Cubs Rally to Edge Angels at HoHoKam Park
Scott Hairston blasted a tape-measure home run down the LF foul line and into the parking lot to cap a four-run 7th, and pinch-runner Shawon Dunston Jr scampered home with what proved to be the winning run with two outs in the bottom of the 8th, as the Cubs rallied to edge the Los Angeles Angels 7-6 in Cactus League action this afternoon at Dwight Patterson Field at HoHoKam Park in warm & sunny Mesa, AZ.
The Angels took a 4-0 lead through 4-1/2 innings, scoring all four runs off Cubs SP Edwin Jackson. Facing a mostly "minor league" lineup, E-Jax worked 5.0 IP (82 pitches - 54 strikes, 7/6 GO/FO) plus one batter in the 6th, allowing five runs (all earned) on eight hits (five singles and three doubles). He did not issue any walks, he struck out two, and he threw one WP.
The final run charged to Jackson was an inherited runner, who scored when LHRP Hisanori Takahashi surrenderd an RBI double to Efren Navarro with one out in the top of the 6th. Takahashi worked two innings (25 pitches - 14 strikes) and was not charged with a run, and he allowed two hits (both of the hits by LH hitters).
From what I have seen of Takahashi this Spring, he is (like James Russell) a fly ball pitcher with a propensity for allowing the HR ball and he does not seem to be particulary tough on LH hitters. His stuff probably profiles better as a #5 starting pitcher than as a LOOGY or a LH relief specialist. In fact Takahashi was stretched out as a starter up until his last two appearances (two relief outings in the last three days), and Manager Dale Sveum probably considers Takahashi more of a spot starter/long reliever who happens to throw LH than a lefty relief specialist. So I would not be too surprised if the Cubs are in the market for a LH reliever who is actually tough on LH hitters, perhaps somebody who might get released or be made available by another MLB club the last week of Spring Training.
After being shut-out over the first four innings by veteran SP Joe Blanton, the Cubs scored their first run of the day with two outs in the bottom of the 5th as Darwin Barney smacked a double into the LF corner, and Edwin Jackson followed with an RBI bloop single to CF (Jackson's second hit of the day) to drive-in Barney. (The Cubs have three starting pitchers who are dangerous hitters: Edwin Jackson, Jeff Samardzija, and Travis Wood).
Down 5-1 going into the bottom of the 6th, the Cubs scored another run as Anthony Rizzo singled, and Nate Schierholtz came through with a one-out opposite-field RBI double into the left-center alley.
Then the Cubs put up a four-spot in the bottom of the 7th off Angels lefty reliever Nick Maronde to take a 6-5 lead.
Brent Lillibridge led-off with an opposite-field triple down te RF line (Blanton's final hitter), and PH Dave Sappelt (facing LHP Maronde) drew a walk. David DeJesus followed with a sharp RBI single to center to score Lillibridge and send Sappelt to 3rd, with DeJesus alertly taking 2nd on the throw. (DeJesus has been nothing short of amazing against LHP so far in Cactus League play, after putting up an atrocious 149/289/149 slash-line with zero extra base hits versus LHP last season). Alberto Gonzalez then ripped a two-run double into the left-center alley to score Sappelt and DeJesus, but was thrown out trying to stretch the double into a triple (in other words, he made the first out of the inning at 3rd base). Scott Hairston (who murders LHP) gave the Cubs the lead (and put an exclamation point on the inning) with his two-out solo HR into the parking lot.
Carlos Marmol took the hill for the Cubs in the 8th with the task to protect the one-run lead, but he was unable to do that, laboring through a 22-pitch inning (throwing only 10 strikes), walking two and hitting a batter, as the Angels scored the tying (unearned) run on a Steve Clevenger passed ball with two outs.
But Clevenger redeemed himself in the bottom of the 8th, lacing a lead-off opposite-field double into the left-center alley off Angels RP Ernesto Frieri. (Clevenger is hitting a robust 378/400/459 in 22 Cactus League games). Pinch-runner Shawon Dunston Jr moved up to 3rd base on a ground out, and after PH Welington Castillo drew a two-out walk, Dunston scored on a Frieri WP.
Making his first appearance since leaving last Sunday's game mid-inning with a blister, Rafael Dolis worked a scoreless 18-pitch 9th to record the save. Dolis did allow singles to the first two men he faced, but minimized the threat by picking off the first baserunner with an excellent move to 1st (and he almost picked-off the second baserunner, too, with the exact same move).
Takahashi, Dolis, Zach Putnam, and Cory Wade are competing for the final spot in the Cub bullpen, but I think Takahashi has the edge, although the Cubs certainly could acquire a reliever prior to Opening Day, either one who was released (as happened with Shawn Camp last year), or via waiver claim, or in a trade. But whatever happens, the final spot in the bullpen will probably eventually go to Carlos Villanueva, once Matt Garza is healthy enough to rejoin the starting rotation and Villanueva is no longer needed in the rotation.
It appears that with 3B Ian Stewart (quad) likely starting the season on the disabled list and with Luis Valbuena the (mostly) everyday third-baseman for a while, Steve Clevenger and Alberto Gonzalez are battling for the last spot on the bench. While Gonzalez is a legitimate MLB utility infielder with the defensive skiills to play SS-2B-3B (temporarily replacing Valbuena in that role), Clevenger can play C-1B-3B and supersub Brent Lillibridge can play anywhere (allowing Valbuena to slide over to SS or 2B if necessary), and having Clevenger available on the bench would make it less of a risk to use Welington Castillo as a PH on days he is not the starting catcher. So I think Clevenger willl win the job, unless the Cubs sign a free-agent utility player or acquire one in a trade prior to Opening Day.
If Lillibridge and Takahashi (both signed to minor league contracts and both Non-Roster Invitees to Spring Training) make the Cubs Opening Day MLB 25-man roster, they will have to be added to the Cubs MLB 40-man roster. If that happens (and it's fairly likely), I would expect RHPs Arodys Vizcaino and Scott Baker (both rehabbing from 2012 TJS) to be placed on the 60-day DL to make room on the 40-man roster for the two NRI additions. If an additional roster slot beyond those two is needed, the Cubs could recall Junior Lake (who sustained a fractured rib during Spring Training) from his Optional Assignment and place him on the MLB 60-day DL, although if they were to do that, Lake would accrue MLB Service Time and would be paid at the Major League salary rate (rather than at the minor league "split contract" salary rate) while he is on the MLB 60-day DL.
Something else to keep in mind is that if and when Ian Stewart is healthy enough to be reactivated from the DL, the Cubs could choose to option Stewart to Iowa (and I'm not talking about a minor league rehab assignment). Stewart has one minor league option left, and because he has not yet accrued five years of MLB Service Time (he is 122 days short going into the 2013 season). he cannot refuse an Optional Assignment to the minors. (He can elect free-agency if he is outrighted, however). Optional Assignment Waivers would need to be secured before Stewart can be optioned, but Optional Assignment Waivers (just like Trade Waivers in August & September) are revocable the first time they are requested in a given waiver period, so the Cubs could choose to withdraw (revoke) the waiver request if Stewart were to be claimed (presuming they don't want to lose him on a waiver claim). And if he is not claimed and Optional Asignment Waivers are secured, the Cubs could option Stewart to the minors (as long as it is prior to the 122nd day of the 2013 MLB regular season, which is July 29th). NOTE: Stewart would continue to get paid his 2013 $2M salary even if he is optioned to the minors.