The joke’s on the Cubs

2019-06-01 MattCarpenter

Marcel Ozuna (23) gives Matt Carpenter the icy spoils of thwarting the Cubs’ impersonation of the Chicago Bears’ defensive line Friday night.

Doing a comic sketch over the winter in which he referred to St. Louis (the city, not the Cardinals) as “boring” has gotten Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant a mouthful in Busch Stadium Friday night. It even got him a few from his own teammates, who apparently can go along with a gag.

But it wasn’t all that funny when what began as a rather admirable pitching duel between the Cardinals’ Mike Mikolas and the Cubs’ Yu Darvish ended in the bottom of the tenth with Matt Carpenter driving the winner home off Cubs reliever Steve Cishek with the bases loaded, one out, and the Cubs shooting themselves in the defensive foot.

“They had their entire 25-man roster on the right side of the field, so I just knew that hitting pull side on the ground—pull side in the air, that’s fine, we could still score—pull side on the ground was not an option,” Carpenter said after surviving a celebratory jersey-shredding and a big Gatorade ice dump on the infield. “So my approach in that at-bat was to look for something to hit the other way and get something in the air and was able to do it.”

The Cardinals’ third baseman exaggerated only slightly, of course. But the Cubs did line up four players along the edge of the grass on the right side of the infield and moved their outfield far enough right when Carpenter checked in at the plate. The infield looked more populated by the Chicago Bears’ offensive line than a baseball team.

And the Cubs looked even more ridiculous for putting that exaggerated an overshift upon a batter who’s far more of a line drive hitter than a ground baller. Carpenter may be struggling to get himself on track at the plate this year so far, but he’s a) a .283 hitter lifetime in high leverage situations; and, b) a .646 hitter when he gets something to hit on a line, standard or high.

Most likely the Cubs hoped Carpenter’s comparative weakness as a pure fly ball hitter (.194) and a ground ball hitter (.236) would work in their favour, maybe a double play to send the game to an eleventh inning. They misread their assailant almost completely, especially with Cishek starting Carpenter with nothing he could put on the ground if he’d been swinging an ax to chop the ball in half.

Cishek only got to throw two pitches to Carpenter. The first was a slider that climbed instead of slid up and in for ball one. The second landed almost right down the pipe, and Carpenter lifted it like a golfer with a five-iron, sending it down the left field line.

Where the Cubs’ Willson Contreras, a catcher by trade inserted into left field in a double switch, and about as swift as an earth mover, could only watch as the drive hit the grass a few feet away from his onrushing self and bounced into the corner left field stands.

The net result wasted a delightful pitching duel between Mikolas and Darvish. A duel that shook off an early one-all tie with both runs coming home on sacrifice flies, the Cardinals opening in the bottom of the first with left fielder Marcel Ozuna scoring Carpenter on an opposite field fly and Darvish, of all people, pulling a sac fly to left in the top of the second to score (Chris Berman, call your office) his catcher Victor (Beta) Caratini.

The Cubs managed six hits off Mikolas and the Cardinals three off Darvish, but both pitchers worked effectively enough with Darvish slightly better in six than Mikolas in seven, Darvish striking out six against three walks and pitching mostly to his defenders with somewhat surprising composure considering his continuing inconsistencies.

One minute, Darvish looks like a solid number three starter this year. The next, he looks like he can’t find the strike zone with a search party. His previous outing, against the Reds, saw him get six runs battered out of him in seven innings’ work, after a trio of starts in which he kept the other guys (including the Reds) to three or less.

On Friday night it was as if Darvish wanted revenge for the four-inning, five-run mugging the Cardinals laid on him on 4 May, in which he helped hand them the machetes with five walks. Realising in the shaky first that his fastball started asleep, Darvish went to an array of curve balls and cutters for the most part in the second before his four-seamer awoke.

Miklas had the opposite trouble: his breaking balls weren’t quite as effective as his fastballs early on; Darvish himself tagged a curve ball for that second-inning sac fly. But as the game went on Miklas’s fastballs came alive just enough for him to use as either out pitches or setup pitches for his breakers and the occasional changeup.

The Cubs were more than a little infuriated when young Dillon Maples, sent out to work the tenth, threw what looked at every angle like a full-count strike three to Harrison Bader, the Cardinals’ right fielder, with Cardinals infielder Kolten Wong (one-out double) on second. Except that Laz Diaz called it ball four. It was the type of slider no less than ESPN’s Stats and Information department says gets called a strike 92 percent of the time or better.

“That’s the kind of thing that bums me out,” the manager said after the game. “To have pitches taken away from him in a crucial moment . . . Now my guy has to go home and feel bad about himself tonight. And it wasn’t even a borderline pitch. It was a strike.

Maples tried to shake it off but he walked Jedd Gyorko to load the pads for Carpenter. “I just made a close pitch and obviously didn’t get the call I wanted,” the young reliever said after the game. “So I was a little upset, but you have to move on.”

But when he didn’t, Maddon went to Cishek and the Monsters of the Midway infield defense. And Carpenter de-fanged the beasts with one swing and one floating opposite field fly.

The Cubs didn’t have one of their better games even before Carpenter left them with the proverbial egg on their tenth-inning faces. They went 0-for-8 with men on second or better, officially. The Cardinals weren’t that much better, going 1-for-5 in the same situation.

But the Cubs at least had a few laughs when the game got underway and Bryant batted in the first. When the Busch Stadium audience let him have it as he walked up to the plate, Bryant was amused to see his buddy Anthony Rizzo leading the Cubs dugout and bullpen in a chorus of booing.

“It was pretty funny,” said Bryant after the game. “I wanted to look and see all who was doing it . . . I think he told the bullpen guys to get in on it.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever roundly booed one of my own guys before,” Maddon cracked. “I can check that off the list.”

Bryant hit Miklas’s first pitch to him past the infield for a base hit. It was the only hit Bryant got all night. The goal-line stand the Cubs tried in the tenth, alas, was about as funny as the proverbial pickpocket in the nudist colony. But it gave Carpenter and the Cardinals the last laugh.

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