Thursday, April 20, 2006

the smile of dame fortune

with the chicago cubs' record now run out to a heady 9-5 -- the best start for the club since 1995 -- dame fortune's smile has seemed to shine unremittingly upon the team's ventures. they lead the national league in batting with runners in scoring position, making the most of an offense that is otherwise mired in 14th in total bases. they've been the beneficiary of an amazing 17 opposition errors. a pitching staff beset with spot starters and rookies, nervously awaiting medical remediation, has managed nonetheless to place 4th in starting era over the early going. and the core of the relief corps, despite being roughly worked by a starting staff managing just 5.6 innings per game -- particularly closer ryan dempster, who has now appeared in 9 of the team's 14 games, including five non-save situations -- has simply sparkled, with dempster, bob howry, scott williamson and scott eyre all placing in the top 50 in obpa.

even the unknown quantities have largely broken the cubs way. ronny cedeno, despite often displaying critical shortcomings, has managed to slap his way to a .396 obp through these first fourteen games. matt murton, while looking a far more solid player both at the plate and in the field, has simmered to a 280/345/480 line, knocking in nine mostly from the seventh spot in the lineup. and rookie starter sean marshall, while being one of the team's least effective starters, has seen the team nonetheless win all three of his appearances.

and yet, last night illustrated in many ways the lurking problems of this club of which chance has thusfar held the cubs unaccountable. marshall very nearly left in the second inning, having allowed three walks and two hits and two runs through 1.2 ip, watching furcal lead off first following a walk which concluded with marshall's 42nd pitch. that marshall survived the second to compose himself for another three innings is testament to his toughness, but he remains nonetheless -- much like his mates glendon rusch and jerome williams -- inconsistent at best and barely capable of pitching into the sixth, much less out of it. cedeno, despite some very positive offensive contributions, managed once again to try to throw the game away late. the bullpen which has heretofore all but levitated through late innings finally cracked just a bit, with callup david aardsma, eyre, williamson, howry and dempster combining to allow nine batters to reach base over four innings, luckily escaping with just two runs allowed -- in part thanks to what will likely be jacque jones' best throw of the season, nailing the ageless sandy alomar jr. at the plate to kill the dodger sixth.

(and let me take a moment to note how clearly sending a 40-year-old catcher in to score from second on a ball to shallow right indicates the league's level of respect for jacque's arm. alomar was out by ten feet -- but the dodgers were clearly betting that jones couldn't get the ball within ten feet of the plate. that's generally a good bet.)

given what seems to him the fragility of the cubs' success thusfar, this writer roused with a start in the dodger seventh at what appeared to be dame fortune calling in some of her chits. leadoff batter rafael furcal, bunting for a hit to open the inning, forced a diving play out of eyre, who flipped the ball out of his glove toward derrek lee as he covered the bag. the throw led lee straight into furcal's path, and the collision sent lee to his knees, clutching his right (throwing) wrist. both he and eyre left the game; eyre is day-to-day with a knee bruised on the landing. but lee's x-rays were ominously inconclusive, and he returns to chicago today for the most anticipated mri on the north side since mark prior's.

whether this bodes a turn of luck remains to be seen, but lee is sure to be spelled at first by todd walker and john mabry for the time being. the schedule finally skips a beat today, with the cardinals in saint louis lined up for friday -- but one almost wishes it didn't, in the hopes of rushing past the capricious glare of lady luck, eyes affixed to the pavement so as to ignore her face, be it a steady smile or the curling corners of a nascent frown.

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