, Dallas. Ogunleye needs to live up to his contract, Tommie Harris needs to get back into form, and the rest of the line needs to produce more pressure for the Bears to win.

And last, but not necessarily least: special teams. Hester looked more decisive on his preseason punt returns, and while the Bears garnered the advantage of teams kicking away from him last year, they need Hester to prove he's still an explosive threat in the return game this year in order to maintain that advantage.

Robbie Gould and his 90% success rate return this year, and there's no reason to believe he won't continue his solid footwork this season.

All in all, the Bears seem markedly improved on offense, but not to the point that they'll be one of the elite groups in the league. There's certainly room for improvement on defense if Urlacher is in fact significantly healthier than last year and the defensive line can create a little more havoc than they did a year ago, but on paper, they seem pretty similar. And their special teams could improve if Hester runs upfield instead of sideways on punt returns.

Prediction: 10-6, Wild Card berth

Stop the presses

Friday: Cubs 6, Reds 4

With two clutch hits by Aramis Ramirez, a home run by Geovany Soto, and four shutout innings by Aaron Heilman, Esmailin Caridad and Carlos Marmol, the Cubs pulled to within 10.5 games of the Cardinals, who were denied their third 15-game winner as Joel Pineiro was outdueled by Jair Jurrjens in a 1-0 loss.

Why do I even take the time to mention how far back the Cubs are in the standings? Because while it took 39 days and 71 combined games, the Cubs finally gained ground on the Cardinals for the first time since August 3. If we keep up this pace, we'll catch 'em by 2012 for sure!

Friday, September 11, 2009

17 weeks, 16 games, 1 preview

The Bears have the easiest schedule of any team in the NFL--their opponents combined for a measly .413 winning percentage last year. But before you get too excited thinking the Bears have a free pass to the playoffs, you should know that the Vikings get to feast on the second easiest schedule (.423 winning percentage), and the Packers will enjoy the fourth easiest (.431).

Here are a few things to watch for as the schedule unfolds:

False start? When the gun goes off, the Bears will be at Lambeau against a new 3-4 defensive scheme and a quarterback (Aaron Rodgers) who threw for over 4,000 yards last year and led the league in preseason touchdowns (meaningless, I know, but still). And while the Bears are 4-1 in their last five at Lambeau, it's still a heckuva test to begin the season.

Then the Super Bowl Champion Steelers come-a-callin'. The Soldier Field crowd will be charged up, #6 will be wearing the home uni for the first time, and ... the Bears will probably lose. Hey, you never know, but the point is, 0-2 is a distinct possibility. Winning either of their first two games will be a successful start to the season.

To make matters worse, the Packers play the Bengals in Week 2 while the Vikings have the Browns and Lions to start off the season. I hope this is much ado about nothing, but you've been warned: the Bears could be two games behind both the Packers and Vikings two games into the season.

Six pack of football lite. But don't panic if the Bears are in fact in Lions territory after two games. Six of the next seven games on the schedule are very winnable. If you ignore Atlanta for a moment (Week 6), the six opponents the Bears will face in Weeks 3 - 10 had just 28 combined victories in 2008, an average of less than five apiece. The seven-game stretch includes Detroit, Cincinnati, Cleveland and San Francisco.

Familiar foes. The schedule changes every year, but this will be the third consecutive season the Bears have faced the Eagles. With games against the Falcons (who miraculously beat the Bears last year despite getting the ball back trailing with just 11 seconds left) and the Cardinals as well, the Bears will have the opportunity to help themselves against teams who figure to be in the NFC Wild Card hunt.

Prime time. No, the Bears haven't signed Deion Sanders. But their schedule features five prime time games: three Sunday night games, a Monday nighter, and a Thursday night game against the 49ers on NFL Network. They'll certainly have their chances to show their stuff on the national stage.

December doozies. The Packers come to Chicago on December 13 and the Vikings come to town two weeks later for a Monday night affair. The dust probably won't be settling in the NFC North until after Santa has left the North Pole.

Tomorrow, I'll take a closer look at the team and what we should expect from the 2009 Bears.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Getting closer to being the closer

Wednesday: Cubs 8, Pirates 5


I say this very, very tentatively (please read slowly for effect): perhaps the Cubs have found their closer for 2010. I sort of twitched when I typed that, knowing the stomach-churning, hair-graying things that Carlos Marmol is capable of. But he's now 7-for-7 in save opportunities since being anointed the closer, and even more importantly, he's been throwing strikes. Eight of his 11 pitches were in the zone in his perfect ninth yesterday, and 11 of his 13 pitches found the zone in his perfect inning of work on Monday.

If Marmol can keep up the good work next year, Hendry (or whoever is GM) can get to work solidifying the rest of the bullpen instead of having to spend a bunch of money on a hit-or-miss closer (e.g., even the infallible Brad Lidge of '08 has an ERA upwards of seven this year).

While it obviously isn't going to result in a playoff appearance this year, the deadline trade the Cubs made is looking pretty good right about now. The Cubs hit Kevin Hart around pretty good yesterday (and he doled out six free passes), and he has struggled mightily with the Pirates to the tune of a 1-5 record and a 6.46 ERA.

Additionally, John Grabow has expressed an interest in remaining with the Cubs beyond '09, and Tom Gorzelanny may do the same (if the Cubs believe he can contribute).

Could the Pirates be any nicer to the Cubs? We've built up a 9-2 record against them this year after a 14-4 record last year, plus the aforementioned trade that's looking like a win for the Cubs. And I won't even mention the time Hendry fleeced them at the deadline in '03.

And lastly: way to go, Micah Hoffpauir. After going deep in back-to-back games, Hoffpauir has reached double digits in home runs and has also driven in 28 runs. Those stats, when fleshed out over a full season's worth of at-bats, translate to 24 HR and 62 RBI.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Let's Go, Bears

Four days and counting

The Bears are all set to play a real football game in just four days. And it's not just real cuz it counts in the standings; we're talking Bears/Packers on Sunday Night Football. The blue and orange against the green and gold kicking off the 2009-2010 version of the black and blue division. Cutler vs. Rodgers, Forte vs. Grant, Urlacher and the 4-3 vs. A.J. Hawk and the Packers' new 3-4.

Will the Bears still get off the bus running despite having a gunslinger behind center? Will the secondary get their doors blown off? Will Urlacher rebound from a poor 2008 season and be the dominant force he once was? Do the Bears have anyone who can get open and subsequently catch the ball?

I don't know the answers to all these questions, but I absolutely cannot wait to fin
d out. Hank Williams, Jr., you don't even need to ask: I am indeed ready for some football.

***Don't forget that the football fun begins tomorrow night with a matchup of the Super Bowl Champion Steelers against the AFC South Champion Titans.

One of the best things about baseball ...

is that very time you turn on a game, you might just see something you've never seen before.

That was the case last night when the Cubs banged out eight consecutive hits to begin the game, tying the major league record. And the reason I had never seen it before is because the last time it happened was in 1973 ... when the Cubs did the same thing against the Pirates. That game was at Wrigley.

The first few hits were of the "hit 'em where they ain't" variety, but then the Cubs started hitting Zach Duke around pretty hard. The first out only came when Dempster gave them an out with a sacrifice bunt.

The need for speed

The Trib suggests that the Cubs may go after speedy Angels leadoff man Chone (pronounced Shawn) Figgins this offseason. The Cubs are last in the league with 45 stolen bases, while Figgins has 39 all by himself. He has averaged 49 stolen bases in his six-year career.

He has played six positions in his career (all but pitcher, catcher and first base), but is primarily a third baseman. He has played 244 career games in center field.

My question is: Where would he play? Barring a trade, the Cubs are committed to Soriano in left, Fukudome in center, and Bradley in right. Ramirez will obviously man the hot corner, leaving only second base as a legitimate option. While Figgins has started 86 games at second in his career, he's played there just twice in 2009 and I wonder if he would sign with the Cubs knowing that's where he'd spend the majority of his time.

Also starting at second base in 2010 ...

Jeff Baker? The Daily Herald's Inside Pitch blog did an interesting comparison between Jeff Baker in his time with the Cubs vs. Mark DeRosa in his time with the Cardinals. Since they have played 46 and 47 games, respectively, it makes for a pretty good comparison.

There has obviously been a great deal of hand-wringing over DeRosa's departure this past offseason, so it's interesting to see that Baker has hit .341 with 3 HR and 13 RBI while DeRosa has hit .244 with 8 HR and 19 RBI with the Cardinals. Baker's OBP is .399 compared to DeRosa's .313.

In fact, if you add the Wins Above Replacement (WAR, a statistic I partially understand and won't delve into too deeply at the moment) values of Fontenot and Baker, you end up with a higher value than that of DeRosa. Obviously DeRosa could have also filled in for an injured Aramis Ramirez and provided some other flexibility, but claiming that DeRosa would have saved this team is not accurate.

Baker, 28, will be arbitration-eligible this offseason, and may be back for another stint with the Cubs next year, perhaps as a platoon with Fontenot.

Shark!

Jeff Samardzija was recalled yesterday, and will likely get a start before the season is through. Samardzija struggled in his final AAA start, going just 4.2 innings and allowing five runs.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Like a broken record

Bengals fans, are you sick of your team's futility? Wizards fans, are you fed up with your team's struggles? Royals fans, are you sick and tired of the losses piling up?

Try this mantra: At least I'm not a Pirates fan.

With their 4-2 loss to the Cubs on Monday, the Pirates guaranteed that they will finish the season under .500. This will be the 17th consecutive losing season for the once proud franchise, a record for any major sport.

While the cross-state rival Phillies once suffered through 16 straight losing seasons, the Kansas City/Sacramento Kings failed to have a winning season for 15 straight years (even changing cities couldn't change their fate), and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers dealt with 14 consecutive failed campaigns, the Pittsburgh Pirates will soon stand alone when it comes to franchise futility.

It wasn't always this way, of course. In 1992, the Pirates roster featured Barry Bonds, Andy Van Slyke, Doug Drabek, Randy Tomlin, Tim Wakefield, and a host of other talented players who helped lead them to a 96-66 record, a third consecutive NL East title, and an NLCS matchup with the Braves. But, alas, Barry Bonds left for San Francisco in the offseason, and a 75-87 finish in 1993 would portend a streak of failure never before seen in professional sports. It remains to be seen whether it will ever end, and if it does, whether any team will ever again sink to the depths of their misery.

So what was the world like way back in 1992, the last time Pirates fans had something to cheer about?
  • George Bush was president. The first George Bush.
  • Jay Leno became the host of the Tonight Show.
  • Brett Favre made his first start for the Packers.
  • Jeffrey Dahmer was sentenced to life in prison.
  • Silence of the Lambs won Best Picture.
  • Race riots took place in L.A. after a jury acquitted LAPD officers in the Rodney King case.
  • Dr. Dre released his first solo album.
Yup, 1992 was a long-ass time ago. And the length of time between then and now has seemed even longer for those who follow the Pirates. In the 16 season from 1993 through 2008, the Pirates finished in last place seven times, won fewer than 70 games nine times, and scored more runs than their opponents ... um ... never. (They came ever so close in 1999 when they scored just seven fewer runs.) By the way, the Pirates are indeed in last place at the moment, 8.5 games behind the 5th place Reds, and are on pace to win just 64 games.

Seventeen straight losing seasons. Wow. Since 1993, the Bengals have had four .500 seasons and one winning one; the Wizards have had five winning seasons and one .500 one; and the Royals have had two winning seasons. So if those teams are punching bags of their respective leagues, the Pirates are the freakin' nuclear test site of Major League Baseball.

On July 24 of last year, the Pirates were 48-54. But then they traded Jason Bay and Xavier Nady, lost 41 of their last 60 games, and found themselves in a familiar place in the standings when the season ended. On June 2 of this year, the Pirates were a respectable 24-28. But since then, they've traded Nate McLouth, Jack Wilson, Freddy Sanchez, John Grabow, Tom Gorzelanny, Adam LaRoche, and Nyjer Morgan. Now they have the third worst record in the majors and don't exactly seem primed for a run in 2010.

So Pirates fans, as you endure the conclusion to another chapter of the Pirates' frustrating, forgettable attempt to escape their unfortunate fate, try this mantra: Go Steelers.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Curious Case of Cubs Ks

Saturday: Cubs 5, Mets 3


2009 could mark the end of an era. I refer to the Cubs' streak of leading the league in strikeouts dating back to 2001. Trailing the Giants by 36 (and in fourth place overall) after Saturday's action, it looks like the Cubs might finally relinquish the strikeout throne. While it's not an inherently good category in which to lead the league (strikeouts lead to higher pitch counts, and obviously aren't as strong an indicator of pitching strength as something like ERA or WHIP), I for some reason find it immensely enjoyable to see them at the top of the heap in this particular category every single year. The race isn't over yet, but the Cubs are really going to have to hunker down and start focusing on racking up those punchouts.

Rich Harden did his due diligence on Saturday, fanning 10 in five innings of work (what was it I was saying about strikeouts and pitch counts? Harden threw 102 pitches in five innings, partly because of all those Ks). All 10 strikeouts were of the swinging variety, and it's the third time he's reached double digits this season. I don't know how it's possible, but Harden's career high in strikeouts is still 11.

Derrek Lee provided some offense for Harden, having apparently been re-energized by a couple days off or by the birth of his second child, a son, or both. He hit a home run for each of his children, both into the second deck in left center. He's one home run shy of 30, and just two points shy of .300.

Thanks to Citi, Santo can finally enjoy New York City


Listening to Ron Santo's annual lamentations regarding the existence of Shea Stadium, his least favorite place in the whole world, would have been comical had it not been so evident how much it truly pained him to be there. But with Shea Stadium gone forever, Santo can finally take a bite out of the Big Apple each year without taking extra blood pressure medicine. He went so far as to say he likes the Mets' new digs. I feel like Santo probably had a Shea Stadium demolition watching party at his place last year.

Zook on the hot seat?


I don't know enough about Illini football or Zook's contract situation to actually know if he might be on the hot seat. What I do know is that he went 2-10 in 2006, had a great year which included a Rose Bowl appearance (and blowout loss) in 2007, but then went 5-7 last year. And I also know that the nearly-ranked Illini got pushed around in 2009's season opener against a Missouri team that lost 23 seniors from last year. 37-9 was the final, a terrible start for the boys in orange and blue.

But it's the conference schedule that really matters, and here's another thing I know: the Illini better beat the living daylights out of Illinois State next week, and they better use this creampuff matchup to work out all the kinks. Because once Big Ten play begins for them on September 26, it's full steam ahead: Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State are the first three opponents listed on their conference schedule, and they just happen to be rated 1, 2 and 3 preseason in the Big Ten. If the Illini find themselves sliding downhill as quickly as they did in their game against Mizzou, it seems to me that Zook might suddenly feel like he's sitting on a Bunsen burner.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

On the dangers of running

Quote of the Day

"I tried to catch the ball after I lost my balance, but I think the grass was too big."

-Alfonso Soriano

Having closely followed several sports for a couple decades, I've heard a lot of excuses. But grass being too big? That's definitely a new one. Never have I seen Soriano work harder than he apparently did in coming up with this reason for slipping and dropping a fly ball in Friday's loss to the White Sox.

Soriano will have arthroscopic knee surgery soon, and could be out for the rest of the season. Hallelujah!

If there's a silver lining in this terrible season, perhaps it's the fact that guys like Soriano, Zambrano and Aramis Ramirez have played a lot fewer innings than they normally would, and maybe this will help them come 2010. I didn't say it was a real great silver lining, but that's all I got.

Another preseason injury

Running back Kevin Jones is out for the season after injuring his ankle in the Bears' final preseason game. It's unfortunate that a guy the Bears signed to a two-year deal last offseason will miss the second of those two years. However, I'm a fan of Adrian Peterson, and this should significantly increase his chances of making the 53-man roster. Garrett Wolfe, a Northern Illinois alum, is the other option.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Crosstown Class-ick

Thursday: White Sox 5, Cubs 0

I got it! I got it! I don't got it.

Carlos Torres? Seriously?? A 27-year-old rookie making his third major league start and shooting for his first major league win? And all he does is throw seven scoreless innings in 2009's final installment of the Crosstown Craptastic.

This loss is on Alfonso Soriano. Congratulations to Derrek Lee, who was attending to the birth of his second child, but it's a shame he had to miss the game, as Jake Fox was then forced to play first base instead of left field. Down 1-0, Soriano came to the plate with runners at first (Fox) and third and one out ... and struck out. Then, still in a 1-0 game, he came up in the seventh with a runner at second (Fox) and nobody out, needing to move him over to third ... and struck out. Baker then singled to right, but Fox was thrown out at the plate. Because Soriano didn't move him to third. Because small ball isn't really his thing. Because he's not a team player.

Oh, and he's not a real dynamite fielder, either. Soriano fell down as he attempted to catch a ball in the eighth, resulting in a three-base, run-scoring error. I'm not even going to feign shock; this is what he does. Even Ron Santo called Thursday's performance "embarrassing." I honestly can't believe we have this guy for five more years (Soriano, not Santo). Five more years! That's 2014! We will have had another presidential election, a summer Olympics, two winter Olympics, and two World Cups by then. And I'll be 32! Maybe some AL team would like to have an aging DH.

Dempster did his part, pitching what should have been eight scoreless innings except for Soriano's dunderhead play out in left. With the first three Sox runs being unearned (due also to an error at first by Fox), the Cubs had pitched 30 consecutive innings without allowing an earned run, and the bullpen racked up 22.2 straight scoreless innings. That all ended, however, when Sean Marshall allowed two runs of the earned variety in the ninth.

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College football started last night. To all those teams with championship aspirations: if you're going to lose, you'd better do it now. Lose late in the season and the ridiculous BCS will get ya! And I'm not talking to you, non-major conference teams. You have no right to have championship aspirations you ... you ... you non-major conference teams you!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Lee, Lilly take off against Astros

Wednesday: Cubs 2, Astros 0

How rude of Derrek Lee. And this after Fontenot turned in SportsCenter's #1 play earlier in the game.

Lilly and Marmol combined to post shutout number four on the year for the Cubs, vaulting them out of a tie for last place in the NL in that category. The others were Ted Lilly over the Rockies 4-0, Ryan Dempster over the Dodgers 7-0, and Randy Wells over Houston 12-0. It was good to see Lilly get the win, his 10th, after he went 0-1 in August despite a stellar 1.86 ERA. The Cubs scored just eight runs in his three August starts.

Wednesday wasn't much different, as a two-run homer by Derrek Lee was all the offense could muster. In fact, the four through eight hitters (Bradley, Fox, Fontenot, Baker, Hill) were a combined 0-for-14. But it was enough for Teddy Roosevelt Lilly, as he dominated the 'Stros with eight innings, four hits, no walks and five strikeouts. He's now 7-1 with a 1.73 ERA at home in 2009.

I said yesterday that if there's been one bright spot for the Cubs this season, it's Randy Wells. I stand by that, but if there have been two bright spots for the Cubs this year, the other is Derrek Lee. His home run was his 27th, and with six more he would have his highest career total outside of 2005 when he hit 46.

On top of that, the two RBI gave him 90 on the season, matching last year's total. With nine more, he'll once again have his highest career total outside of 2005, and with a great September, he could surpass that year's total of 107.

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Hey, look who's back: Andres Blanco! He wasted no time showing why Aaron Miles should never, ever play again for the Cubs, going 1-for-3 with a run scored.

"One hit?" you say. "That's nothing to write home about."

True, unless you're comparing him to Aaron Miles, which I am. Miles is 0-for-his last 700 (okay, actually his last 19), and is completely useless. On the other hand, Blanco was batting .304 in the minors, is hitting .240 with the Cubs, and is probably the best fielder they have save Derrek Lee.

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While there's no arguing the fact that the Cubs have folded like a guy in a tent wearing a cheap suit, sitting on a 2/7 off suit, we have to give credit where credit is due. The Cardinals went 20-6 in August, meaning it would have been difficult for the Cubs to stay in the division race almost no matter what they did. The Cards are now 2-0 in September as well, meaning the Cubs haven't gained any ground on them at all since August 3. For a full month straight, the Cubs have either held their ground or fallen back in the standings every single day.