Sunday, April 3, 2011

Thank God For The Cubs

That the Bucs are very much a work in progress is obvious; the only thing they do consistently is play inconsistently. But they are trying to get it down pat. You can see flashes of it on the field. But hey, before the critique, let's enjoy today's show, a come-from-behind 5-4 Pirate win.

The Bucs jumped ahead 2-0 after Pedro scored in the second on Ronny Cedeno's knock into right and Pedro singled home Jose Tabata in the third. Ohlie was cruisin' through the first three, needing just 31 tosses and holding Chicago to a hit.

Then in the fourth, the Cubs started off with four straight hits off Ohlendorf, one nearly leaving the yard, to tie things at 2-2. But with runners on second and third with no outs, he got the next three batters quietly, without allowing another Cubbie to plate. The Bucs regained the lead in the fifth when Lyle Overbay rolled a single to left to bring in Tabata, who had a three hit day.

The Cubs tied it again in their half of the frame when Darwin Barney hit a sac fly to score Starlin Castro, who led off the inning with a three-bagger. Alphonso Soriano went deep in the sixth, and the Windy City crew was up by a 4-3 count.

Ohlie went six innings, gave up four runs on eight hits and four walks while whiffing three. He threw 92 pitches, and his fastball command was a no-show; he was up and over the plate way too often. But it was better than any of his spring outings, so today will be something he can build on, warts and all.

Mike Crotta got his first taste of the bigs as Ohlie's caddy in the seventh, with his mom and dad from Florida in the stands. It was a nice, clean 1-2-3 inning; he even collected his first K and a trophy ball. The Bucs tried to give him a shot at the win in the eighth, but fell short.

Jason Jaramillo and Cedeno led off with singles; Johnny Bowker pinch-hit and got JJ to third. And where exactly was Jaramillo's pinch runner? Well, probably at Indy. Either Clint Hurdle didn't want to use his extra catcher or decided that JJ was as fast as his possible replacements, Dewey, Steve Pearce and Josh Rodriguez, so what would be the point?

The decision would come into play when Tabata lifted a lazy fly down the right field line. Tyler Colvin threw a one hop strike home, and the tagging Jaramillo was out by a step. Jeff Karstens kept the game in hand with a perfect eighth, and the Pirates were down to their final three outs.

Carlos Marmol, who mowed down the side yesterday, took the hill. Garrett Jones drew a 3-2 walk to start the frame, and Neil Walker spanked a single to right to get things rolling. Then Overbay - the cleanup hitter, holy JR! - laid down a perfect bunt to third to move the runners up and set the stage for Pedro, as good an RBI machine as Pittsburgh has.

Alvarez will probably tell his grandkids that he blasted a rope off the wall to win the game, but in fact he rolled a bleeder past the mound. It went all of 75 feet, squibbed far enough to score Jones easily with the infield at DP depth. Castro made an off line throw to first; Carlos Pena blocked it and came up firing. But the Pittsburgh Kid had kept on a rollin', and his hard slide under the high throw beat the rap to give Pittsburgh the lead.

Give both Walker and third base coach Nick Leyva big props for the hustle run; Walker didn't ho-hum the play and Leyva wasn't gun shy about waving the windmill even after losing JJ the inning prior. The result was two runs on a ball that never reached the infield dirt.

The excitement wasn't quite over. Josh Hanrahan came on, and K'ed the first Cubby he saw. But Castro singled - he had three knocks during the afternoon, including two triples - and the drama deepened when Cedeno threw Barney's hopper into right to put runners on the corners.

Hanny didn't try to overpitch his way out of the jam. He got the next hitter, Marlin Byrd, to roll one to Cedeno, just as the baseball gods would draw it up. This time, he fed second in text-book fashion, and Walker's turn was just good enough to edge Byrd at first for the game-ending 6-4-3 DP.

Now about those inconsistencies. The Bucs had sixteen knocks, all singles, and stranded ten runners (two DPs, a caught stealing, and the throw-out at home didn't help). This points out the two areas that Hurdle and his staff are trying to address, plate mentality and aggressive base running.

There were a couple of balls that were bopped into right that begged for the runner at first to sail into third; it didn't happen. The Bucs were station-to-station mode today.

That probably has less to do with Leyva in the third base box than with balls hit behind the runners; they still hesitate, leaving Nick no choice but to keep them safely stashed at second. Add in the fact that except for McCutch, Tabata and Cedeno none of the guys have plus speed, and its not an ideal teaching situation.

It's not to say they aren't trying; guys on first and second tagged up successfully on a long fly today, and the winning run was scored on a hell-for-leather sprint, so the concept is in their minds; it's just getting the theory to translate into reality that will be the trick.

The batting mentality, from what we've heard from Hurdle, is to go after strikes rather than obsess over going deep into counts, a turnaround from the JR philosophy. Today, they were aggressive at the dish early and late in the game, but in between, there were an awful lot of 0-2, 1-2 counts on Pittsburgh hitters.

Heck, 13 Bucs struck out; Matt Garza set his personal high with a dozen K's in seven frames today. So we'll see if Hurdle and Gregg Ritchie can turn that around.

But hey, it's early. Even though the Cubbies were Pittsburgh's personal punching bags last season, let's enjoy the start. They even took a road series; they had lost the last eight in 2010. Laissez les bons temps rouler.

-- To illustrate that a new brand of leadership is in town, Hurdle argued a call at first to protect first base coach Luis Silverio even though the replay showed the man in blue was right. He even went out to chat with the umps earlier in the game to discuss a beer that got dumped on Garrett Jones as he tried to make a catch (The Cub fan not only lost his suds, but his seat - he was relocated). In three games, it seems like he's already exceeded JR's trips between the lines during all of last season.

-- McCutch ended up sitting out today with a sore neck; after being penciled into the lineup, he was pulled after looking uncomfortable during BP.

-- Neil Walker has a twelve game hitting streak against the Cubs, and that's not even team-high. McCutch has an 18-game on-base streak against Chi-Town.

-- Hanny had a bad spring and was only 6-for-10 in 2010 save conversions, but he's 2-for-2 so far. Guess that shows how much camp is worth as an omen of the upcoming season.

-- The Pirates won four road series in 2010. Two of those were at Wrigley Field.

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