Baseball Toaster was unplugged on February 4, 2009.
The short story is at an advantage over the novel, and can claim its nearer kinship to poetry, because it must be more concentrated [and] can be more visionary.
The surprise is half the battle. Many things are half the battle. Losing is half the battle. Let’s think about what’s the whole battle.
—Kevin "Crash" Costner as Eliot Ness in The Untouchables.
Nigel Tufnel: You see, most blokes, you know, will be playing at ten. You're on ten here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up, you're on ten on your guitar. Where can you go from there? Where?
Marty DiBergi: I don't know.
Nigel Tufnel: Nowhere. Exactly. What we do is, if we need that extra push over the cliff, you know what we do?
Marty DiBergi: Put it up to eleven.
Nigel Tufnel: Eleven. Exactly. One louder.
—Spinal Tap's Nigel Tufnel explaining why the band's amplifiers go to 11 instead of the usual 10.
The National League Championship series opened with a bang last night. It was a story that couldn't be told in nine innings so two more nail-biting innings were graciously provided. It was a tale that, as this series enfolds, will be referenced many times, at least in my mind.
It began in a way totally incongruous with the end except that homers were involved. The Cubs jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the first with two triples, a home run, and a walk collected by four of the first five batters, none of whom were named Sammy Sosa. Josh Beckett seemed to be pitching batting practice: Lofon walked on four pitches, Grudzielanek's triple was on a 1-1 pitch (and he began the at-bat with bunt foul, Sosa overeagerly popped out on a 1-1 pitch, Alou homered on a 1-0 pitch, Ramirez tripled on the first pitch, Simon struck out on four pitches, Gonzalez double on an 0-1 pitch, and Bako flied out on the first pitch. In total, Beckett threw only 20 pitches. That's a good number of pitches in an average inning but not for one in which the pitcher gives up four runs. Beckett's resurgence later would be enabled by the fatness of his pitches in the first.
As Beckett was settling in (following the four runs, none of the next 12 Cub batters got a hit or drew a walk and the Cubs went down on four pitches in the third), Carlos Zambrano was relinquished an extra base hit in each of the first two innings but seemed in control. That was until the third, when the game took its first M. Night Shyamalan-like twist. With one out, the Marlins had two runners on base for the first time in the game after Pierre tripled on a 1-0 pitch and Castillo. Zambrano threw his fifth straight ball to start Pudge Rodriguez off next.
Suddenly a comfortable lead evaporated even more quickly than the Cubs had scored in the first. Rodriguez homered to left en route to 5 RBI on the day and the battle was joined. Zambrano battled back after falling behind Lee 2-0 to strike him out on three consecutive strikes. But then the floodgates opened. He fell behind Miguel Cabrera, 3-1, and then allowed back-to-back home runs on two of the next three pitches to Cabrera and Encarnacion. The Marlins amazingly led 5-4.
They added another in the sixth. But just when the Cubs offense seemed DOA, it sprang to life. Beckett was coasting in the sixth. The FOX team had switched allegiances to the Marlins and were busily discussing Pudge Rodriguez's proclivity for Yanni. By the way, what a breath of fresh air Al Leiter's informed, well-spoken, and well-thought-out observations were in the booth. He put Steve Lyons to shame as Lyons tried to overimpress the obvious much more informed color man. Even the Golden Smog, Thom Brennaman, seemed bearable.
The Cubs had two out in the sixth after a weak grounder by Alou and a pop up by Ramirez on the first pitch and appeared ready to "go softly into that night". Suddenly, Randall "Sausage Gate" Simon, of all people, resuscitated the offense with a double to right. Alex Gonzalez then tied the game on a home run to right. You could tell that Josh Beckett was on the ropes because it took him all of five pitches to then strike out anemic Paul Bako.
Just as sudden as the scoring binges, a siege set in. Neither team had more than one hit in their half an inning for the next two innings. The Cubs had opportunities in the seventh and eighth to take leads—Miller led off the seventh with a double and they had first and third with two outs in the eight—, but Chicago was tentative and there was a palpable feeling of the game passing them by.
After Miller's leadoff double, the Cubs went small ball as Kenny Lofton moved Miller to third with a great sacrifice to third that he missed beating out by a step. Carl Pavano then came in and the Cubs went down without getting a ball out of the infield. Although it took a great play by Alex Gonzalez at short on the ball Sammy Sosa hit to keep it in the infield. The Cubs were ready to forego the long-ball style that had dominated the game's offense bursts and they paid for it. Didn't they read the script?
I didn't like the bunt when he did it and I liked it less when they failed to score. First, it lessens the possibility of a big inning. I guess one would argue that that's the point—you sacrifice the big inning for the big go-ahead run in late innings. Well, my second argument against the bunt, is that it does not improve your odds of scoring the one run that greatly. There are two advantages in having Miller at third: 1) he can score on a sac fly, but as the Cubs demonstrated that only helps if you deliver the sac fly. 2) Miller is a slow runner and may not score on a single. One could argue that a pinch-runner would have been a better route, but the Cubs had already used both catchers so Miller was the runner.
In the eighth, Alou lead off with a walk, but a great defensive play by the Marlins' Gonzalez, going deep in the hole, sliding to a stop, and relaying to second to get the lead runner momentarily stymied the stillborn rally. With two outs in, the Cubs' Alex Gonzalez (confusing, isn't it?) singled moving Ramirez to third. Chad Fox then got pinch-hitter on strikeout looking on in disbelief.
Actually, the Cubs demise started with Dusty Baker's tendency to over-maneuvers too early in the game. Miller replaced Bako when Farnsworth relieved Remlinger, as a double-switch with one out in the seventh. Baker double-switched again with Ramon Martinez replacing Alex Gonzalez when Mark Guthrie relieved Joe Borowski in the eleventh. Miller at least doubled and adding his bat in lieu of Bako's made some sense. However, Gonzalez was 3-for-5 at the time, and even though his spot in the lineup didn't come up again, at the start of the eleventh, it looked like it could.
It all seemed to form a pastiche that conveyed that the Cubs could only play catch up and that Marlins would somehow prevail. But it was still tied. Until the closers came in in the ninth.
Todd Hollandsworth battled Joe Borowski with an eight-pitch double with one out in the top of the ninth. Borowski then lost control for a short time. He walked Pierre on five pitches. It seemed that a ground ball to Mark Grudzielanek would end the inning. However, Grudzielanek attempted to tag Pierre as he passed without gaining full control of the ball (which was not apparent initially). He then recovered too late to get the runner at first for an error to load the bases. Pudge Rodriguez again played the hero following with a two-run single, before Borowski shut the door.
As the Cubs entered the bottom of the ninth, it appeared a fait accompli that they would lose the game. Florida called on its closer Ugueth Urbina. Miller quickly obliged by grounding out. However, Lofton got a nice 1-2 pitch to drive to right for a double. The rally seemed short-lived as Grudzielanek grounded an 0-2 pitch out to third.
That brought Sammy Sosa up to bat. Sammy had popped out amid the Cubs' rally in the first, reached on an error in the third only to be double up, struck out in the fifth, and was out on the first great play by Gonzalez. Sammy proceeded to plaster a 1-1 pitch that was way too fat to left to even the score.
In the tenth, the closers settled in and both teams went down 1-2-3. Mark Guthrie came in for the Cubs in the eleventh, and Mike Lowell pinch-hit for Urbina. Lowell and Guthrie battled for five pitches. But Guthrie then delivered a 3-2 hanger that Lowell got every bit of for his first home run since September 15.
After Guthrie got Pierre to ground out, the Cubs' old reliever Antonio Alfonseca came in and quickly worked the bases full on an infield single and two walks. A Miguel Cabrera liner fortuitously was hit right at Martinez at short to double off Pudge and end the inning.
Braden Looper, the Marlins' old closer, came in to shut the door in the bottom of the inning to pick up his first save in a month. And Florida was the victor.
After the game, Lowell likened it to two boxers slugging it out:
"It just kept going back and forth. Weird," Lowell said. "It was kind of like a boxing match."
The analogy is a good one: The Cubs had a big inning in the first. The Marlins had a big inning in the third. The Marlins started to pull away in the sixth, but the Cubs then tied it up. The then measured each other for two innings. As the Marlins collected strength, two Cubs rallies were doused by Alex Gonbzalez's glove. Then the misplay by Grudzielanek and the big hit by Rodriguez seemed to tip the scales the Marlins' way in the ninth. Until Sosa's shocking drive in the bottom of the ninth. Both rallies came off the closers, who both recovered to pitch scoreless tenths.
But the Marlins' had a secret weapon on the bench in Lowell. While the two pugilists were wearing each other out, Lowell sat and he was fresh in the eleventh. Lowell allowed the Marlins to, in the immortal words of Nigel Tufnel, go to 11. Just like Rocky turning to Mickey to cut him late in his match with Apollo Creed, Lowell was the lift the Marlins needed. Not many teams have the luxury of their best hitter on the bench to pinch-hit whenever needed.
Unlike Balboa-Creed I, there will be a rematch tomorrow. (Remember the "Aint gonna be no rematch"-"Don't want one" exchange in the first Rocky. Who knew there would be, what, a dozen films more?)
I have yet to jump on the Marlins' bandwagon. I predicted the Cubs would win in five games and I still feel they will win. However, this is the type of game in which series are defined. If the Marlins win this series, they will be said to have gained the winner's swagger and nonchalance during this game. If the Cubs lose, likely the problematic relieving and the defensive blink in the ninth—while Florida's defense was improving—will resonate through the series.
Then again if the Cubs win, it'll all be meaningless. But it was a heck of a game.
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