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Saturday, October 19

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Cubs in Five

Lawn Care is Our Only Hope?
by Jeff Webber

Briefly, before we begin? Holy crap, did we really take 2 of 3 from the Cardinals? Good news for this week: Astros are up next, but Clemens shouldn't be back with them yet.

One: Greg Maddux May Be Shouting the F-Word in an Entirely Different Home Stadium Soon
Ostensibly, I made this a point so we could talk about the chances of Maddux being dealt to LA. And, yeah, that makes sense. He's not going to get that World Series ring in Chicago this year, so he might as well pitch near his Vegas home for a contending team. But really, what I want to talk about is Mad Dog's sheer peerlessness when it comes to frustration-fueled f-words. Talk all you want about his "professorial" or "intellectual" approach to baseball, he's still a 40-something dude with a beer belly who never went to college and drops f-bombs loud enough to hear from the hot dog line every time he screws up. Man, can that guy swear.

Two: Cubs, Already Toast, Bring on the Marmol-Aid
Carlos Marmol, a 23-year-old catcher-turned-pitcher, has been called up from the AA West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx, becoming the 217th rookie pitcher used by the Cubs this year. Carlos, known to his teammates as "Marmolito," RHP, retired 6 of the 7 batters he faced in his relief debut, striking out three. The Dominican was 3-2 with a 2.33 ERA at West Tenn, holding hitters to a .207 average. No word yet on who the Cubs have selected to perform his inevitable shoulder surgery, but, by this point, they may as well just grab some dude who stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night.

Three: Lucky Number Nevin?
Remember when you were four and you really wanted that Play-Doh barbershop playset and you told your crazy Aunt about it, so she bought it for you…five Christmases later when you were nine? Yeah, so now that the punchless Cubs have played themselves into the ground, and now that Derrek Lee is due back in just two weeks, Jim Hendry finally got us an interim first baseman. Nevin, for his part, is an aging slugger whose claim to fame once was as one of the worst bust #1 draft picks of the last twenty years. But then he grew up, straightened out his work habits, and spent the years '99 through '04 as a top-notch teammate and the slugging heart of the Padres' order. It's a different Phil Nevin we're getting now—older, and not so hot against right-handed pitching, but he's still a good guy and may yet become an Eric Karros-like bench standout. Still, at this point, it's kind of like the Play-Doh thing.

Four: Only My Dad Really Believes Mowing the Lawn Can Change the World
In an effort to aid their running game, the Cubs have trimmed the infield grass significantly shorter. Although Wrigley has long been known for high grass (intended to aid pitchers, fielding impaired shortstops, and third basemen by slowing down grounders), the thinking is that shorter grass will help our many speedster-types scratch out more singles. I'm less interested in seeing Juan Pierre & Co. run than I would be in seeing them walk. It's called on-base percentage kids, and it's all the rage.

Five: Four Pieces of Bad and/or Indifferent News About Cubs Pitchers, All Crammed Into One Bitter, Concentrated Dose
Reliever Scott Williamson was placed on the 15-day DL with right lateral epicondylitis, or tennis elbow. No really, tennis elbow…Rich Hill was a machine last Tuesday, pitching for AAA Iowa. He struck out 14, allowing just two hits over seven innings, even retiring 16 hitters in a row in one stretch. He should be back to disappointing us in the big leagues any day now…Cubs trainer Mark O'Neal scoffed at insinuations that Mark Prior's delayed rehab may be about pending shoulder surgery. "It's only a flesh wound!"…Kerry Wood's next start has been bumped 'til today because of shoulder stiffness. Maybe he and Prior can share a room.

Bonus: Weird But True
Todd Walker 0-for-7 on Friday but had the game winning RBI. Last time a Cub did that? That would be never.

Sox in Five

A Slight Stumble Doesn't Mean the Marathon is Lost
by Steve Gozdecki

"…but these Sox keep on winning."

Seems like it was just a week ago that I finished my column with those words above, back in a time when your 2006 Chicago White Sox were a mere game and a half behind those hot hot hot Tigers, who were preparing to spend a week hosting the two big hairy scary beasts from the AL East. And though Detroit lived up to my low expectations by going 2-4 in their last six games, our Sox managed to do even worse in going 1-5 over that same span of time against two great-hit, no-pitch teams known as the Indians of Cleveland and the Texas Rangers.

Having lost three straight series, the Sox have the pessimists—a term that describes a good 93.8 percent of their traditional fan base—all a-tremblin' about how the team is as doomed as doomed can be. But here's the key thing to keep in mind: a sweep of Detroit—something the Sox did on the road in early April—puts the White Sox back on top of the AL Central.

So let's go, White Sox. And let's go, Sox in Five!

One: Rotation Rot
Meet the White Sox, who lead baseball in home runs with 81 going into Monday night's action. And meet the White Sox, who, um, aren't pitching they way they did last year despite the addition of Javier Vazquez as fifth starter. Where to begin in trying to figure out what's wrong with this year's staff, which has put up a 4.37 ERA through the first nine weeks? Jose Contreras and Mark Buerhle are still a strong 1-2 punch, though both have experienced some troubling control problems of late. Vazquez seems to be trying too hard to live up to his "strikeout pitcher" reputation, leading to high pitch counts that frequently see him exiting the game in the sixth or seventh inning after early on. Freddy Garcia's velocity comes and goes, which has left him, at age 30, relying on guile and craft like a man five years older than he is. And while by now Garcia should indeed have mastered the pitching aspect of the game, he's quickly losing the thrower's athletic abilities, the sheer arm power, that got him drafted in the first place. As for Jon Garland, meh. If you can find a GM willing to believe that the Garland we saw the first half of last year and in the post-season was the real Jon Garland, flip him for a shortstop prospect.

Two: Bullpen Blues
Bullpen rollcall time. Dustin Hermanson? Hasn't pitched an inning this season due to severe back problems. Neal Cotts? Slipping a bit from the big improvement he showed last year, but settling into the role of being more of a setup man, less of a loogy. (Though Ozzie's Larussa-esque reliance on righty-lefty match-ups tends to stretch a game out while burning up the minutes on the bullpen phone plan.) Agustin Montero? Bring me his head, because we know next to nothing about his right arm, or what he can do with it. Matt Thornton? A project who takes the occasional step forward but then regresses. Boone Logan? Back riding the busses, as a pitcher his age usually should be. Brandon McCarthy? Feeling some growing pains a la Kirk Cameron, and hoping not to be left behind. Jeff Nelson? Old, and now disabled with neuritis, and hopefully grateful that he has it in his ulnar nerve rather than the optic form that left my wife wearing an eye patch for a spell a few years back. Cliff Politte? Not content to let the fans worry, he's turned himself into an ineffectual nervous wreck. Big Bobby Jenks? Doing a-okay as our closer in his second big league season, thank you. Now if only a few of his bullpen mates would follow his lead before our GM goes out and trades away too much for some guy who has thrown 20 to 30 lucky innings, and thus turned into a tradable commodity, for whatever team was lucky enough to win a round of relief pitcher roulette, that'd be great.

Three: Back to School
Ah, the big league life, so different from the ball some of us played in our youth, where practice time far outweighed live game action. In the bigs, you do some work on fundamentals for a month or so in the spring, then spend the season traveling, shagging a few balls or taking grounders before games, putting in a turn or two at the cage during batting practice, and just generally relying on the instincts you honed to get yourself to the bigs in the first place. Except when things start going bad, anyway, which is why Ozzie had a number of hitters (as well as his pitchers, who will have to bat against the Cubs, Pirates and Reds in upcoming road interleague action) work on bunting during extended batting practice over the weekend. While the Sun-Times was diplomatic in reporting the story, the Tribune named names, noting that Scott Podsednik, Tadahito Iguchi, Juan Uribe, Brian Anderson, Pablo Ozuna and Alex Cintron were the six Sox singled out to sharpen some rough edges. Somewhere, I suspect, Chris Widger must've been hiding.

Four: Big Mack, Little Glove
Well, it's bad but not as bad as it could've been. The Sox have settled into a platoon arrangement in center field, but it's one that doesn't involve scheduled time for the atrocious Pablo Ozuna. Yes, from this time forward Brian Anderson will only be starting against left-handed pitchers and a few select righties, which means our theoretical super-sub, Rob Mackowiak, will be playing lots of center despite a less-than-smooth-or-speedy repertoire. The mystery here is why we don't have the very fast Scott Podsednik, a one-time center fielder, playing out there in favor of Big Mack, who fields like, well, a corner outfielder, but some questions are made to linger rather than being addressed.

Five: Thome's Tender Groin
Bummer to see the reality of Jim Thome's 35 years catching up to him a few days back, when he reported problems with his groin—or gra-hoin, as radio rookie Chris Singleton pronounces it—that saw him sitting out the Rangers series as part of Ozzie's highly laudable "better too much rest than too little" philosophy regarding injuries. This move also shoots up a little warning flare that talk of starting Thome in the field on occasion during DH-less interleague road games may be rather premature. While Jim Thome, PH, doesn't have the same sweet ring as Jim Thome, DH, it beats the heck out of Jim Thome, DL.

Fire in Five

The Fire's Coming Home—I'm Going to Germany
by Steve Gillies

One: Well, At Least That's Over…Kind Of
The Fire wrapped their grueling road trip this weekend with a disappointing loss to Real Salt Lake. While the Fire should look forward to playing their first game at home this weekend in a "Public Safety Event," they'll have to get back on the road for two more games until the big Grand Opening on June 25. One wonders how they're going to mentally handle getting back on the road after one, limited capacity homegame. Also, with losses to Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake, two of last year's expansion pushovers, you have to wonder whether it's the wear and tear of so many games on the road, or if this year's team just isn't good enough. Nate Jaqua and Chris Rolfe are going to have to start scoring goals soon if they're going to make me believe it's the former and not the latter.

Two: Have There Been Any Bright Spots?
In addition to scoring a long range bomb in his first professional start, Brian Plotkin looked more convincing as an understudy to Chris Armas than any of the other young players we've tried there. Of course, the other rookie that people have gotten excited about this year, Dasan Robinson, has started accidentally scoring goals for the other team. In all seriousness though, every defender is going to score an own goal at some point, so it's good that Robinson got that out of the way early. What will be interesting is to see how the rookie reacts to it.

Three: Okay, Enough About the Fire, I'm Talking About the World Cup
The World Cup kicks off this Friday with host Germany playing Costa Rica. It's pretty much the greatest sporting event in the world. I mean, where else can you see an event where Portugal plays Angola and businesses in both countries are shut down for the day. Even if you don't care much about soccer and are reading this column just for my sparkling prose, you should check out at least one game. And don't just watch it on TV. Find a bar or a restaurant that's related to one of the nations playing. For example, find out when Poland's playing and watch a game in a Polish bar. Or England at one of the bars that shows English Premiere League games on weekend mornings (my favorite is the Globe on Irving Park). Just watch a game somewhere with a real fan presence to take a look at what this game means to people and maybe you'll start to get this whole soccer thing.

Four: So How is the U.S. Going to Do?
Well, we made it to the quarter-finals last World Cup, and by most accounts we have a stronger, more experienced squad. So we should make it further this time around, right?

Not really. The U.S. got drawn into one of the hardest groups in the tournament, facing the talented Czech Republic, powerhouse Italy, and the wildcard Ghana. It's totally conceivable they could play very well and not win a game. It's also conceivable they could win the group. The teams are that closely matched. All in all though, I'd consider it a minor upset if the U.S. gets out of the group stage. Regardless, I'll be at the games wearing red, possibly chanting or singing or doing something kind of embarrassing.

Five: Who's Going to Win the World Cup?
If you're going by sheer talent, it would be hard to bet against Brazil. They sport the world's greatest player in Ronaldinho, and a whole bunch of other superstars. Still, I think they're too heavily favored and someone usually finds a way to beat the favorites. Also, they might be burdened by aging superstars like Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos who are coming along for the ride more for their reputations than how they've been playing recently. A lot of English people are high on England right now, but a few key injuries and a lame duck manager will probably make this a disappointing tournament for a very talented group of players. Italy looks like they have a shot, but they might be distracted by a scandal involving match-fixing in their professional league (and by the mighty U.S. offense). So, as much as I hate to say it, I think Germany will win this year. Sure, it's probably the worst German team they've ever fielded, but they've got homefield advantage. Plus, if you look at the history of the World Cup, whenever no one else has been good enough to win it, the Germans tend to win by default. Of course, you shouldn't take my word for anything. Last World Cup I went around telling people Italy would win. In 1998 I picked England. I think I was telling people Columbia would in 1994…

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About the Author(s)

Jeff Webber spends hours and hours every day taking in every printed, spoken, and broadcast word he can find about the Chicago Cubs, and each week till the end of the season he's boiling them down into five simple crib notes you can use to stay on top of any watercooler or corner bar Cubs discussion. Send comments to cubs@gapersblock.com.

Steve Gozdecki has been a White Sox fan his entire life, with the exception of an ill-advised flirtation with the 1984 Cubs in the days when his town wasn't wired for cable. Because he swears by the work of the "baseball outsiders," who believe that statistical analysis trumps old truisms like subjective evaluation and team chemistry, he found himself pleasantly surprised when the Sox won it all last year. Each week through the 2006 season, Steve will bring you five crucial talking points you can use the next time someone says, "Hey, how 'bout them Sox?" Send comments to sox@gapersblock.com.

Steve Gillies watches too much soccer to be completely healthy. He's been a Fire fan since he stood in a torrential downpour while the Fire beat New England 6-0 and he realized watching American soccer games in person was a lot better than watching European football matches on television. Each week he'll give you five things to talk about if you happen to get cornered by one of those soccer people at a party. Send comments to fire@gapersblock.com

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