Wednesday, April 12, 2006

winning ugly

today's game began under very similar conditions to those of yesterday's, with unusually warm april temperatures and a 20-mile-an-hour wind howling out to right field. but what seemed a great day to score a packet of runs with the long ball became a very different kind of game in the early going for two reasons.

one was greg maddux, who located brilliantly, keeping the ball low and holding cincinnati to one run and three hits through his standard six-inning, 86-pitch affair. still, no cub starter has worked deeper than six and a third this season.

the other was the cub lineup, who -- without the injured aramis ramirez or jacque jones, and mysteriously missing todd walker despite a career line of 4-for-8 against reds lefty starter brandon claussen -- looked a pale shadow of their opening day selves, with hairston hitting second, pagan fifth and neifi seventh.

astutely believing power to be unlikely even in a gale from this assembly, dusty baker set about the running game. a juan pierre and derrek lee double steal forced an unearned run in the first, which was followed by a michael barrett sac fly to make the game 2-0; and the same double steal was repeated in the third.

but to call this game uglier than even yesterday's debacle is no exaggeration -- five reds errors in the first three innings helped the cubs to a 3-0 lead with barrett on first and lee on third with one away in the third. but there the northsiders set about handing opportunities back. following a angel pagan strikeout, barrett got caught leaning off first by claussen and started a rundown which lee misjudged terribly, ending the inning by being tagged out by a wide margin at the plate.

the cubs then further squandered the fourth. following a leadoff single by murton, dusty baker failed to employ neifi perez to sacrifice, instead allowing neifi to harmlessly fly out. the remainder of the inning was dispatched by the horrid baserunning of matt murton -- who, having moved up on a passed ball, got caught off second on a ronny cedeno comebacker to the pitcher to be run down -- and cedeno, who failed to either get to second in the rundown or stay near first, offering themselves into one of the more brutal inning-ending double plays that you, dear reader, might see or hear of in the majors this year. lee was caught stealing again in the seventh with one away after doubling off the ivy on what might have been a missed sign, removing an rbi chance for the red-hot barrett.

scott eyre relieved maddux and displayed again that the cubs may have a very different role in mind for the lefty reliever than he has been accustomed to in recent seasons. eyre had been used over the last two years as a specialist that averaged two-thirds of an inning for every appearance -- short bursts focused on advantageous matchups. this year, however, baker let eyre run two full innings on april 3 in cincinnati -- and did so again for the seventh and eighth. eyre has thusfar been up to the job, allowing a hit and a walk today, but one wonders what consequences may come of this new usage of a pitcher with a three-year split advocating careful use against righthanders.

dempster came on in the ninth to secure a 4-1 cubs lead for his second save in five appearances, but managed to walk scott hatteberg and run the count full on austin kearns in so doing. control continues to be dempster's major issue, with three walks in his five innings, but it will be hard to argue and pleasing to watch for so long as dempster continues to shut the door.

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