Writing About the Chicago Cubs and Looking at the Team’s Past
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The ups and downs continue for a Cubs team that now sits at 10-13, good for fourth place in the NL Central after dropping their third consecutive game yesterday at Wrigley Field. After winning four in a row to climb back to .500, this team looked like it was ready to get on a hot streak. The bats had awoken, complimenting a starting five that has been as good as any in the league. But that glimpse of what this team is capable of offensively ended abruptly as they have posted just eight runs over the last three games.
The Cubs have won just two series so far and they both came against the same opponent, the Milwaukee Brewers. They are 5-1 against the Brewers which includes a sweep last weekend at Miller Park where the Cubs made the Brewers look like a Triple-A team. For reasons unknown to this writer, the team seems to bring its “A” game against Milwaukee, and the Cubs “A” game is good, very good actually.
The statistics do not tell the story for this team. When scanning over the batting averages and other offensive numbers, they appear to be quite good, with the exception of Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez who have struggled mightily in the month of April. However, these numbers are skewed and are not as impressive as they appear to be. This lineup can explode for ten runs on any given day; however it always seems to be followed up by the bats going silent for the next three days. There have been numerous offensive outbursts but no consistency from this big name lineup that is capable of more. I don’t think anybody would have believed you if you told them the Cubs five current starters would have an ERA of 2.87 and the team would be three games under .500 on the last day of April. However, that is the case for this team as they continue to try to get each unit playing well at the same time. That is something that Cub fans have not seen much of dating back to the beginning of last season.
The Cubs look to end the losing streak and start a winning one today as they will host the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Three days, three dominating performances by the Cubs against Milwaukee this weekend. The Cubs went into this series as losers of five of their previous six games; however they leave it on a three game winning streak.
Ryan Dempster, Ted Lilly (first start off DL), and Randy Wells were all tremendous in shutting down the high powered Brewers offense that put a 20 spot on the Pirates earlier in the week. Each pitcher, even Lilly who was on a tight pitch count, was able to get through at least six innings. In today’s game where bullpens frequently get overused and worn down, starting pitchers that can get deep into games are invaluable. The Cubs have numerous pitchers that are doing this right now, and it was certainly on display over the weekend.
The major difference though between these three games and many of the others this season was the hitting. There were contributions from all over the lineup as they racked up 41 hits and 25 runs during the series. Ryan Theriot came alive with five hits today raising his season average up to .329. Tyler Colvin and Kosuke Fukudome each had three hit games including a homerun by each player.
The Cubs (9-10) will return to Chicago tomorrow, back into the comfort of the friendly confines for a three game series with the Washington Nationals (10-9.) The Nationals are off to their best start in forever and appear to be greatly improved from a year ago. Washington is coming off taking two out of three from the Dodgers over the weekend. Here are the probables for the series:
Game 1: John Lannen LHP (1-1, 5.82) vs. Carlos Silva RHP (2-0, 0.95)
Game 2: Livan Hernandez RHP (2-1, 0.75) vs. Tom Gorzelanny (0-2, 2.40)
Game 3: TBA vs. Ryan Dempster (2-0, 2.60)
It should be an interesting week as we get to see the Carlos Zambrano experiment begin to unfold.
Lou Piniella certainly shook things up on Wednesday sending Carlos Zambrano to the bullpen instead of Carlos Silva or Tom Gorzelanny. After week long discussions between Cubs management, Lou Piniella, and pitching coach Larry Rothschild, they came to the decision that Zambrano has the type of mentality to be successful pitching out of the pen. Looking at the situation now it seems as though it came down to Silva and Zambrano, and that Gorzelanny was never a candidate because he has never pitched out of the bullpen before.
This appears to be a desperate move by a team looking for a quick fix. Immediately following the decision, Zambrano stated that he does not want to pitch out of the bullpen, but he will do whatever it takes to help the team win. That sounds good right now, but what will be going through Big Z’s head if he gets off to a bad start pitching out of the bullpen. Based on his past, does he seem like the type of guy that will handle this situation smoothly? Obviously he has great stuff and should be the type of pitcher that excels in a setup role. You just have to wonder if his heart is going to be in it after being the ace of the pitching staff since the exits of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood.
The Cubs fell to the Mets yesterday 5-2, dropping to 6-10 on the season. It was another tough road series for the Cubs who lost three out four to the Mets and now own a 3-7 record when playing away from Wrigley Field. Now, the Cubs will go on the road again as they get ready for a three game set with the Milwaukee Brewers. After this series, the Cubs will get a nice home stand against Washington and Arizona so getting a game or two in Milwaukee would set them up well heading into next week.
There are several reasons for the Cubs’ current three game slide, losing again last night 6-1 to the Mets, but the biggest one may be hitting with runners in scoring position. Over the last three games the Cubs are just 4-24, good for a .167 average. The offense has been an issue throughout April scoring four runs or fewer in 8 of 13 games. They have won just two of those games. Then you combine that with a bullpen that has been extremely erratic and it is easy to see why the team is 5-8. The starting pitching has been tremendous, certainly better than it should be for a team that has struggled to win games. Cub starters have accounted for just two of the losses so far, the other six are on the bullpen. This is also why six games have been decided by just one run already. In these games the Cubs are 2-4.
I try not to read too much into what happens during the first month of a long season, however it is possible to spot some trends early on that can hint at what will happen later. The struggles with runners in scoring position are usually mental and can last throughout the course of a season. The Ricketts family has already stated that they are willing to spend big money to get this team to a World Series, but it is going to take more than just spending money to contend.
Ted Lilly looks ready to make his debut this weekend after a strong rehab start for Class A Peoria Monday night. Lilly went seven innings allowing one run on three hits and striking out nine. The left-hander threw 88 pitches on the night, 63 of them for strikes. Later this week I will discuss the upcoming decision for Lou Piniella as he decides which starter will move to the bullpen to clear a spot for Lilly.
The Cubs look to even up the series tonight as Carlos Zambrano (1-1, 9.45) will take on Mike Pelfrey (2-0, 1.29.)
Everything was looking good for the Cubs headed into the ninth inning this afternoon in the finale of a three game set with the Houston Astros. Dempster had been outstanding going 7 2/3 innings and allowing just one run outdueling Wandy Rodriguez who also pitched very well for Houston. Carlos Marmol, who has been dominant here in the opening weeks of the season, was getting set to take the mound. In addition to this, today was one of those days where the wind was just howling in making it extremely difficult to hit a home run. The Astros needed to find a way to put together a rally against Marmol.
Unfortunately for the Cubs the Astros did find a way to do it tying the game in the ninth before scoring one in the tenth off of Sean Marshall to win the game 3-2. It really is an impressive win by the Astros, finding a way to get it done against three extremely tough pitchers on a great pitcher’s day. This is kind of the way things have been breaking early on this season for the Cubs. They have played in numerous close games and have not been on the winning side very often. One element be it the hitting, the defense, the pitching seem to be off each game. This certainly appears to be a team searching for confidence and an identity. There are a lot of good players on this team, but without chemistry and confidence the results are likely to be similar to those from a year ago.
The Cubs will travel to New York tomorrow to kick off a four game series with the Mets. Here are the probables for each game:
Monday: Randy Wells RHP (1-0, 2.92) vs. Jon Niese LHP (0-1, 6.55)
Tuesday: Carlos Zambrano RHP (1-1, 9.45) vs. Mike Pelfrey RHP (2-0, 1.29)
Wednesday: Carlos Silva RHP (1-0, 0.69) vs. Oliver Perez LHP (0-1, 3.75)
Thursday: Tom Gorzelanny LHP (0-1, 1.93) vs. TBA
A couple of other quick notes, Ted Lilly will make one more rehab start on Monday before making his season debut on Saturday against Milwaukee. Piniella will have some decisions to make regarding which starter loses his spot to Lilly. It likely comes down to Carlos Silva and Tom Gorzelanny, both of which have looked impressive early on. Also, Soriano is officially retiring that ridiculous hop that he used to do after catching the third out of an inning. That maneuver caused him to drop a fly ball on Saturday, something that major league outfielders simply should not do. There is no reason to take an easy play and make it challenging because a player insists on jumping as he catches the ball. At least we have seen the last of it (at least I hope so.)
The Astros took game two of the series yesterday winning by a score of 4-3. Roy Oswalt looked like the Roy Oswalt of old as he dominated Cubs hitters by mixing his high 90’s fastball with his power curve. He is the type of pitcher that when he is on there not much that hitters can do, his stuff is just too good. The big news for the Cubs though was the injury to Tom Gorzelanny. The left-hander was forced to leave the game just one batter into the fourth inning after getting struck in the shoulder by a line drive. Despite having to leave the game the injury does not appear to be serious. It is unclear whether or not Gorzelanny will miss any time.
Alfonso Soriano committed another error yesterday, already his third of the season. That is a number that is just unacceptable especially at this point in the season for an outfielder. Lou Piniella has already shown his displeasure in the outfielders play when he stared him down after he dropped a fly ball last week. However, he has been swinging the bat better recently. He had two hits including a clutch RBI double during the Cubs eighth inning rally that came up just short. Soriano is now hitting .286 for the season which is a good sign for a player that normally gets off to slow starts.
The bullpen was solid yesterday going six innings and allowing just two runs giving the team a chance to win the game. The new and improved Sean Marshall was dominant again striking out all three batters he faced.
The rubber game of this series is at 2:20 today. It appears to be a favorable pitching matchup for the Cubs as they send Ryan Dempster to the mound against Wandy Rodriguez. The Cubs are looking to get back to .500 before heading to New York to take on the Mets tomorrow.
Despite hitting three homeruns, the Cubs were unable to complete the sweep yesterday against the Milwaukee Brewers falling by a score of 8-6. Jeff Suppan, the quintessential journeyman/innings eater started the game against Carlos Zambrano. Both pitchers struggled, each lasting just five innings and allowing four runs apiece although one of Zambrano’s was unearned (Cubs committed three errors.) It has been a rocky start for Zambrano who piled up 121 pitches in the five innings he pitched. He has shown some signs of rounding into form though in both yesterday’s game, and in his previous start against Cincinnati. Zambrano has been far more aggressive attacking the strike zone and simply hitting his spots. Nevertheless, he just does not seem to be able to dominate hitters the way he did just a couple years ago. He certainly is still capable of turning in a solid season, but with the Cubs giving him nearly $19 million this season it is unlikely he meets those expectations.
Carlos Zambrano ERA 2006-2010:
2010: 9.45 (3 starts)
Are these good numbers for a major league starting pitcher? The answer to that is yes they are solid numbers, but not the numbers you would expect from a guy that commands the kind of money and attention that Zambrano does. It is also interesting to look at the top two highest paid players on the Cubs roster. Carlos Zambrano is making $18.75 million per year and Alfonso Soriano is receiving $17 million. There are about 5-6 guys on the team that are far more valuable than those two.
The Cubs are looking to get back to the .500 mark this afternoon as they will take on the Houston Astros who enter this series at just 1-8. Felipe Paulino (0-0 7.20) will take on Carlos Silva (0-0 1.50) who had an outstanding start last week in his Cubs debut.
The home opener had just about everything a Cub fan could ask for. The bats caught fire, Ryan Dempster was good enough, the bullpen was lights out, and most importantly the Cubs won the game 9-5.
A few quick notes from today:
Marlon Byrd went 3-5 with a double and an RBI in his Cubs home debut.
With today’s win, Ryan Dempster is now 12-3 lifetime against the Milwaukee Brewers
The bullpen pitched 2 2/3 innings allowing just one hit and no runs.
Ted Lilly threw in the bullpen today and is hoping to make a rehab start on Wednesday for Triple-A Iowa. He is hoping to return to the team later this month.
Doug Davis is the modern day version of Steve Trachsel. He is the slowest working pitcher in today’s game and it’s not even close. I remember being at a Cubs game years ago where Trachsel was pitching, and despite a lopsided score in favor of Chicago the fans booed him vigorously due to his snail-like pace. Watching Davis today brought back some of those fond memories.
Finally, Wayne Messmer is still the best. The Yankees can have Ronan Tynan, I’ll take Messmer. When you hear Wayne Messmer, you think Chicago Cubs baseball.
The Cubs will get tomorrow off before sending Randy Wells to the mound on Wednesday against Dave Bush.
When the schedule was first released, Lou Piniella knew that it was possible for his team to get off to a slow start. With back-to-back series on the road against vastly improved teams in Atlanta and Cincinnati followed by a visit from the Milwaukee Brewers, the Cubs had one of the toughest opening stretches in the league. Those fears have become a reality as the Cubs stumbled through the opening week with a 2-4 record.
The two major culprits have been a general lack of hitting, as well as issues in the backend of the bullpen. Through one week of action, the Cubs are last in the NL in batting average (.204) and second to last in the major leagues with only the rival White Sox having a lower average (.186.) Every position player who is a regular starter is batting under .200 with the exception of Fukudome, Lee, and Fontenot. This lack of offense combined with a struggling bullpen is a sure recipe for late inning losses. It does not matter how good the starting pitching is if you don’t have what it takes to finish games. Both John Grabow and Esmailin Caridad, two guys that the Cubs are counting on to hold down the back of the bullpen are off to conspicuous starts.
With the struggles of these two units, some questionable managerial decisions, (taking Sean Marshall out a game twice only to see his replacement give away the lead both times) and some very untimely defense (looking at you Soriano…) it has been a tough opening week. However, the team will now return to Chicago for their home opener against the Milwaukee Brewers. The three game series will run through Thursday before the currently winless Houston Astros come to town for a three game set. It should be an interesting week as the Cubs try to avoid putting themselves in an early hole in the divisional race.
Saturday was a good day for the Cubs as they were able to sneak past the Cincinnati Reds 4-3 at Great American Ballpark. Three home runs produced all of the offense including the eventual winning blast off the bat of Jeff Baker in the eighth inning. While it’s good to take advantage of the power in your lineup, the Cubs have been taking it to the extreme here in the opening week. The Cubs have managed to score 22 runs thus far and 13 of those have involved the long ball. Too much reliance on the home run can be an issue for teams as the season wears on. These teams generally lack consistent scoring because you just cannot expect to hit multiple home runs each night. This is certainly something to watch for moving forward.
Carlos Zambrano delivered a nice bounce back performance on Saturday afternoon, certainly one he needed to have. He lasted seven innings and allowed three runs while striking out nine Reds hitters. He started slow again in this one allowing Brandon Phillips to take him deep, which gave Cincinnati a 3-0 lead going into the fourth inning. Then, for the first time this season we saw the overpowering and dominant version of Big Z. He attacked the strike zone and shut out the Reds through the seventh inning before giving way to John Grabow and Carlos Marmol who finished things up.
Well pitched game by the Cubs, with Zambrano stirring up some memories of years past and Carlos Marmol looking like the closer everybody thought he would be last season. However, with him not being quite ready for the position last year, Cubs fans were forced to traverse through the Kevin Gregg era. It was rather rocky from start to finish. Marmol certainly looks ready now as he set down all three batters in order, striking out all three, to end yesterday’s game.
Today, the Cubs look to break even on opening week as Tom Gorzelanny makes his season debut against Mike Leake, making his career debut for the Reds.
Well, that didn’t go as planned. It was looking good early for the Cubs on opening day as Marlon Byrd hit a three run homer off Derek Lowe in his first at bat as a Chicago Cub. However, Carlos Zambrano gave that lead away in a hurry and then some as Atlanta responded with six runs of their own in the bottom of the first. Things just kept getting worse for the Cubs as Zambrano continued to meltdown and was pulled in the second inning.
1.1 IP, 6 H, 8 ER, 2 BB. Not good. Certainly not the performance Lou Piniella was looking for from his unpredictable ace. Zambrano is being relied on to lead the pitching staff this season and he simply just needs to be better if the Cubs want to contend. Hopefully we’ll be able to look back on this and just chalk it up to opening day jitters.
The bullpen did not provide much relief either as they surrendered eight more runs in a game the Cubs eventually lost 16-5. Credit Atlanta for taking advantage of their opportunities, but Cub pitchers issued 8 walks in this one which usually means big trouble. This was surprising to because Piniella had complimented his pitching staff on their control during spring training.
The good: Marlon Byrd is already a more valuable member of the team than Milton Bradley, the man he replaced, ever was. Also, Sean Marshall was tremendous in relief of Zambrano striking out five in just 2 2/3 innings while setting down all eight batters he faced. His curveball was deadly and had the Braves hitters looking lost. James Russell was also impressive in his major league debut throwing two scoreless innings.
The bad: Carlos Zambrano and the bullpen. The Cubs need consistency from their ace and this was not a good start. Concerning the bullpen, they were put in a bad spot due to Zambrano’s early exit, but the Cubs are looking for Jeff Samardzija to be a contributor this year. However, he was plagued by the same issues today that he faced last season, mainly control as he walked the first three batters he faced.
It’s generally wise not to read too much into one game in baseball as there are still 161 more games to be played. This team has a potent lineup and a pitching staff capable enough to make them a contender deep into the season. We will certainly find out much more about this team over the next few weeks.
The series will resume on Wednesday when Ryan Dempster faces off against Jair Jurrjens.
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