Last night the Nationals finally snapped the skid. Phew.
Sorry to be a downer, but they did it with a decidedly non-repeatable formula: brilliant pitching from Tim Redding, a 2-inning save from Joel Hanrahan, and four runs off ten hits--all singles. You know how often that kind of performance results in a win? Yeah, about once every 13 games or so.
Here's my take on game 1 against the class of the National League (or the most hapless franchise of the last century in MLB, depending on how you look at it).
Jason Marquis: Known jokingly(?) in the Cub blogosphere as the Marquis de Suck, Marquis is one of those high-priced free agents that the Nationals passed on after the 2006 season. Once upon a time, Marquis threw in the low 90s with a hard curve and a couple off-speed offerings that were good enough to make him a good 3 or 4. That was a long time ago.
His velocity and K-rates have been in decline for years, and when the Cubs paid 3 years and $21 million to get him, they had no right to expect anything better than 190 or so innings a year of replacement-level starting pitching. It maybe made sense for them at the time, but, like our own Guzman re-signing, you can't excuse overpaying for a bad free agent because the team has failed to develop its own cheaper, younger, replacement-level players.
Actually, Marquis hasn't been quite that bad for the Schlubbies (I don't care what their record is--I'm still calling them that till they end the WS drought). He's given them an ERA in the 4.6-es two years in a row. He doesn't strike out anyone (9.1%, vs. 16% league-average) and he walks too many (12%, vs. 8% league average), but he gets a lot of groundballs (46%, vs. 42% league average), and he's durable. Of course, innings-eaters are only valuable if they don't stink. If you see him on the mound in the playoffs, expect to see the Brewers in the WS.
Lately, he's been bounced in and out of the rotation since Harden came over. Besides just trying to not let him pitch, Piniella is trying to deal with a pattern Marquis has had for 3 years of breaking down in September. He posted a 6.21 ERA in the final month last season and went 0-4 with a 7.25 ERA with St. Louis in September 2006.
Look for a mix of fastballs, sliders, and change-ups, maybe a curve or cutter here or there. We should get plenty of pitches to hit, but since we have no power and can score only by stringing together walks and singles, we're going to let guys like this off the hook more often than not.
One other thing--one prominent rumor in 2006 had Marquis going to the Reds straight up for Austin Kearns. Not sure what that says, but there it is.
John Lannan: Mr. Mental Toughness, Lannan admitted that he lost focus in his last start, his worst of the year, getting rocked by the Rox while allowing 4 walks and 4 stolen bases. It was the day after Aaron-mageddon, so I imagine the clubhouse wasn't pretty that day. But Lannan needs a bounce-back. And I believe he'll do it, though the Cubs in Wrigley are the toughest test he'll face this year.
What to Look For
--The Cubs have the NL's highest scoring offense. With a lead of 53 runs over the next closest team. Every hitter in their lineup save one has an OPS+ over 100 (meaning they are like the kids in Lake Woebegone--all above average).
--Jim Edmonds, long among the most hated of rivals in Wrigleyville, has been the Cubs' best hitter, period. His adjusted OPS is 141, meaning he's 41% better than league-average. I'm sure the bleacher bums don't want to admit it, but he's been an absolute god-send for them.
--Fukudome's been their weakest link. He'd still be probably best hitter in our lineup (well, not really--maybe the 3rd best), but they could have gotten a .265 BA / .363 OBP / .385 SLG from Matt Murton for a lot less money. Lou's even talked about benching Fukudome for Reed Johnson. What's Japanese for "oy"?
--Marquis is one of a number of good Cub hitting pitchers. His career line is .203 BA / .224 OPS / .292 SLG.
--The Cubs' bullpen has been absolutely fantastic. Wood took to the closer's role in such fine fashion that millions are wondering, "why didn't we think of this four years ago?" Marmol, who throws a Lidge-esque FB/SL combo, could be the best closer in the NL right now, if he was closing. Cotts, Gaudin, Samardzija and Marshall are all good options as well. Only Howry's really struggled this year. I don't know what his deal is, but a quick scan at the game log says he's been relegated to mop-up duty.
--Oh, and they have a guy named Soriano who plays for them too. I'll have a separate post on him.
What to Cheer For
Lannan. If he can hang tough against this line-up, it'll be a real feather in his cap.
(Season record: 17-12)
Lannan hangs tough, but the Cubs take it out on the bullpen and win 7-3.