When the Cubs first signed LaTroy Hawkins as a free agent in the first few days of December 2003, they were signing the most dominant eighth-inning pitchers in the game. And, through until early June, that is exactly what they got, and at a good price too. Hawkins' numbers from the start of 2002 (when he was of course with the Twins setting up Eddie Guardado) through to that June were simply formidable...

  IP H HR BB K ERA GB/FB
LaTroy Hawkins 188.1 149 12 36 162 1.91 1.21

It was only then, when Joe Borowski hit the disabled list, that Dusty Baker took the decision that changed LaTroy Hawkins' career - he moved him to closer. This at the time was a move many approved of. Those that disapprove didn't have the strongest case. Hawkins certainly struggled mightily in the role in 2001, but that neglects two points. Firstly, while Hawkins did have a disasterous 2001 as the Minnesota closer, he only earned that job by going a perfect 14-for-14 in save opportunities the year before. Secondly, Hawkins, reacting to 2001, made huge changes to his game that winter - he scrapped a high leg kick and compacted his delivery, which brought him improved control and velocity on his pitches, and he worked hard upon improving his off-speed stuff. The results of his re-invention were the numbers above, so far removed from his numbers prior to 2002 (5.78 ERA) that he may as well have been a completely different pitcher. Hawkins in 2001 wasn't just a bad closer, he was a bad pitcher. The latter was in June 2004 certainly not the case.

Leaving aside debates as to whether the best reliever on the staff should be strictly limited to the ninth with one to three run leads, Dusty's decision to try Hawkins as a closer was certainly justifiable. Where Dusty erred though was in standing by his ninth-inning man too long, when it was abundantly clear that Hawkins, for whatever reason, still couldn't handle the ninth. Instead Dusty ran him out there time and time again, and time and time again Hawkins either failed to close the door or only closed it with a squeak rather than a slam. There was a real lack of confidence and conviction to his pitching, and he seemed far more prone to leaving pitches, especially with 0-2 counts, in areas where hitters could hit them too hard...

  IP H HR BB K ERA GB/FB
LaTroy Hawkins 71.1 73 11 15 58 3.28 0.70

Those numbers, from when he first inherited the ninth through yesterday, would appear to come to the same conclusion. In particular, Hawkins allowed an increasing number of flyballs, and flyballs (especially at Wrigley) have a nasty habit of from time to time leaving the ballpark, which of course is the worst thing a pitcher can do if he's in the business of preventing runs. All the same, those numbers taken as a whole are far from bad. Charicatures of Hawkins as some sort of Alfonseca figure who was responsible for all of our bullpen's woes are far-fetched and inaccurate. Indeed, even that lesser version of Hawkins was still a comfortably above-average reliever, and the Cubs' bullpen will take a hit without him. Then again, as a result of irresponsible management on Dusty's part, overreacting and relegating Hawkins to mere mopup work, that hit had already been taken. And that, combined with the boo-birds of Wrigley, made Hawkins' situation in Chicago unnecessarily untenable. There's more than a touch of the Sosa debacle about the fall of LaTroy, only underlined by the fact the top brass was willing to eat some of his contract to ship him elsewhere.

There is a fundamental difference though between the Sosa and Hawkins trades - the level of the talent the Cubs received in return. Jerome Williams and David Aardsma represent a far better haul given what we gave up than Jerry Hairston and a retired pitcher (though, in fairness, the Orioles will be sending someone to replace Crouthers). Williams, who won't turn 24 until December, is one of the better young pitchers in the game, with pedigree as a prospect and considerable major league experience (and no small amount of success) under his belt. That is though in spite of some areas of his game upon which he needs to work, as per Baseball America...

When healthy, Williams has command of a low-90s fastball that he uses to set up a very good changeup. He has yet to find a consistent third pitch however, with both his curveball and slider lacking the depth or command to be a consistent out pitch. Williams' conditioning also has come into question.

That when "healthy" caveat is a rather large one. Williams last season suffered first from tendinitis in his throwing shoulder and later in the year required arthroscopic surgery on his throwing elbow. It, of course, goes without saying that shoulder and elbow injuries in one so young are most definately not a good sign. Neither has the way Williams has been throwing so far this year - his customary control deserting him and his ERA, at Triple-A no less, rocketing though the roof. How much of that is attributable to the fact his seriously ill father required liver and kidney transplants during Spring Training (Williams also lost his mother at 19) remains to be seen. The Giants did a good job of offloading Kurt Ainsworth down the stretch in 2003 just before injury completely ruined his prospect status (well, I say a good job, but actually all they got in return was Sidney Ponson for a few months!), and I'm slightly concerned that the same fate may be about to befall Williams, shedding a brighter light on his very disappointing numbers so far. It's possible the Giants know something about Williams that we're not going to like finding out for ourselves.

If that is not the case, and the Giants have traded him in good faith, I simply cannot understand this move on their part. To give up a pitcher as young, as promising and yet as experienced as Williams, not to mention the also very well thought of David Aardsma, who the Cubs can now place at the top of their collection of young, hard-throwing and promising right-sided relief prospects, all for setup man LaTroy Hawkins simply staggers me. Either Barry Bonds is a lot closer to returning than anybody might suspect, or the Giants are simply deluding themselves when it comes to their competitiveness this year. The Giants have certainly had problems with their bullpen, serious problems not helped by Armando Benitez's injury, but their relief corps still ought to be the least of their worries - their offence is unspectacular, their starting pitching besides Schmidt likewise, and their defence disappointing. Without Bonds, there is absolutely no question, in my mind at least, that they are inferior to both the Padres and Dodgers, and maybe even the Diamondbacks too. Even should Bonds return tomorrow, they'd still face an uphill struggle to make the playoffs. What use is a premium eighth-inning guy to them then even in the short term? As for the long term, their team right now is overwhelmingly old, and they simply have to get younger if they're not to fall off a cliff upon Bonds' retirement. Trading away Jerome Williams and David Aardsma for a 32-year old whose contract expires after 2006 goes entirely against that.

Does this trade for the Cubs represent a salary dump, represent giving up on the season? Certainly not. LaTroy Hawkins, though it was overwhelmingly the Cubs' (and the booing Cub fans') own fault, could probably not have continued pitching in Chicago for much longer. Even overlooking that, they still received far more for Hawkins than they could reasonably have expected - it really was an offer they couldn't refuse. Though Williams will be out of options next year, and therefore in the same boat as Angel Guzman and Sergio Mitre, needing to make the team, he at the very least makes a very useful chip in a further trade. At the very best he'll hold down a spot in a sensational Cubs' rotation for quite a while to come. That is, of course, assuming injury doesn't ravage his career first. Aardsma meanwhile has the stuff to become a closer somewhere down the line, and could be contributing in Chicago before the year is out.

The Cubs won twice yesterday, I think. First they got the better of the Giants with this trade, then of course they dispatched with the Rockies.

Specifically, San Francisco's. The Cubs today traded LaTroy Hawkins to the Giants for Jerome Williams and David Aardsma.

Since the Giants are my #2 team (thanks to The Lovely Wife), I'm pretty familiar with these guys. Williams came up in 2003 and had a real nice rookie year (88K, 49 BB in 131 IP) but struggled in 2004 and had to have elbow surgery at the end of the season. He hasn't put it back together since - he started this year on the active roster but struggled and was sent down for a few starts to work on his mechanics, and hasn't come back up yet. This is why:

2005, Fresno: 15 K, 17 BB, 30 2/3 IP, 9.39 ERA

He is having trouble finding consistency with his delivery, and I he's also had to deal with some pretty serious family problems, so he's far from a sure thing, but he's still only 23. When he came up in '03, he looked remarkably poised for a 21-year-old and displayed great control. He's a project, but he's also got a pretty decent upside.

Aardsma, John Sickels' #4 Giants prospect, was the Giants' #1 pick in the 2003 draft and made his major league debut less than a year after being drafted. He was a closer in college and has continued in that role in the minors and in his brief time in the majors. He's also notable for replacing Henry Aaron as the first player, alphabetically, in major league history.

I like this trade. I wasn't as down on Hawkins as some, but given that he had been reduced to pitching mop-up (loss of confidence? loss of talent?), I think the Cubs got a good return for him. I think we'll enjoy Jerome Williams' pooka-necklaced presence on the mound if he gets things turned around (and who knows, being back with Dusty might help), and Aardsma can be a solid piece of the bullpen puzzle.

GAME 47 PREVIEW COLORADO ROCKIES (14-32) at CHICAGO CUBS (22-24) Wrigley Field, 12.05pm CT, TV: CSN
SP *Glendon Rusch SP Byung-Hyun Kim
SS Clint Barmes SS #Neifi Perez
2B Luis Gonzalez 2B *Todd Walker
1B *Todd Helton 1B Derrek Lee
CF Preston Wilson RF *Jeromy Burnitz
C Todd Greene 3B Aramis Ramirez
LF Matt Holliday CF *Corey Patterson
3B Garrett Atkins LF Jason Dubois
RF Dustin Mohr C Michael Barrett
Pitcher's spot Pitcher's spot
I commented just yesterday that "Mark Prior, Carlos Zambrano, Greg Maddux, Glendon Rusch and Sergio Mitre looks to be the rotation for the time being." That last all of a matter of hours, and so, the Cubs now have something in common with every other major league baseball team - no Mark Prior. He's been placed on the 15-day disabled list, with Roberto Novoa promoted from Iowa to the bullpen. One of Ryan Dempster or Todd Wellemeyer will probably move from relief back into the rotation. Todd Walker commented yesterday that the grass is partially responsible for our offence woes. Perhaps at his request the Cubs cut the grass a little shorter then, because the Cubs scored ten runs Friday and won comfortably. Or perhaps the bigger issue was that the wind was blowing out. If anything at Wrigley sets it apart from other ballparks, it's the wind rather than the grass. Wrigley can be transformed from Coors one day to PETCO the next all according to which way it blows. Andy Rutledge from the View From the Bleachers has been tracking the Cubs' performance so far this year and last, and his findings for this year in particular are startling - the Cubs have scored well over twice as many runs per game with the wind carrying the ball as with it holding it up. That's a ridiculous difference. Unlike the grass, is this then an adequate excuse? Again, not really, in my view. Scoring less runs due to the wind is nothing to be ashamed of. Being out-adapted by oppositions that aren't anywhere near as familiar with the conditions certainly is. The Cubs have played in Wrigley for many years now, and they above all should know then that they have to deal with the wind when it comes to formulating their team for the season, their lineup each day and their approach each at-bat. Anecdotally, all of us have noticed that the Cubs seem to go for the long ball regardless. The Cubs won't win like that. There's some good news though. Come the summer the wind tends to blow out more often, and that should help. Mark Prior or not, there's still not enough reason to completely give up on this team yet. Things could be a lot, lot worse. We could be the Rockies, for instance.
Mark Prior was hit in the arm by a comebacker in the 4th inning of today's game and left in obvious pain. Preliminary reports indicate a bruise only, no fracture, so I'm thinking at most he'll miss one start and maybe not even that. Finally a bit of potential good news on the injury front. [Rob G. Update:] Espn is reporting that an MRI later revealed a "slight" fracture. No timetable on his return as of yet. From personal experience, a broken elbow takes at least 3 weeks to heal and 3 weeks for rehab although mine was probably significantly worse. On the other hand I'm not a major league pitcher, nor had access to the same technology and therapists that Prior will.
GAME 46 PREVIEW COLORADO ROCKIES (14-31) at CHICAGO CUBS (21-24) Wrigley Field, 1.20pm CT, TV: CSN, Fox Sports RM
SP Mark Prior SP *Joe Kennedy
SS #Desi Relaford CF Jerry Hairston
2B Luis Gonzalez SS #Neifi Perez
1B *Todd Helton 1B Derrek Lee
CF Preston Wilson 3B Aramis Ramirez
RF *Brad Hawpe LF Jason Dubois
LF Matt Holliday RF *Jeromy Burnitz
3B Garrett Atkins CF *Corey Patterson
C #JD Closser C Henry Blanco
Pitcher's spot Pitcher's spot
Todd Walker, freshly back from the disabled list, is never one to shy away from giving his opinion. At the start of the year, for instance, he pronounced that the 16 runs the Cubs scored against the Diamondbacks in the season opener was reliable evidence that the offence wasn't as bad as everyone had feared. Er, okay. He's changed his tune a bit. From today's Tribune...
Even if you're a Tony Gwynn, he's not going to hit here what he hit in San Diego because of the tall grass. You hit balls in the gaps that land in front of the outfielders, and it's a single not a double. It doesn't kick and keep going. If you stand at home plate here, and you stand at home plate at Coors Field, there's a major difference in the outfield as a whole. I'm sure there's a purpose for [the Cubs keeping the grass long]. But here's my point: You either need home-run guys or speed guys. If you're a great hitter--like Nomar [Garciaparra]--he hit .290 [in 2004] instead of .320. A lot of balls Nomar hits for base hits go through third and short. And from what I noticed, those were being caught. Maybe 40 years ago they were hitting the ball around [Wrigley was a hitter's park]. But over the last few years, and especially the last two years, if you don't hit home runs, you have to have guys who bunt and steal and do the small ball thing--not two [players], but more like six or seven of those guys.
Todd Walker is off-base. There's little evidence to suggest that the grass is any tougher on hits (or doubles in particular) than other ballparks, at least according to ESPN's park factors. Perhaps part of the reason for that is that, though when the ball rolls it quickly slows, on the bounce the ball can really scoot. It'll come as news to nobody that Wrigley doesn't quite play like Coors, but I think that's the first time anyone's made the point that the grass is the difference between the two. Thin air at altitude, anyone? As for his comment regarding Nomar, he should be aware that Nomar hadn't hit .320 in Boston for a good few years until the first half of last year, and that even then the words small sample size are somewhat fitting. A more plausible excuse for "only" hitting .290 might also be found in Nomar's Achilles injury. Walker's unlying tone throughout (or at least the tone suggested by the way the piece is written by, er, Paul Sullivan) is that the grass is responsible for all our offensive woes. He's wrong. He's also wrong to come to the conclusion that, the grass supposedly being the problem, the Cubs have to have players up and down the lineup capable of bunting and stealing a base. If the grass really is causing so many extra outs on balls in play and as a result so many fewer baserunners, is the solution really to give up more outs (or risk more outs) whenever you have a rare baserunner on? I somewhat doubt it. It'd strike me as more fitting to instead find ways onto the bases that don't involve subjecting the ball to the grass. Take a wild swing at what I'm talking about. And then, with bases clogged, hit your homers if you will. That is, of course, if the problem is the grass. And it isn't. It's our offence.
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ASTROS 5 CUBS 1
Recap | Box Score | Play-by-play | Game Chart
W: Brandon Backe (4-3) L: Greg Maddux (2-3)
ROCKIES 5 CUBS 2
Recap | Box Score | Play-by-play | Game Chart
W: Jason Jennings (2-6) L: Carlos Zambrano (3-3)
Mark Prior, Carlos Zambrano, Greg Maddux, Glendon Rusch and Sergio Mitre looks to be the rotation for the time being. That five, responsible for all but two of the twenty-one starts since the off-day on May 2nd, have combined for a 3.11 ERA over that time. And yet, in those nineteen games, the Cubs are just 9-10. The biggest reason for that is an offence which doesn't seem too interested in scoring any freaking runs. The result is quality starts from Carlos Zambrano such as yesterday's go wasted as Jason Jennings improves to 2-6 and lowers his ERA to less than eleventy billion. Short of the Cubs being afforded a fourth out in their half of the inning, it's not immediately obvious whether there's an available solution to these run-scoring problems. Outside of Derrek Lee and Jerry Hairston, the Cubs have no-one with more than a handful of at-bats with an on-base percentage above .321. Making outs at that kind of a rate ends big innings before they've even begun. A walk here and a walk there though keep frames alive longer, and that leads to more opportunities for hitters to drive runners home. Sadly, Michael Barrett, Jason Dubois, Corey Patterson, Jeromy Burnitz and Neifi Perez, five out of eight hitters in the lineup, have drawn just 34 walks between them all year long. Even more sadly, I wouldn't bet upon any of them, besides Burnitz, to walk at a significantly better rate from here on out. That's the real problem. The other real problem has been Aramis Ramirez. Unless he's injured though, it's unfathomable that he's not going to improve dramatically. His low average is related not so much to strikeouts or a lack of home runs but to nothing going his way on balls in play, as was the case earlier in the season for the now red-hot (but not walking) Michael Barrett. Average aside, there's not been too much wrong with Ramirez. He's striking out only fractionally more than he did last year, his walk rate is at its highest in his career and the power certainly hasn't disappeared. His return to form will definately help things, to an extent. Also potentially helpful will be the return of Todd Walker. The second baseman's bat is definately an asset. However, the same applies to Hairston's, who as I mentioned above, by virtue of getting hit by a ridiculous number of pitches, is only one of two in the lineup presently getting on-base at a good enough rate. The Cubs cannot afford to lose that. What they could and should instead do, I now think, is shift Jerry to left-field, full time, batting him lead-off ahead of Walker. Burnitz and Dubois can then sort right-field out between themselves until one of them exhibits a tool besides power. Corey Patterson meanwhile can hit sixth until the end of the time, and Ben Grieve can get on the first flight from Iowa. Besides Hollandsworth, he represented the only bench bat capable of actually hitting a lick while (you guessed it!) not continually acting as another step towards the end of the inning. Demoting him was as stupid a move as the Cubs could possibly have made. Well, besides batting Neifi Perez lead-off the next day. He's hit just .224/.256/.306 in May. Don't vote Neifi!
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GAME 44 PREVIEW HOUSTON ASTROS (15-30) at CHICAGO CUBS (21-22) Wrigley Field, 6.05pm CT, TV: ESPN, CSN
SP Greg Maddux SP Brandon Backe
CF *Orlando Palmeiro CF Jerry Hairston
RF *Todd Self SS #Neifi Perez
2B Craig Biggio 1B Derrek Lee
LF #Lance Berkman RF *Jeromy Burnitz
1B *Mike Lamb 3B Aramis Ramirez
3B Morgan Ensberg 2B *Todd Walker
SS #Jose Vizcaino LF Jason Dubois
C Brad Ausmus C Michael Barrett
Pitcher's spot Pitcher's spot
The Cubs go for their longest winning streak of the season, their first three game sweep and a return to .500, and they'll be doing so with Todd Walker back in the lineup a full six weeks after he went down injured. Onto the disabled list to make room for him goes Mike Remlinger, who protests he could start a game tomorrow. Go Cubs!
ASTROS 2 CUBS 4
Recap | Box Score | Play-by-play | Game Chart
W: Michael Wuertz (3-2) L: Brad Lidge (1-2) S: Ryan Dempster (4)
It's tough doing the work of six men, so that's why this game report is winging its way to you about a day late. Rob at least has a good excuse - he and his wife were due on Monday to bring their first child into the world, so I hope you'll all join me in hoping that mother and child did and are doing well and that the new proud father will soon return bearing cute baby photos, tales of sleepless nights and big happy smile all over his face. Roger Clemens won't be smiling though. He's having to do the job of not six men, but about fifteen or so, and at the age of forty-two, more than half of which you've spent hurling a baseball at hapless hitters, that can take its toll. Clemens had been cruising - he'd retired ten hitters in a row. But, with two outs in the bottom of the fifth, he then walked Enrique Wilson, which is about as clear a sign as any that a pitcher's injured. A coaching visit to the mound followed, and though Clemens retired the next batter to end the inning, he immediately left for the locker room, leaving the final four frames and a 2-0 lead in the hands of his bullpen. Injured groin or not though, he may have been better advised to stay in the game given the way the Cubs put together a four-run rally off the wild Brad Lidge in the eighth to secure their fourth come-from-behind win in their last seven games (over which they're 5-2). It's becoming increasingly difficult to assess a pitcher when they're throwing against the Houston offence, but, even taking that into account, Sergio Mitre turned in a pretty impressive outing. Only Craig Biggio seemed able to generate any really hard hit balls, two foul down the left field line and one that on any other given day without the wind blowing in would have made its way out of the park for a home run. Instead, it held up just at the ivy at the kink in the left field wall, and though it was a far from routine play, Dubois at this level ought to have made it rather than leaping and coming up with nothing but air. Faced with second and third with no outs, Mitre remained composed, following with three meek groundballs and a strikeout (both runners in scoring position did score though, the first on a botched fielder's choice, the second on a botched double play). And that, coming in the fourth inning, was all the Astros could muster off Mitre. He threw all four of his pitches for strikes, mixing them up and changing speeds well, and getting his usual strew of groundballs. He walked just the one and struck out five. Encouraging. It must have been the facial hair holding him back last year. When he left after the seventh inning, it looked as though his performance would be in vain. Clemens had dominated, and the Astros' bullpen had added two scoreless innings. Jason Dubois though went a long way to atoning for his earlier fielding "error" by leading off with a double, and pinch-hitter extraordinaire Todd Hollandsworth singled him home with one out. With the tying run on board, the Astros turned to Lidge. Two walks, two wild pitches and a huge clutch Jeromy Burnitz single with two outs and the bases loaded did the job of turning the game around. Ryan Dempster then went 1-2-3 in the ninth again. And with that, the Cubs ran their winning streak to three. And Todd Walker will be back for tonight.
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GAME 43 PREVIEW HOUSTON ASTROS (15-29) at CHICAGO CUBS (20-22) Wrigley Field, 7.05pm CT, TV: WGN, Fox Sports SW
SP Sergio Mitre SP Roger Clemens
CF Willy Taveras CF Jerry Hairston
RF *Todd Self SS #Neifi Perez
2B Craig Biggio 1B Derrek Lee
LF #Lance Berkman RF *Jeromy Burnitz
1B *Mike Lamb 3B Aramis Ramirez
3B Morgan Ensberg C Michael Barrett
SS Adam Everett LF Jason Dubois
C Brad Ausmus 2B #Enrique Wilson
Pitcher's spot Pitcher's spot
Compared to Brandon McCarthy and Wandy Rodriguez, Sergio Mitre is pretty much a proven veteran - he has a whopping 60.1 major league innings under his belt. On the whole they were relatively useless innings, carrying a 6.86 ERA, but Mitre can at least fall back upon a couple of good starts and the excuses that his peripheral numbers deserved better and that he genuinely wasn't ready for the opportunity that fell to him with Mark Prior's injury. A year on though and he's refined his changeup to go with a decent slider and a plus sinker that he throws in the low-nineties and with which he induces a multitude of groundballs, groundballs which have the useful habit of never leaving the park for home runs. That, combined with good control and a decent strikeout rate has made him an extremely effective starter in the minors. The changeup though represents the key to translating that to the big leagues - if he can figure out how to get left-handers out, though he'll never be an ace, he'll find himself a job chewing away innings somewhere in the majors. Somewhat sadly, since I'm a big "Meat-tray" fan, that job probably won't be with the Cubs, since this is his final option year and no long term pitching vacancy seems, well, vacant. In the short term though, these upcoming weeks until Wood returns and tonight in particular, going against Roger Clemens, the most proven veteran in all of baseball, Mitre has a chance to help himself, and the Cubs, by showcasing his talent to any prospective buyers. Ben Grieve has been sent down to make room for him, which is sheer idiocy given we're currently carrying an eight-man bullpen (and that Grieve has over his career really hit Clemens). If he didn't come across as such an, er, disagreeable person, shall we say, I could almost find it in my heart to feel sorry for old Roger, who right now probably is wishing he hadn't settled for just $18m this year. Clemens has started 9 times this year and thrown 63 innings of 1.29 ERA ball. The Astros' record in those 9 games? 3-6. Clemens' own record reads just 3-2. He's not going to vulture another Cy from anyone with just three wins to his name, particularly not when his ERA rises a few points, as it inevitably will, starting tonight we hope. Actually, the Cubs have historically hit Clemens better than most (they have a 3.89 ERA against him), and they beat him in the matchup of the 300-game winners in late April, so perhaps that hope's not entirely unfounded. Then again, Enrique Wilson's starting tonight (Corey rides the pine, a scratch because of a sore left wrist from his collision with Burnitz yesterday). Is there a rule that says all terrible infielders have to switch hit? As for Bruce Levine, he's been terribly and suspiciously quiet all day. He did though get around to explaining that, while he didn't have the names, the big trade involved another National League club, with four players leaving the Windy City (an outfielder, a reliever and two prospects) and two new Cubs (a power-hitting left-handed corner outfielder and a middle reliever). The departing outfielder, he clarified, was not Corey Patterson, which is strange given that he says he doesn't have the names. Anyway, this has me wistfully day-dreaming about Adam Dunn or Bobby Abreu manning our pinstripes (do we still play in them?), so if you could just leave me in peace... Oh, and go Cubs! [Update] Bruce Levine has just rudely interrupted my day-dreaming. How inconsiderate. The team involved in this supposed trade, he says, is the Mets, which fits with a New York Post speculation that they're interested in LaTroy Hawkins. By my estimation that makes the power-hitting left-hander outfielder reportedly heading our way Cliff Floyd. The prospects they're scouting are, apparently, from Peoria. Hands off Eric Patterson! In fact, hands of LaTroy if all you're offering is Cliff Floyd, whose second home is the disabled list. We're not so short of outfielders that we need to sacrifice the pitcher that remains our best reliever plus a whole plentitude of other talent for Cliffy and a Mets reliever. Or maybe Levine has sources no better than, er, mine.
ASTROS 1 CUBS 4
Recap | Box Score | Play-by-play | Game Chart
W: Glendon Rusch (3-1) L: Wandy Rodriguez (0-1) S: Ryan Dempster (3)
If there were any reservations as to whether or not Glendon Rusch's 2004 was just a case of sheer luck, he's not doing too bad a job of dispelling them so far this year. In his four starts in place of Kerry Wood, he's put up a 2.71 ERA, carrying on where he left off as a reliever. Today, albeit against the Astros' woeful offence, he was pretty masterful, painting the outside corner with his fastball at will in particular, and allowing just the single run through eight blisteringly fast and very economical innings. The solo home run he allowed to Brad Ausmus in the second inning, which was all that blighted the shutout, was the first he'd given up all year, a far cry from the four in just four innings I remember him allowing in a single Spring Training game! Keeping the ball in the park so well thus far this season has allowed him to get away with being uncharacteristically wild, but if he can tame that and keep everything else up, and the single walk today and his track record suggest that free passes really aren't a problem (which makes a refreshing change for the Cubs), I think we may have to start thinking about which of Rusch and Maddux is the better pitcher at this stage. That is, of course, pretty staggering, because I certainly don't remember Maddux being cut by the Rangers about 14 months ago! The Cubs didn't quite get to Wandy Rodriguez as you'd perhaps like, and they're still short of offence, which will probably be underlined by Roger Clemens in the second game of the series, but they did manage to plate four despite the wind blowing in. Hairston reached and advanced to third on a well executed hit-and-run with Neifi, and then Derrek Lee absolutely nailed yet another pitch (the quality of the contact he's making right now, still, is staggering), and Hairston tagged up and scored. Later Corey Patterson hit his ninth home run of the year (a solo shot, of course, as they all have been), and Burnitz later followed with a gopher ball of the two-run variety to give the Cubs a cushion of three. Ryan Dempster needed just four pitches to work a scoreless inning for the save, with the Astros displaying impatience that'd make Jose Macias blush. Speaking of Jose Macias, he's had just six plate appearances the entire month in games he hasn't been spot-starting for Ramirez. Enrique Wilson has picked up the bat just once. Certainly, it makes you question just why we have the two on the bench if we're (rightly) not going to use them, and Dusty should have figured it out long ago that Macias, for a lemon, doesn't have much of a tang, but this is a belated step in the right direction and I think Dusty, dude, deserves some kudos. That is, if I'm not speaking too soon.
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GAME 42 PREVIEW HOUSTON ASTROS (15-28) at CHICAGO CUBS (19-22) Wrigley Field, 7.05pm CT, TV: CSN, Fox Sports SW
SP *Glendon Rusch SP *Wandy Rodriguez
CF Willy Taveras 2B Jerry Hairston
LF *Todd Self SS #Neifi Perez
2B Craig Biggio 1B Derrek Lee
1B #Lance Berkman 3B Aramis Ramirez
3B Morgan Ensberg RF *Jeromy Burnitz
RF Jason Lane LF Jason Dubois
SS Adam Everett CF *Corey Patterson
C Brad Ausmus C Michael Barrett
Pitcher's spot Pitcher's spot
They're like buses - you wait ages for one, and then two come along at once. Rookie opposition starters that is. Yesterday the Cubs got Brandon McCarthy, but they didn't manage to actually get to him. In fact, McCarthy was very impressive, striking out the first ever major league batter he faced (Hairston) and pitching a very solid five and a third innings before Guillen very cautiously lifted him. Today the Cubs get Wandy (yes, Wandy) Rodriguez, who starts in place of Andy Pettitte, and hopefully they'll at least give one of these two rookies a major league welcome to make them wish they'd never been promoted. Rodriguez doesn't have the same prospect calibre of McCarthy though, nowhere near - he's a 21, no, 25, er 26 year-old soft-tossing lefty out of Venezuela with a fastball, changeup, curveball arsenal that he throws for strikes, and at best he projects as the lefty out of the 'pen that makes up the numbers. He's going on just three days of rest and will be looking to end a five-game Houston losing streak. [Update] According to Bruce Levine at least, the Cubs are about to pull off a big trade, but that's all he's saying! Talk about keeping us on tenterhooks! Anyway, speculate away amongst yourselves. All I have to say is that I hope that Corey Patterson, whose name seems to be getting bandied around quite a bit, isn't involved. This is no time to give up on him.

With a quarter of the season in the books, it's time that our foes in the NL Central got the once over.

 

Pos Team W-L PCT GB   RS RA Pythg   Home Away 1-run Extra
1 Cardinals 27-16 .628 --   228 187 26-17   12-9 15-7 9-7 1-0
2 Brewers 20-23 .465 7.0   188 173 23-20   11-9 9-14 7-5 1-2
3= Cubs 19-22 .463 7.0   179 178 21-20   10-10 9-12 8-9 2-2
3= Pirates 19-22 .463 7.0   161 178 18-23   7-13 12-9 3-8 1-1
5= Astros 15-28 .349 12.0   159 198 17-26   13-9 2-19 4-10 0-3
5= Reds 15-28 .349 12.0   190 253 16-27   10-12 5-16 7-9 0-1


In doing my research for this weeks organizational report, I came across this small, buried nugget at Inside the Ivy (subscription may be required to access link). Pitcher Dave Crouthers, one of the three prized players we received from the Baltimore Orioles in exchange for Mr. You-Know-Who, has decided to RETIRE from baseball. Reasons were not given.
WHITE SOX 3 CUBS 4
Recap | Box Score | Play-by-play | Game Chart
W: Mark Prior (4-1) L: Luis Vizcaino (2-2)
After yesterday, not to mention his own last few outings, Mark Prior came to the realisation that he simply can't trust his bullpen. So he went the distance himself and averted a potentially very embarrassing sweep by the White Sox in our own backyard. In the end, thanks to Jason Dubois and the return of the much-missed three-run shot, Mark Prior didn't quite need to throw that perfect game I was speaking of earlier, though he did retire the first ten hitters he faced with ease, effectiveness and efficiency, four of them by strikeout. A solo home run by Tadahito Iguchi though tied the game at one (Henry Blanco had put us ahead!), and Mark Prior, as is becoming slightly unnervingly common, fell apart a little. Aaron Rowand doubled, Paul Konerko followed with a walk as Prior started to pull his fastball down and away from right-handers as he does, and AJ Pierzynski hit a line drive. Derrek Lee saved the day and the tie by leaping to snare the ball and then throwing to second for the double play. That at least made up for his horrendous earlier error that cost the Cubs a run. Lee, who had been at first, paused at second on a Burnitz double upon the say-so of Juan Uribe, who alledged the ball had gone foul. By the time Lee realised he'd been duped, he could only make it to third, where Ramirez stranded him by lining out to left. Ramirez made some good contact today, two lineouts, a warning track shot and a walk, and his .233 batting average on balls in play won't last, so don't worry about him too much. The tie didn't last though. Jermaine Dye put a good swing on a fastball to lead off the fifth, and Prior didn't truly settle down again until he managed to strike out impressive debut pitcher Brandon McCarthy on a full count. A 1-2-3 sixth for Prior followed, the pitch that got Podsednik on strikes (again) being particularly nasty. Podsednik reached just once, and his speed had no influence on the game as a result. You can't steal first base. Well, not today at least. The Cubs last year were supposedly a team overly reliant on the home run, far too inconsistent in their run-scoring, a dozen one day but not very many the next. That's changed so far this year, or at least of late, with the Cubs instead being very consistent, just scoring not very many runs at all every time out. Jason Dubois was obviously a bit fed up with that, so he launched a Luis Vizcaino offering to deep right-center, his natural power alley, and for the first time in what seems an age, the Cubs had a lead of more than a run. Prior kept it that way by pitching his way out of jams in the seventh and eighth, getting a pair of critical pop-ups and a big double play respectively. By the time Konerko hit the third home run of the day off Prior in the ninth to halve the deficit, it was too little too late. Cubs win, Cubs win! The Cubs have a critical seven days coming up. Three against the Astros and four with the Rockies, all at Wrigley. 5-2 would put them back at .500. Let's do it!
GAME 41 PREVIEW CHICAGO WHITE SOX (31-12) at CHICAGO CUBS (18-22) Wrigley Field, 2.20pm CT, TV: WGN
SP Mark Prior SP Brandon McCarthy
LF *Scott Podsednik 2B Jerry Hairston
2B Tadahito Iguchi SS #Neifi Perez
CF Aaron Rowand 1B Derrek Lee
1B Paul Konerko RF *Jeromy Burnitz
C *AJ Pierzynski 3B Aramis Ramirez
RF Jermaine Dye CF *Corey Patterson
SS Juan Uribe LF Jason Dubois
3B Joe Crede C Henry Blanco
Pitcher's spot Pitcher's spot
The Cubs have managed just two runs total in the first six innings of their last four games. That simply isn't a recipe for winning a lot of games, and it puts a tremendous pressure upon the the pitching staff and the defence behind them. Zambrano yesterday was simply masterful, and given his seven shutout inning performance, the Cubs should have been in a position in the game where they could afford the odd defensive mistake. A lack of offence though and Corey Patterson's prematurely closed mitt, after fantastic hustle and pace to make the ball playable at all, cost the Cubs dear. These bats simply have to wake up if the Cubs are going to win a decent number of games. Either that, or Mark Prior and co will have to throw a perfect game. Either way, or both. Today the Cubs get to see a major league debutant on the mound for the Chicago White Sox. Brandon McCarthy was the minor league strikeout leader last year, having a fantastic campaign in the Southern League (Double-A). Though he hadn't quite been at his best so far this year in Triple-A, he did have a fantastic Spring Training with the Sox, looking so dominating that the White Sox seemed to have few qualms about inserting him into their rotation to start the year when it seemed Mark Buerhle would miss time. Buerhle's injury wasn't as serious as first feared though, so McCarthy's had to wait, but he now gets his shot while El Duque takes his annual trip to the disabled list. Hopefully those Cub bats can say "welcome to the big leagues, kid, we do things differently here". While the Cubs are labouring against the best team in baseball, the St Louis Cardinals are beating upon the worst, the Kansas City Royals, and the rest of their interleague schedule is undisputedly easier too. While with the way the Cubs are playing this year this probably will prove to be irrelevant, major league baseball really needs to look into ensuring a more balanced and fairer schedule in future. [ruz] I'm in Harrisburg PA right now, looking at houses (we found one!) so I've had to follow the Cubs solely online, here and at Exile in Wrigleyville. It hasn't been fun, but luckily Vince hasn't rubbed it in my face too much. There hasn't been a cross-town sweep since 1999, so hopefully Prior can prevent that!

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