What better way to usher in a new baseball season than a series between two of the National League’s powerhouse clubs.
Sadly, we had to settle for the Cubs and Pirates.
Here we had two clubs anxious to start the season in the worst way. And they sure did. But they inadvertently produced the most compelling baseball of the opening weekend. What a fine testament to the game itself, that these two clubs created such riveting action.
The Pirates, coming off a 105-loss season, have set a record for longevity below the .500 mark. They haven’t finished with a winning record since Sid slid home.
The Cubs, of course, haven’t won a World Series since ’08. 1908. They haven’t even reached the Series in 65 years.
The Pirates, under new manager Clint Hurdle, expect improvement. After 57 wins, that seems reasonable. But their projected lineup features not a single .300 hitter, and no one who blasted more than 21 home runs a year ago.
The Cubs, by contrast, don’t know quite what to expect under new manager Mike Quade. They went 75-87 last year, saved from last place in the NL Central by the Pirates. They return not a single batter who hit over .300.
Their three power hitters are classic all-or-nothing guys. Aramis Ramirez (25 homers in 2010) hit .241; Alfonso Soriano (24) hit .258; and their big acquisition, Carlos Pena, blasted 28 homers for the Rays. He also hit a robust .196.
The Pirates’ pitching rotation employs not a single member who compiled an ERA under 4.00 in 2010. The worst of the lot, ex-Brave Charlie Morton, went 2-12 with a dazzling 7.57 ERA.
Morton went to the Pirates, along with Gorkys Hernandez and Jeff Locke, in the Nate McLouth trade. Pretty even swap so far.
The Cubs’ rotation at least has promise, with Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza (from the Rays) and the enigmatic Carlos Zambrano leading the way. And they have Carlos Marmol (38 saves) and Kerry Wood in the bullpen.
The Pirates’ bullpen features Joel Hanrahan and Evan Meek. Combined saves in 2010: 10.
Opening Day at Wrigley Field produced a full house of 41,358 braving 41 degree weather and their hapless Cubbies. The Cubs scored in the first, thanks to a throwing error by Pirates’ third baseman Pedro Alvarez, and added a run in the second.
Dempster sailed through the punchless Pirate lineup until the fifth, when Neil Walker hit a grand slam. Andrew McCutchen added a 2-run homer in the seventh, and the Bucs won, 6-3.
On Saturday, the teams reversed their roles. Paul Maholm shut out the Cubs into the seventh, with the Pirates building a 3-0 lead. Then Meek strolled out of the Pirates’ bullpen to pitch the bottom of the eighth.
He walked Kosuke Fukudome leading off. Predictably, terror ensued. In quick succession: a wild pitch, Starlin Castro double, egregious error by Lyle Overbay, Geovany Soto single, Soriano single, and a Blake DeWitt double for the final two runs and an unexpected 5-3 lead.
Marmol came on in the ninth and, without incident, struck out the side.
That set up Sunday’s rubber game of the series, in which the Cubs nursed a 4-3 lead into the ninth inning. In came Marmol. He promptly walked Garrett Jones.
Then Walker singled, a weak little hit into shallow right field.
Overbay moved both runners over with a bunt, bringing Alvarez to the plate. Quade left his infield back, oddly. Alvarez took a mighty swing, and drilled the ball 70 feet, just past the left side of the pitcher’s mound.
Whereupon the Cubs became the Cubs, producing the sort of play that has become their trademark over their last century of futility.
As Marmol stood transfixed, watching in horror, Castro charged in from short, made a fine bare-handed pick-up, and promptly failed to realize that he had no play.
Instead, he sling-shotted the ball in the general direction of Pena at first. Not the most agile of first basemen, Pena managed to glove the errant toss, pick himself up, and look homeward. By this time Walker was bearing down on Soto. Pena’s throw, slightly up the line, came too late as Walker scored the winning run.
“My sense is we’re going to be in a lot of these type of games,” Quade told Paul Sulivan of the Chicago Tribune.
Longtime Cubs observers certainly agree. At least it only took one weekend for the Cubs to reach mid-season form.
As for the Pirates, they made it through the first weekend one precious game above .500.