Cubs Clutch Hitting Gets Lost in the Translation
Prepping for the first game of 2nd Round WBC play in San Diego on Sunday, Team Japan edged the Chicago Cubs 3-2 at Dwight Patterson Field at HoHoKam Park on a cool & breezy Thursday afternoon in Mesa, AZ.
Only 6,591 fans attended the game, but it was one of the best Spring Training games I've seen in a while. There were several fine defensive plays by both teams, and Team Japan put on a clinic in the finer points of baseball fundamentals.
Carlos Zambrano got the start for the Cubs, and I guess for him it was almost like pitching in the WBC. Except instead of wearing a Team Venezuela jersey, he was clad in familiar Cubbie pinstripes.
Facing essentially a major league lineup of Japanese players that included the likes of Ichiro Suzuki, Kosuke Fukudome, Kenji Johjima, and Akinori Iwamura, Zambrano retired the first six hitters in a row on just 18 pitches (combined) over the first two innings.
But "Z" hit a bump in the road in the 3rd, laboring through the inning while throwing 27 pitches. The big right-hander allowed two runs (one earned) in the inning, on a lead-off single by Johjima, a one-out RBI triple by Munenori Kawasaki, and a walk to Ichiro. (The second run scored when Paul Bako got out of his crouch too early on a "safety-squeeze" bunt attempt by Yasuyuki Kataoka, as the ball glanced off Bako's glove and rolled back to the screen behind home plate). Zambrano averted further trouble by sucking it up and getting Kataoka on an infield pop up and striking out Norichika Aoki.
"Z" gave up a one-out double in the 4th to Michihiro Ogasawara, but retired Fukudome on an F-8 (runner took 3rd) and Johjima on a 6-3 GO to complete his work for the day.
Zambrano's final line showed 4.0 IP, 3 H, 2 R (1 ER), 1 BB, and 2 K, 60 pitches (40 strikes), 3/7 GO/FO.
The Cubs threatened to score in the bottom of the 2nd against Team Japan starter Yu Darvish, loading the bases on consecutive one-out singles to the outfield by Mike Fontenot and Reed Johnson and a walk to Paul Bako. But Zambrano (who was apparently allowed to be his own DH today) and Alfonso Soriano struck out swinging to end the threat.
The Cubs did plate a run in the 4th off Satoshi Komatsu, however, as Fontenot singled again, and advanced to second on a WP, before scoring on an RBI single to CF by Bako. But Tetsuya Yamaguchi was brought into the gamre in relief of Komatsu, and struck out Zambrano swinging (again) and induced Soriano to bounce into a FC to end the inning.
With the Cubs now down 2-1, Kevin Gregg pitched the top of the 5th, and had an easy 1-2-3 inning, getting two routine fly outs and a 4-3 GO on just 13 pitches (eight strikes). Gregg really doesn't like to mess around, and while his stuff is by no means "Marmol Electric," he does throw strikes, sort of like the 2007 version of Bob Howry.
Rule 5 RHP David Patton worked the 6th, and had his worst outing of the Spring, allowing one run on one hit, two walks, and no strikeouts, while throwing 25 pitches (only 11 strikes). He got the first two hitters out easily on just 10 pitches (although one of the outs required a diving catch by RF Doug Deeds), but then he had a complete control meltdown, throwing eight consecutive balls and walking two hitters in a row, before grooving a two out fastball to Kosuke Fukudome that resulted in a line-drive RBI single to left-center.
As a Rule 5 pick, Patton will certainly get more leeway to fail than the average rookie pitcher in big league camp, but that doesn't mean he can afford another outing like the one he had today. His roster spot is not guaranteed.
The one thing that stood out about Patton in his previous outings was his ability to throw strikes and his poise. I doubt very much that Patton's sudden loss of control could have made Uncle Lou very happy. Patton looked like a real "A"-baller today, digging himself deeper and deeper into a hole as the inning progressed.
Angel Guzman threw the 7th inning, and had a decent outing. He pitched around a lead-off bloop single to left that fell in front of So Taguchi (who must have been playing LF in the parking lot behind the scoreboard) followed by a stolen base (Gooz just wasn't paying attention to the runner), but he followed that with a strikeout (swinging) and two infield pop ups to get out of the inning.
Neal Cotts had an eventful day that started before he took the mound. While warming up to go into the game, Cotts apparently got a spike caught somewhere on the bullpen mound and did a header straight into the ground. Not too much the worse for wear, Cotts brushed himself off, entered the game, and worked a solid inning, allowing a one-out single while striking out one. Despite what would seem to be a rather hum-drum inning where he faced only four hitters, Cotts still somehow managed to throw 25 pitches, but only four of the pitches were balls!
Yes, Cotts may have set a record for a four-batter inning by throwing 21 strikes. The reason for the high pitch total for the inning (and the high number of strikes) was that the Japanese hitters kept fouling off pitch after pitch, most notably the #3 hitter in the inning (Senchi Uchikawa) who kept getting the hit & run sign and then kept fouling off Cotts' best offerings. It was a real battle, but Cotts did not cave-in (he made about a half-dozen throws to 1st base to keep the runner close), and he got though his inning with no real difficulty (other than throwing a lot of pitches and falling flat on his face in the bullpen).
Randy Wells worked his usual ridiculously ultra-efficient 1-2-3 inning in the top of the 9th, retiring the side on just five pitches (all five strikes), including three ground balls to SS Andres Blanco, who fumbled the second one for an error before starting a 6-3 DP to end the frame.
The Cubs offense made noise throughout the game, but had trouble getting the big hit. After scoring their first run in the bottom of the 4th, the Cubs threatened to score in both the 5th and 7th innings, too, but they just couldn't get the key hit when it was needed.
Derrek Lee laced a double to the right-centerfield fence off Yamaguchi with one out in the 5th and advanced to 3rd base on a wild pitch, but Milton Bradley struck out swinging (and then angrily broke the bat over his knee) and Aramis Ramirez popped up to short RF, leaving D-Lee stranded at 3rd. Bradley got some boos after his anger management demonstration, and while he took the field (without a limp) after the 5th, he was pulled out of the game (along with most of the other starters) before Team Japan hit in the top of the 6th.
The Cubs threatened to score again with one out in the bottom of the 7th, as Andres Blanco lined a single to LF and Micah Hoffpauir (facing LHP Toshiya Sugiuchi) crushed a ground rule double that bounced off the warning track and up and over the fence in left-center. But then Doug Deeds lined a rocket that was caught by second-baseman Iwamura (outstanding diving stab going to his left), and Luis Rivas grounded out to short to end the inning.
Down 3-1, the Cubs took their last shot in the bottom of the 9th against Team Japan closer Kyuji Fujikawa. Jake Fox led off and had an outstanding nine-pitch AB before roping a line double into the left-center gap on a 3-2 pitch It may have been the best at-bat I've ever seen from Fox, who usually is dead meat once he's got two strikes. Too bad there isn't room for Foxy on the Cubs bench. He'd make a nice RHPH.
Taguchi was up next, and he smoked a double into the right-centerfield alley, scoring Fox. What was somewhat troubling about the hit is that Fukudome (having moved to CF from RF in the 7th) took an "up & out" route instead of a straight-line run to the ball, although he most likely would not have been able to catch it even if he had run a better route.
So with the tying run on 2nd and no outs, Team Japan had a full pow-wow on the mound, planning a defense for a presumed sacrifice bunt attempt by the normally light-hitting Andres Blanco. And Blanco did indeed try a bunt (which he fouled-off), before surprising everybody in the park by swinging away and lining a laser beam headed toward RF. But Team Japan first-baseman Senchi Uchikawa made a sensational sprawling, diving catch, as Taguchi got back to 2nd base safely to avoid getting doubled off.
Micah Hoffpauir was up next and had a golden opportunity to be the hero, but he struck out (swinging) on three pitches. A wild pitch then moved Taguchi to 3rd base with two outs, but he died there as Doug Deeds also went down swinging.
For the day, the Cubs hitters had ten hits and drew three walks, but they also accrued six LOB in scoring position, and struck out 12 times (five times with men in scoring position).
Kosuke Fukudome played the entire game for Team Japan, starting in RF and then moving to CF in the 7th inning. He got a big hand and a lot of cheers from both the Team Japan fans and the Cubs fans each time he came to the plate. For the day, Kosuke went 1-4, with a line-drive RBI single and three fly outs. He made good contact all four times, and generally speaking, he looked a lot more like the Fukudome of the first part of 2008 than the last part. Seeing so many Japanese players together at the same time showed me how many of them hit exactly the same way Fukudome does, with that forward weight-transfer and push onto the front foot right before contact.
It's back to Cactus League action for the Cubs tomorrow, with a "split squad" headed to Tempe Diablo Stadium to play the Angels, while the other squad remains in Mesa to play the Seattle Mariners.
And good luck to Team Japan in the WBC. They brought a lot of loyal fans to the game today, and they really seemed had a good time, even with the annoying presence of Ronnie Woo Woo roaming the aisles. He was at Minor League Camp at Fitch Park yesterday, too.
Maybe Woo Woo can follow Team Japan to San Diego and give all the WBC fans out there that gift of his that keeps on giving.