Friday, April 30, 2010

"Sunglasses at Night" is the only song on Tony LaRussa's iPod

From the Wait 'til this Year Humor Vault

Above: Manager Tony La Russa wearing sunglasses. At night.

ST. LOUIS--A quick perusal of St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa's iPod revealed that it contains just one song--Corey Hart's 1984 hit single "Sunglasses at Night." La Russa's iTunes account indicated that he listens to the song about 50-60 times per day.

"Oh, okay, okay, now it all makes sense," said Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright. "I couldn't figure out why, when he came out to the mound the other day, he just said, 'Don't switch the blade on the guy in shades, oh no, Don't masquerade with the guy in shades, oh no, I can't believe it, Don't be afraid of the guy in shades, oh no, it can't escape you,' and then walked back to the dugout. It was really weird. Although, strangely, it worked--I struck out the next two guys."

Sources said La Russa very recently had at least two other songs in his playlist: Stevie's Wonder's "Don't Drive Drunk" and Jimmy Buffett's "The Asshole Song."

Thursday, April 29, 2010

It's like a broken record. It's like a broken record.

A strong start. Painfully bad situational hitting. A close-but-no-cigar loss.

That recap describes a relatively large number of the Cubs' 12 losses this season, but Wednesday's really hurt. A series loss to the Nationals. A 4-5 record at home despite having hosted the Brewers, Astros and Nationals. The momentum of a recent four-game winning streak gone along with Ryan Dempster's formerly flawless record.

And the Cubs had their chances:
  • Fifth inning: Bases loaded, one out. No runs.
  • Seventh inning: First and second, nobody out. No runs.
  • Eighth inning: Runner at second, nobody out. No runs.
Like Gorzelanny on Tuesday, Dempster took a loss that he probably didn't deserve. Granted, he allowed two home runs and three runs in all, which will lose you a game every now and then. But he went eight innings, the third straight start he's gone at least seven. He's pitched six innings or more in all five starts this season--his 35.2 total innings rank second in the National League (behind, of course, Roy Halladay).

By the way--remember how the Cubs tried to sign Matt Capps in the offseason? I wish they had. He recorded his 10th save on Wednesday, best in the majors. The 26-year-old has a 0.68 ERA.

The Cubs have still won only two series on the year, both against the Brewers. The 10-11 Diamondbacks come into town for an extended four-game series starting today, and three out of four would look mighty nice as it would get the Cubs back to .500.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Tom Gorzelanny wondering what a guy's gotta do to get some runs over here

The Cubs have yet to win a game started by Tom Gorzelanny, but he deserves very little of the blame for this unfortunate trend--the Cubs have scored two, three, one and one run(s), respectively, in those games while Gorzelanny has posted a 2.45 ERA.

Though Gorzo allowed two runs last night almost before the pregame show was complete, he settled down after the first and notched a (everybody together now) quality start. He came just one out away from a QS his last time out (and would have had one were it not for an error by Mike Fontenot), and was knocked out, literally, of his previous start after three innings. Those two starts represent the only games in the last 12 in which the Cubs starter did not post a quality start. In fact, don't look now, but the Cubs have the sixth-best ERA in the National League. And yes, that includes the bullpen!

But Livan Hernandez, whose season has started as inexplicably well as Carlos Silva's, shut down the Cubs with his 85 mph fastballs and grab bag of random pitches that have no business working in the major leagues. The end result was one measly unearned run for the Cubs, giving Gorzelanny another loss and bringing the Cubs' record to 0-4 when he has taken the mound.

Hernandez lulled the Cubs offense to sleep even though they should have been energized by the opportunity to climb over .500. It was the fourth time this season the Cubs have had a chance to get their heads above water, but now they'll look to Ryan Dempster on Wednesday as they attempt to even their record at 11-11.

Though Aramis Ramirez was just 1-for-4 with a single, I think he's about to break out of it. He had a line drive single on Sunday as well as a hard line out to center. On Monday, he smoked a double in the first inning and later hit what would have been a home run on most days. And along with his single last night, he drove a ball to the warning track in center. Maybe it's wishful thinking, but I think Ramirez is almost there.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Around the majors

Phillies slip up

The Phillies have revealed that they are, in fact, human. They're 3-7 in their last 10 games, and had a recent four-game stretch in which they scored just six total runs. Obviously it's very early, but with the Phillies stumbling a bit, no one in the National League is doing anything that even resembles running away with their respective division.

Roy Halladay also proved last night that he is not a pitch-throwing droid sent from the future to destroy the National League. He gave up five earned runs to the Giants and took his first loss of the season.

Staying in the NL East ...

If you'll kindly scroll down your NL East standings, you'll find that the Mets are surging while those Phillies fall back to the pack. After taking three of four from the Cubs, they swept the Braves over the weekend. They're now above .500, in large part because they're fourth in the majors with a 3.17 ERA.

Did you know ...

Second baseman Kelly Johnson, who struggled mightily with the Braves last year and was signed as a free agent by the Diamondbacks in December, is tied for the National League lead in home runs with seven (his career high is 16). Even more impressive, he's third in the majors with a 1.162 OPS (the league average is about .770).

Monday, April 26, 2010

This cup overfloweth with pointlessness

The Cubs and Sox will now play their annual interleague series (plural) with the Crosstown Cup on the line, an actual, literal trophy that will go to the team winning the majority of the six match-ups.

I never cared about the back-and-forth, intense, heated games that the Cubs and Sox have played ever since 1997, but I will now! A trophy, you say? Will it be gold? Will the players be allowed to carry it around with them for a day like they do with the Stanley Cup? Does Tom Ricketts have anything better he could do with his time?

And here's the worst thing: if the teams split the six games, as they have done four of the 10 years in which they've played a home-and-away format, the team that wins the last game gets the trophy. How is that fair? I say, for this year, give it to the team who outscores the other (if there's a tie), and in the future, when they split 3-3, the team that "owns" the trophy simply keeps it. Until the other team can take it away by winning a season series, it stays wherever it is.

But now I've spent a full two paragraphs analyzing this absurd, Little League-style award that none of the players will give a damn about, and that makes me angry. This isn't technically a BAD idea, just a pointless one. I hope I never hear someone utter the words "We won the Crosstown Cup!" even if it's a Cubs fan saying it.

Week three awards

Baseball can be a funny game. The Cubs were yet to have a winning week (2-4 in Week 1, 3-3 in Week 2), and, through Thursday, were 1-3 this week after barely being competitive against a Mets team that had been struggling. The Cubs then headed to Milwaukee to take on a Brewers team that had absolutely obliterated the Pirates in their previous series. Three dominant games later, the Cubs have their first three-game winning streak of the season, their first winning week (4-3), and have scored more runs than their opponents for the first time.

Ryno of the Week
: Randy Wells put together two strong starts, but this week's award has to go to a hitter--several Cubs put up video game numbers over the last seven days. First, I thought: "It's got to go to Soto--he reached base 64 percent of the times he came to the plate!" But then I realized Marlon Byrd had 13 hits last week along with six runs scored and four RBI, despite the fact that he didn't even play yesterday.

But Ryan Theriot did him one better, literally. He had 14 hits, scored five runs and drove in six, capping his week with a 5-for-6 day that raised his average over 40 points.

Honorable mention: Alfonso Soriano

Goat of the Week: When it comes to the Cubs, I think the thing I want to see most right now is Aramis Ramirez bust out of his slump. It's painful to watch. He was 2-for-25 this week with seven strikeouts. It's really weird to see him swing and miss at 85 mph fastballs over the middle, isn't it? Please break out of it, Aramis. I can't take it any more.

Dishonorable mentions: Jeff Baker, Xavier Nady

Sunday, April 25, 2010

That Cubs blog with the funny name

When you have the chance, please check out Goat Riders of the Apocalypse, a great Cubs blog that is constantly updated with content from numerous contributors. The site also has a Reader Blog section, and yours truly has a few posts on there. A friend from college, Peter Alford, also writes for the site.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Cubs enjoy a good brew

AP Photo/Morry Gash

Three of the Cubs' seven victories in 2010 have come over the Brewers. But there's no need to feel bad about that; after all, Milwaukee is a divisional foe and you have to win games in your division in order to have a good season.

Ryan Dempster had his fourth strong start of the season (out of four), going 7.2 innings for the second straight start. He has left all of his starts with the lead, though he only has two wins to show for his efforts. (Hopefully Carlos Zambrano was able to get a good view of Dempster's efficient outing from his new perch in the bullpen. Speaking of Zambrano, Cubs fans saw a very unfamiliar sight when he warmed up in the bullpen in the eighth inning. No doubt it was a stimulating sight for some fans but a rather agitating one for others.)

The Cubs brought a balanced offensive attack to Miller Park--they've now scored at least six runs in all four of their games against the Brewers this season; they've only scored that many in two others games this year! Every starter had at least one hit, and Dempster joined the party with two sacrifice bunts. Chad Tracy was just barely able to make his first start of the season before Ted Lilly did, and he had a single and played very well defensively at third. Also, Tyler Colvin hit a ball 10,000 feet.

This is the second time the Cubs have roughed up Jeff Suppan in less than two weeks, and they'll have the chance to do the same to lefty Doug Davis tomorrow (he was touched up for six runs in just 3.1 innings in the Cubs' home opener). Soriano, Soto and Ramirez should all be fresh after having a day off on Friday.

Perhaps the Cubs benefited from the favorable road crowd--Brian Brennan attended Friday's game and said it was at least a 50/50 split in terms of Cubs/Brewers fans in attendance, and he said it felt like 75/25 in Chicago's favor as the Cubs fans were able to cheer unabated given that the team scored early and dominated throughout. Hopefully Miller Park will be transformed into Wrigley North over the weekend as well.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Brewers fans enraged after tofu dog wins Sausage Race

From the Wait 'til this Year Humor Vault

The cameraman refused to photograph the tofu dog out of protest.

MILWAUKEE--In a shocking and unprecedented development, a "Tofu Dog" won the traditional Sausage Race at Miller Park on Thursday night. Fans booed loudly as the Tofu Dog, looking quite healthy and extremely light on its feet, raced to the finish ahead of the other sausages. The other sausages fell behind early and just couldn't ketchup.

After the game, fans couldn't seem to care less that Prince Fielder hit a walk-off home run to beat the Rockies (Fielder, a vegetarian, said after the game that the Tofu Dog's victory definitely contributed to his late-game heroics); the only topic of discussion seemed to be the Sausage Race.

"It was an abomination," said Hal Mantz.

"They need to get rid of that sissy little tofer dog, whatever it's called," said season ticket holder Mitch Edler. "First they added that Mexican feller [the Chorizo], and now this. Is this Milwaukee or San Francisco?"

One fan was ejected after striking the Tofu Dog with an actual hot dog during the race. But the blow barely affected the giant vegetarian sausage--he was the wiener by a comfortable margin.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

NCAA Tournament to add just three more teams?

ESPN reports that the NCAA is on the verge of expanding the men's basketball tournament to 68 teams, rather than expanding to 96 as had been rumored. CBS/Turner reportedly won a bidding war with ESPN, offering $10.8 billion for the TV rights over the next 14 years.

I was pretty pissed about the concept of a 96-team tournament (ruining a good thing, needing a piece of poster board in order to fill out a bracket, diminishing the importance of making the tournament, etc.), so this is great news. Plus, CBS/Turner will apparently be able to show every game via CBS, TBS, TNT and TruTV (not sure if I get that one ...).

So the tournament will expand almost imperceptibly and stay that way for at least 14 years, and we'll be able to watch every game on television starting next year. Well done, NCAA.

Cubs finally find the road to victory

The Cubs scored just 319 runs on the road last year (compared to 388 at home), more than only Houston, San Francisco and Pittsburgh. Every time they were in a park other than Wrigley, it seemed to be as difficult for them to score one run as it was for Frodo to trek to Mordor and destroy the ring. YOU SHALL NOT PASS ... third base. The offense constantly looked uncomfortable on the road. Or uninterested. Or unable. Definitely un-something.

Unfortunately, this trend has continued here at the beginning of the 2010 season. Nineteen runs in the first eight road games. One run combined in two games started by Jonathon Niese and Mike Pelfrey, respectively, to begin this series with the Mets. A road batting average (.195) that makes you wish Mario Mendoza was on the roster.

In fact, the Cubs had yet to score more than five runs in any road game this season. That is, until Wednesday. They finally broke out the bats, scoring nine runs by banging out 14 hits and drawing nine walks. Alfonso Soriano was 3-for-4 with a home run and came just a double shy of the cycle. He appears to be in one of his patented hot streaks--he has 13 hits in his last 28 at-bats.

On the mound, Carlos Silva continued his rather unbelievable early season success, allowing just two hits and one run in six efficient innings. There's no need to get carried away and assume Silva's name will be etched on the Cy Young Award when the season concludes, but it is worth stepping back and enjoying the apparent resurgence of a player the Mariners dumped in exchange for a guy who can't seem to count outs, and when he does, does so with his middle finger. Silva is now 2-0 with a 0.95 ERA, the latter being good for sixth in the majors. Pretty amazing, even if it is only three starts.

But Wednesday's game wasn't all positive. While I know he's the one guy we all just know is going to break out of it eventually, I'm going to allow myself a bit of worry about Aramis Ramirez. I'm honestly not sure that I've ever seen him look this bad. Normally a disciplined hitter, he has struck out in 20 of his 67 plate appearances and walked just five times. He has exactly one multi-hit game, way back on Opening Day. The Cubs' offense has had a lot of problems this year, but Ramirez's .194 OBP has to be at the top of the list.

But enough of that. The Cubs got a nice win and will look for the series split against (gulp) Johan Santana tonight. It will be a match-up of lefties with Tom Gorzelanny going for the Cubs.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Big move: Big Z heads to bullpen

Chris McGrath/Getty

With Ted Lilly's impending return to the starting rotation, Cubs fans were scratching their heads wondering which starter would move to the bullpen. Carlos Silva's been the most reliable starter thus far. Moving Tom Gorzelanny there would mean the team would have more lefties in the 'pen than righties. Ryan Dempster and Randy Wells look rather comfortable in their roles.

And then there was Z.

To put it concisely, I like the move. As you may have read in Tuesday's post, Zambrano has in many ways been the Cubs' least productive starter over the last year plus. And one of his biggest flaws is his tendency to have an elevated pitch count, meaning he doesn't go deep enough into games. As a reliever, he will only be asked to throw an inning or so at a time.

So the Cubs essentially trade out Zambrano for Lilly in the starting rotation, which to me is a win. And then they trade, say, Jeff Gray for Zambrano in the bullpen. Also a win. It's a bold move that could certainly backfire, but I think it's worth a try.

Oh, and I completely reject the thought that this is a bad decision simply because Zambrano is making so much money. The $18 million he'll earn this year is a sunk cost--he's getting the money either way. Therefore, what's important is to do what management believes is best for the team, regardless of what relievers and starters are "supposed" to earn.

Why we love sports

Saturday afternoon, I was opining that there are two main reasons people love sports:

1) The enjoyment that comes from rooting for your favorite team. It's fun to sit and watch a sporting event with a vested interest in what happens, partly because this makes you part of something larger than yourself. You can talk to others about the game, debate what your team did right or wrong, and allow your opinions to be confirmed or questioned by what you read in the newspaper or on the Internet. When your team loses, you can commiserate with others. When they win, go to the playoffs or even win it all, you're part of a broad celebration that brings you closer to millions of people (or dozens, in the case of the Orioles).

2) The certainty that you are going to continually see things you've never seen before. With sports, you can truly expect the unexpected. While it's fun to predict what's going to happen and bloviate about which teams and players are going to do this or that, we only love sports because deep down we know that it's impossible to prognosticate with any consistent accuracy.

And lo and behold, Saturday turned out to be a perfect example of Reason #2. First, the baseball world witnessed the first no-hitter in Colorado Rockies history. A no-hitter is one of those things you can never expect and forces you to call up or text your friends to say, "Did you see there was a no-hitter today?" That alone made it a unique day in sports.

But the Mets and Cardinals had something even more unique in mind: a 20-inning game that remained deadlocked in a 0-0 tie all the way into the 19th inning. Trevor Sierra left my house to go out to dinner when the game was in the eighth. When he and his fiancee Becky stopped back at my house an hour-and-a-half later, the game was still going. Then the three of us went out to the movies (Date Night--worth seeing), and I went to check the final score once the movie let out. Still going! 19th inning. But the Mets scored a run, so it was finally going to end.

Until the Cardinals plated a run of their own with two outs in the bottom of the inning. The Mets managed to score another run in the top of the 20th and won 2-1 in just under seven hours.

The game saw a starting pitcher play left field for multiple innings and the Cardinals used two different position players to pitch (outfielder Joe Mather took the loss). Have you ever seen a baseball game quite like that?

Definitely not. And this despite the fact that they play 30 games a day, six months a year, and have been doing so for over 100 years (yes, I know, there weren't 30 teams 100 years ago, but you get the point). No matter how many games they play, every sport keeps finding new (and unexpected) ways to surprise and entertain us. And that's why we love them.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Is Carlos Zambrano the Cubs' worst starting pitcher?

I have little doubt that that question rings of hyperbole, but it's not intended. I'm quite serious when I wonder if the Cubs' $18 million man is the weak link of the staff. And I'm not asking this simply because Zambrano' s 9.45 ERA is easily the worst on the staff right now, or because his WHIP is the most inferior, or because he's been okay-to-bad in all three of his starts this season. Allow me to elaborate.

First, a non-statistical reason: the most important factor for how you feel going into a baseball game is the pitching match-up. If you say to someone, "You think the Cubs will win today?" their first response will be, "Who's pitching?" And right now, I feel the worst about the Cubs' chances when Zambrano is scheduled to pitch. And it's not just this year--his struggles and inconsistency last year resulted in a rather uncomfortable feeling on days when he took the mound.

The truth is, being a Cubs fan, I overdose on optimism before pretty much any game. There are always reasons to believe that the Cubs will pull out a victory. So usually, I rev myself for any Zambrano start as well, thinking, "He'll have his good stuff today." But as soon as he inevitably goes 2-0 on the first hitter, I remember why, deep down, I was less than excited to watch him pitch.

Dempster's pitching today? Sweet. Lilly's turn in the rotation? Nice. Randy Wells is on the hill? I'll take it. Big Z's slated to go today? Hmmm ...

But maybe my feelings are unfounded, or perhaps I'm simply overreacting to his slow start. Let us explore:

After saving 85 games in three seasons as the Cubs' closer, Dempster became a starter in 2008. He surprised everyone with a 17-6 record, the result of a 1.21 WHIP and 2.96 ERA. He followed that up with a more pedestrian, but still solid, 11-9 campaign last year.

Jim Hendry brought Lilly to the Cubs from Toronto in 2007, and the consensus was that he would be serviceable but not a savior. He went 15-8 with a 3.83 ERA in 2007, won 17 more in 2008, and collected 12 wins last year while posting a career-best 3.10 ERA. He has arguably been the Cubs' best starter over the last three years.

Wells got called up to the majors last May and made a run at the Rookie of the Year award. He finished 12-10 with a tidy 3.05 ERA.

While Zambrano had at least 14 wins every year from 2004 through 2008, he gathered just nine wins last year and had a 3.77 ERA.

To recap: Lilly, Dempster and Wells all had more wins, a lower ERA, and a lower WHIP than Zambrano last season. But there's more:

I'm a HUGE proponent of the importance of going deep into games. This will be vitally important for Cubs pitchers this season given the struggles of the bullpen. Rich Harden is a great example of a pitcher who is flawed in this area--his value is severely diminished by the fact that, no matter how well he's pitching, he just can't seem to keep his pitch count down. Unfortunately, the same is true of Zambrano:

Pitcher------------Average innings per start in 2009
Silva (2007)-------------------6.12

Silva's is a very small sample size for this year, so I threw in 2007 when he had a solid season with the Twins. This year, he's averaged 6.5 IP in two starts, compared to Zambrano's 4.43 in three starts.

Zambrano is simply too wild. While this might (I repeat: might) not be true of his emotions any more, it remains true of his pitch control. He threw an absurd 121 pitches in just five innings against Milwaukee on Thursday. Even when Zambrano is going good, he doesn't match the skill set owned by pitchers like Roy Halladay, CC Sabathia, or other pitchers who can be efficient on the mound.

I have one more piece of evidence in my case against Zambrano--defense. Somewhat amazingly, Big Z has made an error in all three of his starts this season. On Wednesday, he inexplicably tried to pick off 39-year-old Jim Edmonds with two outs, and threw the ball away. Edmonds would later score. I'm inclined to think that his fielding errors are really mental errors rather than an indication of limited athletic ability. But whatever they are, they represent another chink in Z's armor.

Obviously, we've all seen Carlos Zambrano at his best. Jim Hendry didn't give him five years and $91 million for no reason (and I for one did not oppose the contract extension at the time). Hopefully his first few starts this year will look like an aberration when the year is through. But for now, based on both history and the first two weeks of 2010, I think it's fair to ask: Is Carlos Zambrano the Cubs' worst starting pitcher?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Week two awards

Goat of the Week: The Cubs went 3-3 this week with their three losses coming by a total of four runs. So really, no one did all that baaaaaadly (like a goat, get it?). But for my goat, I'm going to go with Carlos Zambrano. Discounting Gorzelanny's start since he was literally knocked out of the game in the third inning, Zambrano had the worst start by any Cub last week. Though the four runs he allowed weren't that awful, he gave them up in just five innings, needing an incredible 121 pitches to get through those five innings. The bullpen was forced to work overtime, and they lost 8-6. Sadly, it wasn't even close to being Zambrano's worst start out of three this season given his Opening Day disaster. Much more on Big Z tomorrow.

Dishonorable mentions: Aramis Ramirez, Jeff Samardzija

Ryno of the Week: Marlon Byrd said he loves playing the outfield in front of Wrigley's bleacher bums, and apparently he enjoys the batter's box as well. He was 9-for-26 (.346) with one home run, five RBI and three runs scored last week. He also hit a home run about 9,000 feet on a 3-0 pitch, making me that much more confident that he's on steroids.

Carlos Silva and Ryan Dempster had strong weeks as well. Silva went seven innings on Friday, allowing two unearned runs, just five hits, no walks, and he struck out five. It's very early, but it's starting to look like Jim Hendry may have turned a steaming pile of Milton Bradley into a solid fifth starter. Dempster looks as comfortable at Wrigley as he did in '08: he was 1-0 with a 3.86 ERA last week. (Reason #800,001 that wins and losses are stupid: Dempster won last Monday while allowing five runs in 6.1 innings, but got a no-decision yesterday while allowing just one run in 7.2 innings.)

Honorable mentions: Geovany Soto, Derrek Lee

Did you know ...
  • Pirates starters have an MLB-worst 8.38 ERA. Yet the team is 7-5.
  • The highest OBP in the majors is owned by ... Scott Podsednik.
  • Jason Bay has struck out 18 times already, which is more than he has hits, home runs, RBI and stolen bases combined.
  • Trevor Sierra said Derrek Lee has been taking a lot of pitches and having good at-bats. He was right: Lee leads the NL with 4.93 pitches seen per plate appearance.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Opposing batters say Jamie Moyer's hiked up pants and frequent bathroom trips are distracting

From the Wait 'til this Year Humor Vault

He's not trying to see the sign--he's trying to see the catcher!

PHILADELPHIA--Jamie Moyer is the oldest non-knuckleball pitcher in major league history to hold down a spot in a starting rotation. But while fans might find enjoyment in Moyer's incredible longevity, opposing hitters say he's too old and that his age-related tendencies are frustrating. In his first start of the season last week in Houston, Moyer's pants came up almost to the "Phillies" lettering on his jersey, he left the mound three different times to use the bathroom, and some Astros players questioned the legality of the handkerchief he continuously utilized between pitches.

Even Moyer's catcher, Brian Schneider, admitted that Moyer's age was a problem.

"I went out there in the third to have a quick chat, but he couldn't hear a word I said," Schneider said. "I told him to throw one high and tight, and he said, 'WHAAAT? YOU'RE GOING FOR A DRIVE TONIGHT??' He pitched okay, but I'm not sure this is going to work out."

Said Moyer, "Pitching's just the bee's knees, you know? These wise guys on the Astros, they need to just relax, see. See you in the funny papers."

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Rally caps a great day at Wrigley

AP Photo/Charles Cherney

While I'm stuck in "high of 65 degrees" Maryland, everyone back in Illinois has enjoyed unseasonably warm days in the 80s this week. And while it was slightly cooler at Wrigley--the game-time temp was a perfect 73--it must have been about as beautiful as it will ever be for a Cubs game in April. I've been to Opening Day games where the most popular vendors were selling hot chocolate and you could see more blankets in the stands than jerseys.

But the sun-splashed field wasn't the only sight for sore eyes; the action on said field was quite enjoyable as well. In the middle of the 8th, I thought to myself: "Many other teams could stage a rally in this situation. Why is it that it seems so impossible for the Cubs to do so?" The 2009 season conditioned me to expect pretty much any deficit to remain a deficit. But instead, the Cubs surprised me with a 2008-like rally, scoring four runs after the first two batters were retired. And I'll admit that I took some enjoyment from the fact that it all happened against LaTroy Hawkins.

Other positives of note:
  • Ryan Theriot banged out four hits including a two-run single in the 8th inning. He also stole two bases for the second consecutive game.
  • Tyler Colvin has now walked three times in the regular season after walking zero times this spring. Batting with two outs and runners at first and second in the 8th--a situation that could have easily brought out some over-aggression--Colvin drew a walk and eventually scored in the four-run inning.
  • Kosuke Fukudome is off to another fast start: he knocked in the winning run and now has an OPS of 1.048 (.900+ is very good). Of course, we've seen this movie before. Will Fukudome be able to avoid the mid-season slump we've become accustomed to?
  • Marlon Byrd made a great throw to nail a runner trying to go from first to third. (In contrast was Soriano's outfield play--he bobbled a ball to turn a double into a triple and later misplayed a ball off the wall.)
  • Carlos Marmol has so far proved me wrong. His last two save opportunities have produced the following combined line: 2 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 6 K. Six batters faced, six strikeouts. That'll do, Carlos, that'll do.
Randy Wells was cruising early in the game but lost his mojo when he walked pitcher Dave Bush with two down in the 5th. Newly recalled Jeff Gray had a rough 2010 debut, but got the win due to the Cubs' rally (Reason No. 64,507 that wins and losses are absurd statistics).

So the Cubs have their first series victory in the books. How about adding their first sweep with a win today?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Caridad to DL, Jeff Gray recalled

Chicago Breaking Sports reports that a right-forearm strain has sent Esmailin Caridad to the DL, and righty Jeff Gray--acquired in the Jake Fox trade--will replace him on the roster.

While Caridad was excellent last season and I hope he can be productive in the set-up role this season as well, he has struggled out of the gate and can't seem to locate anything but his fastball. Gray had a 3.76 ERA with the A's last year and was yet to allow a run in four innings at Iowa this season. Therefore, this really doesn't hurt the Cubs at all.

Derrek Lee is out of today's lineup due to a minor right thumb injury. Fortunately the Cubs have a solid backup in Xavier Nady, and he will bat cleanup today behind Aramis Ramirez. Lee is expected to play tomorrow.

Around the majors

Milton Bradley watch
Though he homered last night, Bradley has just three hits in 26 at-bats and an OBP of .281 with the Mariners. Ha.

Oh, and he flicked off Rangers fans on Friday. He's insane.

Trouble brewing for Milwaukee's closer?
Is 42-year-old Trevor Hoffman finally out of juice? He's allowed at least one run in three of his four appearances this season, and he blew consecutive save opportunities on Friday and Sunday against the Cardinals. On Friday, he gave up a two-out, two-run home run to Nick Stavinoha, and on Sunday he allowed back-to-back jacks to Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday. Granted, those last two guys are no slouches, but Hoffman allowed two home runs all of last season and allowed two in a five-pitch span on Sunday.

Halladay off to a quick start
Is there any chance Roy Halladay won't win the Cy Young now that he's in the National League (he won one in the AL, in 2003)? He gave up just one run in seven innings on Opening Day and benefited from a powerful Phillies offense to go 1-0, and then logged his first NL complete game (zero earned runs, zero walks, eight strikeouts) in a win over the Astros on Sunday. He's now 2-0 with a 0.56 ERA.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

First week illustrates Cubs' strengths and weaknesses

Though it's an admittedly small sample size, the first week (and a day) of Cubs baseball revealed a few positives and a couple big negatives:


Starting pitching
After Zambrano's horrible Opening Day, Dempster, Wells, Silva, Zambrano and Gorzelanny each provided a quality start. Taking out Opening Day, the Cubs' starters had a 1.44 ERA from Wednesday through Sunday. While the back end guys have pitched just one game each, both against Cincinnati, Silva and Gorzo combined to pitch 12 innings and allow just one earned run. If one of these two can come anywhere close to their early success over the entire season, the fifth starter won't be nearly the black hole some feared it would be. In addition, hopefully one of them can provide a boost to the beleaguered bullpen once Lilly returns.

The closer
It's going to be a while before I'm not extremely nervous when Carlos Marmol enters a game with a precarious 9th inning lead, but it must be noted that he converted his first two save opportunities of the season and didn't allow a run in the process. He was very impressive on Saturday, striking out the side to preserve a 4-3 lead.

Hitting for power
The Cubs' 11 home runs ties them for third most in the majors. Ramirez, Byrd and Baker have two each, and Colvin showed his pop with a long home run in his first at-bat of the season. Paging Geovany Soto, paging Geovany Soto ...


Hitting for anything other than power
Unless the ball leaves the yard, the Cubs can't seem to get much done on offense: they had the fewest hits of any team in the majors prior to Monday. The Cubs stranded 25 men on Friday and Sunday combined, and left the bases loaded in the 1st inning Sunday after loading them up with nobody out against a pitcher who had never before pitched professional baseball, meaning major league or minor league. On both Opening Day and Saturday, they scored all of their runs via the long ball. In yesterday's nine-run outburst, all but two runs came on home runs.

Middle relief
Lo, that middle relief. We knew heading into the season that it was a potential problem, and unfortunately it's a BIG problem. The relievers have a 6.30 ERA, ranking them 24th in the majors. They've also walked 13 guys in 20 innings, which is unacceptable.

Remember in 2007 when the bullpen struggled early as Lou tried to figure out where each guy belonged? Well, with a lot of youngsters in the 'pen this year, perhaps some similar experimentation will be required. Whether he'll be able to create a reliable bridge to Carlos Marmol remains to be seen. While Esmailin Caridad has decent stuff, he can't control his slider at all right now and is trying to get by with only a fastball. I don't care if you throw 150 mph (he doesn't), that's not going to work.

Monday, April 12, 2010

New weekly awards

I introduce to you some weekly awards that I hope to continue to dole out as the season continues. First up is the Goat of the Week, to the player who most reflected the Cubs' generally miserable and accursed existence. There were many to choose from this week, but I'm going to go with Alfonso Soriano. Three hits in 21 at-bats, no walks, six strikeouts. He also made a pathetic effort on a foul ball in Sunday's game, and then dropped a ball that was right in his glove, leading eventually to two runs and a 3-1 loss. And while this Sori excuse for a left fielder was several feet from the wall when he dropped that fly ball, he had this to say: "At the last moment, I take my eyes off the ball and just think about the wall. ... I've got to have a little stop, because I don't want to go into the wall. If you go full speed into the wall, it can be dangerous." (From the Tribune) Oh. My. God. He's making $19 million and he's openly admitting that he's afraid to run into the wall. Go play cricket, Alfonso.

While Tyler Colvin hasn't proven much yet (other than the home run in his first at-bat, he's yet to get another hit), if he has success at the plate, Lou has to consider playing Colvin in left. I was hoping Soriano's poor defense last season was a result of his knee. But now it's clear that he's just a big pansy.

Dishonorable mentions: Geovany Soto, Ryan Theriot, Esmailin Caridad, John Grabow

On the positive side we have the Ryno of the Week*, which goes to the player who best exemplified the success and awesomeness of Ryne Sandberg. The Week 1 award goes to Carlos Silva (polite applause as Silva accepts the award ... Wait, no, don't eat the award, Carlos! Oh, dammit, he ate it.). Silva allowed a run just two batters into the game on Friday, but finished with six innings and just one run allowed. He also displayed one of his very un-Cub-like characteristics in his outing: efficiency. Silva pitches to contact, and did so exceptionally in his first start, needing only 71 pitches in those six innings. He was taken out of the game by Lou Piniella at that point, which absolutely enraged me. Seventy-one pitches? And then Lou went to his already overused bullpen?

But wait. According to Piniella, Silva had some shoulder stiffness which precipitated his removal. Silva says that wasn't the case, and that any discomfort he did have was a result of a play back in the 4th inning. Well, who knows, but I'm glad there was some reason Lou took him out. The way he was pitching, he may have been able to get a complete game victory in his first start with the Cubs. Who would have thought that possible one month ago when the Mariners' castaway allowed six runs in two innings in his first spring start? Who would have thought that an overweight man with an ERA over six the last two seasons, a man whom a wise friend of mine bet would not even make the Cubs' Opening Day roster, a man who once let a kitten die in his arms just to see what it would sound like (I admit that the last one is unsubstantiated) would be Week 1's Ryno of the Week (and he gets it partly because of the unexpected-ness of his success)? Keep it up, Carlos.

Honorable mentions: Carlos Marmol, Randy Wells, Kosuke Fukudome, Derrek Lee, Tom Gorzelanny

*There are three reasons I've named it thusly, all of them rather weak:

1) Ryno sounds like "rhino," which provides some animal symmetry to "goat." Goat of the Week, Rhino of the Week. Get it?
2) Ryne Sandberg was my childhood hero growing up, and of course his nickname was Ryno.
3) Sandberg is the manager for the Triple-A Iowa Cubs, and there's at least a decent chance he will become the next Cubs manager. This makes him relevant today, not just back in the 80s and 90s when I followed him as a player.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The name game, vol. 5 (last one, I promise)

J'Mison Morgan (UCLA)
Spelling it like that doesn't prevent us from figuring out that the name was generated after a night of drinking Jameson.

Aaric Murray (La Salle)
Really? If you like the double "a" that much, Mr. and Mrs. Murray, just go with Aaron.

Rihards Kuksiks (Arizona St.)

Think he might have to spell his name out every time he tells someone his name over the phone?

Tiny Gallon (Oklahoma)
You can't make this stuff up.

Bol Kong (Gonzaga)
About as unique as it gets. But not quite as unique as ...

Bak Bak (California)

Maybe this is where Chris Berman got his home run call?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

NCAA says f**k it, lets everyone into the tournament

From the Wait 'til this Year Humor Vault

INDIANAPOLIS--While it was known that the NCAA was considering expanding its postseason basketball tournament to 96 teams, Interim President James Isch surprised everyone by declaring that all 347 Division I teams will automatically make the tournament starting next year. "Sixty-four, 96, 128, they're all unfair because someone gets left out," Isch said. "It's time to establish a true champion by giving everyone a shot at the title." While details of the new-look tournament are still sketchy, sources say it is likely to begin in mid-March and finish in late June, and the tourney's unofficial moniker will change from March Madness to March Absurdity. ESPN announced that it will build a new studio big enough to house a bracket. Said Northwestern coach Bill Carmody, "This is the best day ever."

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The post where I complain about women's basketball, but not for the reasons I would have two or three years ago

UConn can't lose. Literally.
Getty Images

I enjoy a good game of women's basketball, but it's hard to get interested in the Division I version because of its absurd lack of parity.

Of course this is best illustrated by Connecticut's current 78-game winning streak, which includes back-to-back titles. But take a look at Sunday's Final Four matchups: Stanford was a 13.5-point favorite against Oklahoma, and UConn was a 25-point favorite against Baylor. As a fan, how are you supposed to get excited when a game that will decide one of the championship teams is expected to be won by slaughter rule? It's like the Yankees playing the Royals in the ALCS. It didn't get much better in the championship game: the Huskies were a 14.5-point favorite against fellow 1 seed Stanford.

And here's the other issue, perhaps the most important one: two teams--Connecticut and Tennessee--have won 15 of the 29 women's basketball championships. That's right, two teams have combined to cut down the nets in over half of the championship games ever played. UConn won the last two, and Tennessee went back-to-back before that. The Huskies won four of five titles and three in a row from 2000-2005, three of them over ... Tennessee. But Connecticut wasn't the first team to accomplish a three-peat: Tennessee did so in the mid-90s, right on the heels of a championship campaign for ... UConn. In case you lost track, that's 14 of the last 24 titles that went to one of those two teams.

And lest you think this is bound to happen due to a limited number of women's teams, there are over 330 women's teams compared to 347 men's teams. Not exactly a recipe for two-team domination.

In general, parity is a good thing in team sports--it's always good to know that you should expect a little bit of the unexpected. But in Division I women's basketball, you can expect the same thing to happen year in and year out.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Other (adorable) reasons Opening Day wasn't a complete loss

Brooklyn had never before taken a step on her own, but when Carlos Zambrano served up a three-run homer to Jason Heyward in the first inning, she could take it no more. She charged the television with such passion that even her grandma couldn't restrain her.
(Just kidding. But only about her having never taken a step before. She really was fed up with Zambrano.)

Jeff Samardzija's hold on a spot in the 'pen is tenuous at best. Look at that fastball! That's gotta be, what, two or three mph?

A terrible start

Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

That was almost the worst Opening Day ever. First, the Cardinals win big behind two home runs by King Albert and a grand slam by Yadier Molina. Um, Cardinals, can you not wait more than one freakin' day to have a multi-home run game and your team's first grand slam?

Then the Sox got seven shutout innings from Mark Buehrle to easily take down the Indians 6-0.

Okay, whatever, the bad teams won. But at 3:10 CST, it was time for all that really mattered. Okay, it's 3:10, here we go. And now it's 3:12, no Cubs game. 3:15. 3:20. With the Cubs game not broadcast locally (why on Earth did the Cubs give the all-important Opening Day game to WCIU? How is that possibly a reasonable decision?) and the Cardinals game running late, the Cubs game was blacked out on ESPN. An Opening Day nightmare. Finally, in the second inning, we've got a visual.

The Cubs already have three runs on the board. How'd that happen? It's a bird! It's a plane! No, it's ... well, yeah, it's a Byrd. Marlon Byrd with a three-run bomb, the second straight year a Cub has homered in the first inning of the season.

Oh, that's right: Braves get to bat, too. 6-3 by the end of the first. 8-3 after two. Zambrano out. What the hell happened here? I guess Big Z didn't want to waste any time reminding Cubs fans that he's never going to be the ace that some think he is. I know it's just one start, but 1.1 IP and 8 runs? Show me a true staff ace who got lit up like that at any point last season, let alone on Opening Day.

And to top it all off, Duke just barely kept Butler from pulling off a semi-Cinderella upset and becoming the first mid-major team to win a national title since 1966.

So how was this not the worst Opening Day ever? The final score of the basketball game netted me $300 on my "squares" pool. If Duke was going to win, that was definitely the way to do it.

The Cubs get a day off today, which, sadly enough, it looks like they could use. They'll come back with Ryan Dempster on Wednesday in an effort to get their first win and wipe from our memories the debacle that was Opening Day.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Happy Opening Day!


Friday, April 2, 2010

2010 MLB predictions

Outside of the Cardinals winning the NL Central, how will baseball's other five divisions pan out?

NL East

They won the division by six games last year, and added some guy named Roy Halladay this offseason. Scary good team.

NL West

Winners of the Wild Card last year, they have a ton of young talent such as Troy Tulowitzki, Dexter Fowler and Ian Stewart. Their rotation features Ubaldo Jimenez, Jeff Francis, Aaron Cook and Jorge De La Rosa. Closer Huston Street blew just two saves last year and had a .91 WHIP (though he will open the season on the DL). The Dodgers have Vicente Padilla and Ramon Ortiz at the back end of their rotation.

NL Wild Card

NL playoffs
Phillies over Rockies
Braves over Cardinals

Phillies over Braves (I really hope I'm wrong. I'm sick of the Phillies.)

AL Central
White Sox

Joe Nathan's injury kills the Twins. Buehrle and Peavy provide a nice 1-2 punch for the Sox, and they have a strong bullpen.

AL East

Added Granderson and return virtually the same rotation as last year's team that won 103 games.

AL West

Though I don't trust the back end of their rotation, Felix Hernandez and Cliff Lee are at the front. And the top of their lineup with Ichiro and newly added Chone Figgins should produce some run-scoring opportunities for the guys in the middle of the order. The Angels and Rangers won't let them run away with it, though.

AL Wild Card
Red Sox

AL playoffs
Yankees over White Sox
Red Sox over Mariners

Red Sox over Yankees

World Series
Phillies over Red Sox

Thursday, April 1, 2010

2010 Cubs season preview

Opening Day is now just days away. Not weeks, not months, but days. Four of them, to be exact.

So it's time to ask: What can we expect of the Cubs this season? They finished 83-78 last year, good for second place in the NL Central with 7.5 games separating them from the Cardinals. This year's team will return many of the veterans from last year, but we'll see a fair amount of young blood as well.

The Opening Day roster has 12 new faces compared to last year's starting squad. I said in last year's preview that the Cubs were in "win now" mode. If that was true, then they're in WINRIGHTNOW mode this year. They could potentially bid adieu to Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, Ted Lilly, Ryan Theriot, and manager Lou Piniella this coming offseason. But while the Cubs will be desperate to make a deep playoff run this year, they are far from the division favorites heading into the season.

Since it's impossible for anyone to truly predict what's going to happen, I'm going to share the optimistic and pessimistic views of the various aspects of the Cubs' roster; you can decide which argument you favor in each case.

Starting rotation
The Cubs let Rich Harden head to Texas, but return their top four starters from a year ago. Zambrano's 3.77 ERA was solid last year, and one would think he has almost no choice but to improve on his nine wins. Ted Lilly, who in many ways has been the true ace of the staff in his three years in Chicago, will hopefully have another solid campaign after he returns from arthroscopic shoulder surgery in mid- or late April.

Randy Wells is a HUGE X factor. After shocking the North Side by going 12-10 with a 3.05 ERA after being called up from the minors, one has to wonder if he will be able to repeat that success. He can look to someone like Kevin Tapani (12-8 with a 4.07 ERA in his rookie year; 16-9 with a 2.99 ERA the next year) for optimism. On the other hand, the number of surprising rookies who have struggled in the years following is high; Rick Sutcliffe is just one example.

Perhaps Ryan Dempster was a "contract year" case when he went 17-6 in 2008. Or, maybe his daughter's terrible illness truly affected his performance last season. It's impossible to know for sure. Still, his 200 IP and 3.64 ERA last year were solid.

And then there's the fifth starter. Having to type "Carlos Silva" and "Tom Gorzelanny" as the two players who are most likely to hold down the fifth spot (fourth and fifth spot until Lilly returns) doesn't exactly thrill me. But you'll recall that the Cubs began 2009 with Marshall as the fifth starter, and then Randy Wells came out of nowhere to become one of the Cubs' most consistent pitchers.

The optimist: The Cubs return their top four starters and can reasonably expect improvement from both Zambrano and Dempster. Their starters were fifth in the league in ERA last year, and there's no obvious reason that can't be repeated.

The pessimist: Lilly's out for a few weeks to start the year, meaning both Silva and Gorzelanny will get starts. Carlos Silva might be the Cubs' fifth starter in the long-term. Zambrano never seems to live up to his lofty potential. Can Lilly really continue to surpass his statistics with Toronto (he's had more wins every year with the Cubs than he had in any of his three years with the Blue Jays)? Carlos Silva might be the Cubs' fifth starter. And lastly, Carlos Silva might be the Cubs' fifth starter. (Okay, I have to be honest with you: I've been sucked into having a tiny little glimmer of hope about a Silva resurgence. He's had three double-digit win seasons in his career, he's changed his position in relation to the rubber, and his mom recently got a 10-year visa to come to the U.S. from Venezuela. What's being a Cubs fan without a bit of unjustified hope?)

Ugh. Sorry, that's just one final "ugh" from the offense's dismal performance last year. They went from 855 runs in 2008 (5.27 per game) to 707 in 2009 (4.39 per game). That's a 17 percent decrease! But the biggest change this year will be that it's finally out with the Soriano, in with the Theriot. That's right: the Cubs' offense will actually look like a standard major league offense for once (except that they have no speed at the top ... or anywhere, for that matter).

No wait, check that. The biggest change will hopefully be a healthy Ramirez for a full season. He missed half the season in 2009, which the rest of the offense clearly could not make up for.

Baseball Musings has the team's best potential performance at 5.03 runs per game (good) and their worst at 4.48 (below average). Rudy Jaramillo should help, though his past teams have not typically been huge into on-base percentage.

The optimist: It's essentially impossible for this universe to allow Soriano and Soto to have crap-ass performances like that again. And Marlon Byrd over Milton Bradley? Yes please. Plus a real leadoff man? This could be fun to watch.

The pessimist: Could the Cubs' core be any older? They might as well have Jamie Moyer batting cleanup. Don't expect a whole lot of stolen bases, and is Mike Fontenot really starting at second base again? Really?

The pessimist: The Cubs have several relievers who not only wouldn't be recognized at a bar, they probably wouldn't be recognized at a baseball convention. Justin Berg? Esmailin Caridad? James Russell? That sounds as unfamiliar to me as the cast of a 1940s movie.

And I would literally rather watch Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector on a loop for six straight months than watch Carlos Marmol close games for an entire season if he pitches anything like the first half of 2009. I fear that the Marmol as Closer Plan is going to be a complete and utter disaster. I sure hope I'm wrong, but can you name a solid closer in baseball who is as likely to hit or walk a batter as Marmol?

The optimist: Can the bullpen really be any worse than last year? They were 20th in the league in ERA and they blew 18 saves. No more Kevin Gregg. Oh, and no more Aaron Heilman!

And as far as all those no-names: the world champion Yankees had David Robertson, Alfredo Aceves and Brian Bruney as key parts of their 'pen last year.

Only Koyie Hill returns from last year. In place of Reed Johnson and Joey Gathright, we have Xavier Nady and Tyler Colvin (L). And instead of Aaron Miles and Micah Hoffpauir, the Cubs will have Jeff Baker and Chad Tracy (L). There would seem to be little doubt that this year's bench is an improvement over last year's, given that Miles was a Grade A suckball and Joey Gathright brought nothing to the table.

The optimist: Nady is just two years removed from a 20 HR, 72 RBI season with the Pirates. Tyler Colvin didn't come out of nowhere--he was the 13th overall pick in 2006. My point is, he's supposed to be good. Tracy can backup both Lee and Ramirez and had a .308 average with 27 HR and 72 RBI in 2005 with Arizona. Hill's a switch hitter, meaning the Cubs have nice lefty/righty balance off the bench.

The pessimist: Colvin had a torrid spring, but is it the Hoffpauir syndrome? Can he actually hit in the majors, especially off the bench? Despite his amazing spring stats, he has not walked once. Nady's coming off of two Tommy John surgeries, and can't even throw it to home plate from the outfield. There's a reason the Diamondbacks let Tracy go. Could it beeeeee ... the fact that he hit fewer home runs the last three seasons combined than he did in 2005? (Isn't that special.) And is Fontenot really the only backup for Theriot at short?

The optimist: Soriano should be better given the health of his knee. Byrd is better than Fukudome in center, and Fukudome is better than Bradley in right. The Cubs also have Gold Glove-level players at both corner infield positions.

The pessimist: Who are we kidding, Soriano's a big ball of awful in left. Byrd and Fukudome are solid, but nothing special. Nady played a minor league game recently and was not allowed to throw past the cutoff man. Theriot needs a cutoff man to throw from short to first.

You already saw my prediction of 86 wins yesterday, but here's why: I think the offense has to be better than last year. Unfortunately, I think the bullpen could be just as bad if not worse. And with Zambrano, Lilly, Dempster and Wells, I think the Cubs should have a formidable rotation that will give them a chance to win on most days. But it's hard for me to envision them being at the top of the NL Central, let alone the National League. I think they can be in the hunt for a Wild Card spot, but in the end, I see them falling short. (For those who know me well, you know that a) it was nearly impossible for me to bring myself to predict that the Cubs will not finish first, and b) I want nothing more than to be wrong.)

But predictions mean nothing--it's time to play the games!