What a ballgame.
When Bryan Lee and I acquired tickets for two games of Cubs/Cardinals for July 4th weekend, it was our hope that the two teams would still be fighting among themselves for the right to first place in the NL Central. After that, we were hoping for tight, close, well-played ballgames.
That was asking a lot. And for at least one of the two games we’re going to see, we absolutely got it.
A few notes from the Cubs’ hard-fought 2-1 victory over St. Louis on Friday night:
Carlos Zambrano, in his return from the DL, was as sharp as he’s been all season. My worry was that we’d get Wild Z instead of just Big Z, but even on a pitch count in front of a packed ballpark to kick off a series in which first place was conceivably on the line, Big Z was an absolute ace, keeping the ball down, mixing up his stuff and throwing hard 95 mph heat. He only walked two, and one was unintentionally intentional. The shoulder, in scattering four hits over six shutout innings, appears in good shape. So do the Cubs’ chances if he remains healthy the rest of the way.
As good as Zambrano was, Cards starter Braden Looper just about matched him pitch-for-pitch. He went seven effective innings, but was touched for solo home runs by Kosuke Fukudome and Geovany Soto, two rookies he hasn’t seen much, and threw 120-plus pitches. Marlins and Mets fans have to wonder why he isn’t still with one of their teams.
You often hear that St. Louis Cardinals fans are the best ones in baseball.
When longtime Cardinal Jim Edmonds stepped into the box for his first at-bat back in St. Louis, even in wearing the hated Cubs blue, he received a standing ovation. He stepped into the box, but had to step back out because of the roar. He took off his helmet and tipped it, acknowledged the crowd, and stepped back in. The whole thing gave me chills. Real live, legitimate chills.
And then, after striking out, there was another roar. That’s the way it should be. Hoored, but then it’s back to baseball. Beautiful.
Baseball fans know that Fukudome has a reputation for being a dazzling right fielder. He didn’t make any great catches on Friday night, but he didn’t have to. But watching how smooth he is out there, even in shagging batting practice, you can tell he can really play. It’s like he’s floating, not running. Smooth.
Another nice moment happened after Fukudome’s first-inning blast into the right field stands. We had seats just seven rows up in the lower level behind the right-field wall. About three rows in front of us and a little to the left, there was a Japanese family, wearing Fukudome jerseys, and even waving a Chinichi Dragons Fukudome jersey. As Fuku was, well, floating back out to his position in right, a few fans sarted a FU-KU-DO-ME chant right around the Japanese family. Kosuke looked up, obviously saw the family, which included about a 3-year-old girl who made me miss my Allison that much more, and the jersey, smiled and waved his glove to them. A lot of ballplayers could learn a thing or two about public relations just by waving to well-meaning fans from time to time.
Bob Howry is still terrible. He had a nice seventh in relief of Zambrano, but naturally gave up a two-strike homer to Albert Pujols with two outs in the eighth. Still, it was history for all of us, as we got to see Phat Albert’s 300th career blast.
And here’s the thing about Pujols’ bomb — it made the ninth that much more tense. Due up, the Cards had Troy Glaus, Chris Duncan, Yadier Molina and Ryan Ludwick waiting to pinch-hit should he be needed. Every one of those guys can hurt you with one swing, and Glaus nearly ripped the hearts out of Cubs fans when he jacked Kerry Wood’s first offering deep down the left-field line and foul.
Woody settled down and got Glaus and Duncan, but the fervor was there on every pitch. Power pitcher versus power hitters. Cubs fans were one strike away when Molina dropped a bleeder in front of Reed Johnson in left, a play made more dramatic by the fact that Johnson almost got it. That, of course, brought up Ludwick as the go-ahead run, and on every pitch the game was hanging in the balance. Fifty thousand strong standing, roaring, hoping one way or the other that the game would turn out the right way for them. After a ground ball to second baseman Mark DeRosa ended it, some of us actually got to let the gutteral roar of joy out.
OK, OK, That Guy. You’ve been waiting, I know.
I knew there would be a decent Cubs contingent in the building, but I was a little surprised by how many. Of course, St. Louis borders the state of Illinois, which suggests why there are more Cubs fans at Cardinals games than there were Cards fans at the Cubs game I went to in August. Even in the area around where we were seating, in the span of three rows and the seats in and around us, there were nearly as many Cubs fans as Cardinals fans. I got to high-five guys in Sandberg, Fukudome and Wood jerseys. I got called “Santo!” walking in and out and around the stadium. It was comfortable, and the ribbing from Cardinals fans was clearly in good supply, but good-natured.
Of course though, in all my worries about the That Guy, Cardinal Fan Variety, I failed to think about That Guy, Cub Brand. Ugh. This Guy sat in our section and row, and by the end of the game, was belligerant about the Cubs. Embarrassing. Even after Glaus was retired in the ninth, only moments after his near-miss, This Guy hollered “Why are you so quiet now, Cardinals fans?” UM, MAYBE BECAUSE THERE WERE STILL TWO REALLY HARD FREAKING OUTS TO GET, YOU IDIOT!
That Guy. I saw him. I sat almost next to him
But I wasn’t him. And I was reminded why.
Time for Saturday’s game 2 of the series. The improbably effective Kyle Lohse for the Cardinals against the likely to give up at least three homers to the right-handed power-hitting Cards Ted Lilly for the Cubs.
Check back for more thoughts.