Wrap-Up: Chicago Cubs vs Washington Nationals (4/08/12)


Over Opening Day weekend the Cubs and their fans had the unfortunate experience of watching two veteran relievers, the anchors of the bullpen, blow late inning leads. That has been unexpected, despite many experts in the media questioning the back of the bullpen duo as being far from lights out.

Just as unexpected are the deep ballgames the starting pitchers have contributed so far. The bar has been set high for Chris Volstad and Paul Maholm to follow up on, and they will have to do it against slightly better competition in the form of the Milwaukee Brewers, starting Monday night.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, the recap of this afternoon’s game.

What Went Right: Starlin Castro has picked up right where he left off in 2011 offensively. Last year’s National League total hits leader already has racked up five hits through the opening series. He singled in the fourth to eventually come in as the first run of the game.

New manager Dale Sveum is looking to pressure opposing teams by keeping Cubs base runners in motion. The philosophy was exhibited during Spring Training and it has been carried over so far into the regular season. This is despite the fact that not much speed has been added to the roster compared to the squad put together last year. Tony Campana is not even on the roster. Another indictment of the past regime? Castro was the prime explain in this category as well, stealing second base and advancing to third on the throwing error by the Nationals’ catcher. Castro swiped his second bag later in the eighth to eventually become the final insurance run that ended up being the game winner. The third year short stop already has four stolen bases to his name.

The Cubs as a team continued the trend of scoring first, a great quality to have for a winning team. They have also been able to score runs without the aid of any long balls yet. While even the new front office will have to admit that this line up lacks power compared to the rest of the league, it is a great sign that the offense is finding ways to grind out runs. It is still very, very early, but so far these Cubs have been great examples of what the new regime is trying to accomplish in terms of the culture.

Last but not least, we revisit the starting pitching. Many of you are familiar with my continued insistence that Jeff Samardzija is best suited for the back of the bullpen. While that remains my stance for the time being, the former wide receiver out of Notre Dame is certainly doing his part to prove me wrong. He made a habit of getting ahead of the count with first pitch strikes and racked up a career high eight Ks while falling one out short of a complete game.

What Went Wrong: The blown leads by Carlos Marmol and Kerry Wood have been well talked about over the weekend, but their failures in the first two games almost indirectly lead to a third. With Samardzija cruising along with just 90 pitches thrown after eight innings, Sveum let the youngster go out on the mound in the ninth to try to finish what he started. Part of the reason was surely the uncertainty he witnessed along with everyone else out of Wood and Marmol the past two days, but another was the fact that the pitch count was low and that the Cubs had tacked on a pair of insurance runs in the bottom of the eighth.

Just as Castro was praised earlier for carrying over his offense from 2011, he unfortunately has also carried over some of the defensive mistakes he made last year. His throwing error on a ground ball that should have ended the day and capped off Samardzija’s complete game eventually led to giving the Cubs another nail biting finish.

Garza celebrates Samardzija’s win with shaving cream pie. (Photo courtesy of The Chicago Tribune).

What was Interesting: Steve Clevenger got his first start behind the plate this season after Geovany Soto has not shown much. Again, it is early, but it will be interesting to see how often Sveum will look to plug in the rookie if Soto gets off to a slow start. All the talk of culture change and being different than the past front office and coaching staff should bode well for Clevenger’s chances at increased playing time in the scenario that Soto struggles. The back up catcher should also be credited some for Samardzija’s success today, considering the two have experience hooking up from their days in the minors.

The Cubs could have easily swept this series to get off to a hot start, but instead they will welcome the Brewers into town next, as the North Siders try to get their first series win now that Sveum’s first win as Cubs manager is under his belt.