Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Hope springs eternal

Last night an older, wiser Kerry Wood celebrated the tenth anniversary of his 20-strikeout game by pitching the ninth inning and earning the save in the Cubs' 3-0 win at Cincinnati. Just as he had on 5/6/98, Wood got two men on strikes in the ninth.

This time Carlos Zambrano did the heavy lifting, pitching eight shutout innings. Zambrano wasn't throwing corkscrew breaking balls or 100-m.p.h. heat, and only got three outs by strikeout, but had his usual good stuff, inducing eight groundouts and eleven strikeouts.

Zambrano knows the difference between throwing and pitching. He can break out the flamethrower or sweeping curveball when he needs it, but against a scuffling Cincinnati team, the crafty approach sufficed; he kept it in third gear and still got 24 outs with no runs scored. After eight starts, the Cubs ace is 5-1 with a 1.80 ERA. There's a lesson in there somewhere.

For those who prefer a routing number and a signature on their lessons, Zambrano signed a $91.5-million, five-year contract extension last August that will keep him on the North Side through 2012.

Zambrano would have liked to get the complete game, but manager Lou Piniella shut him down after eight innings. With the Cubs widely expected to contend this year, they'd rather save something for September and, they hope, October.

Yesterday's post was about a Cubs rookie sensation. Since I rarely write about Los Ositos, let's take a moment to acknowledge two current Cubs rookies who helped the team set a record with 17 April wins.

Japanese import and recent Sports Illustrated cover boy Kosuke Fukudome has led the way with consistent hitting and excellent defense. His discipline at the plate seems to be infectious as the whole team is following his lead, working deeper into counts than they have in the past.

The patient approach is working. The Cubs are drawing more walks (2nd in N.L.) and getting on base at a .367 clip (2nd in N.L.). Seeing more pitches also increases the chance of getting a mistake to hit, and sure enough, the Cubs are hitting .280 as a team. With more ducks on the pond, they're scoring runs in bunches and winning more games. They're also a lot more fun to watch.

Like Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui and Daisuke Matsuzaka before him, Fukudome was an established player in Japan before making the leap to the American major leagues. He'd won two batting titles, four Gold Gloves and an MVP award in Japan's Central League. Although he's technically a rookie in the United States, his continued hitting prowess in 2008 was not exactly unexpected, as reflected by his $48 million contract.

The Cubs' other hot rookie, however, is a happy surprise. Catcher Geovany Soto is batting .375 with 19 doubles, a triple, nine homers and 31 RBIs in 45 games since being called up from the minors last September 3. He was named the NL Rookie of the Month in April after leading all rookies with 5 HR and 20 RBI. "Geo" has fallen a triple short of hitting for the cycle three times already this season, and it's only May 7.

I was happy for Kerry Wood last night, getting the job done to mark the anniversary of an earlier feat. Hopes are high that the 2008 Cubs can do likewise: they last won a World Series in 1908.

3 comments:

MOOP said...

not that i care about the sox, but i think i saw a headline this a.m. that their guy threw 8 and a fraction innings of no-hit ball last night. it's cool that the whole town was unhittable at once.

Anonymous said...

Fukudome is too good to be playing for the Cubs.
Last night in that game he laid down a bunt that was picture perfect, moving two runners into scoring position.
Zambrano is the real deal. Only problem is I hate to watch the games he pitches in. It always seems to be a 1 or 2 run ballgame, I like seeing a bit more action, not a pitchers duel.

Brian

Ben said...

Moop, I too heard about the near-no-hitter after the fact. I saw during the Cubs game (which I was dozing through, 84-year-old man that I am) that the White Sox had a shutout going, but didn't know how good it was.

It was the second time already this season that their exciting young pitcher Gavin Floyd has taken a no-hitter into the late innings. Mark Buehrle got one last season and Floyd looks like he's next.

Brian, Fukudome too good for the Cubs? Hardly. Unburden yourself from the weight of history. Fukudome is a winner and thanks to playing like him, so are his teammates. The 2008 Cubs have a lot of upside potential, which they've already been showing.

As for what kind of ballgame you prefer, that's obviously a matter of personal taste. While I too enjoy a rousing 13-9 slugfest with 26 hits, a few errors and some bang-bang plays at the plate, I also appreciate the purity and tension of a 2-1 or 1-0 pitchers' duel.

I love how Zambrano works fast, putting up lots of zeroes. Greg Maddux used to do the same thing at Wrigley, often wrapping up wins in 2 hours, 10 minutes.

The fan in me loved it, but I was also a vendor in the stands at Wrigley Field throughout his Cubs tenure, paid on commission. The guy's artistry cost me a few bucks but it was worth it to have such a stud atop the rotation.

Incidentally, note to bleacher bums and T-shirt entrepreneurs everywhere: "Fukudome" is one word, not four.