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As the Cubs' Ryan Sweeney bumbled around the bases in the fourth inning on Sunday and eventually crash-landed at third, turning what should have been a lead-off triple into an absolute gift out for the Mets, it occurred to me again: So many major leaguers are the last guys a youth baseball coach wants his charges to emulate.
Sometimes you just can't believe these guys are playing at the highest level of baseball.
This season may be all about player development but we've said before that young players need to develop ways to win in addition to developing better swings and defensive mechanics. The Cubs have been playing better the last few weeks, providing some hope that the first half of this season won't be just another grim march in which the priority is profiling certain veterans in order to trade them later on.
But they took a big step back against the Mets on Sunday and there was no shortage of little things that could have made a big difference.
The first was Anthony Rizzo striking out with David DeJesus at third with one out in the first inning. DeJesus ended up stranded. Situational hitting demands at least making contact in that at-bat.
Then there was Travis Wood throwing a brutal high change-up to Mets rookie Juan Lagares. Lagares bashed it into the left-center field stands for his first major league homer to tie the game at 3 with two outs and two strikes in the seventh, tarnishing what was otherwise another strong start for Travis Wood.
Meanwhile, Starlin Castro committed another error on Saturday and still lacks plate discipline though he's in his fourth season with nearly 2,000 major league at-bats behind him.
With 34 errors on the season so far, the Cubs trail only the Washington Nationals (38) among all teams in horrible fielding. (The White Sox lead the American League with 31 errors, good for fifth-worst overall as the National League is really stinking it up this year.)
So it can truly be said that the Cubs are lacking fundamentals in all phases of the game.
Let's return to Sweeney, though, to reinforce our point.
it's true that he did redeem himself a few innings later with a solo home run. And he has been a solid platoon outfielder for the Cubs since he was signed off waivers earlier in the season.
But that didn't really make up for the blown opportunity during the previous turn of the batting order, especially in light of the Cubs eventually losing by a single run and in the process losing a three-game home series (2-1) that was absolutely there for the taking.
First of all, if there was any chance in the universe that he would have been thrown out, Sweeney should have stopped at second with a double. Throughout their development, base-runners are told and told and told and told to never make the first or third outs at third.
That's because a fundamentally sound team can then get the guy in from second without even another hit. Starlin Castro put the Cubs on the verge of that accomplishment in the aforementioned first inning with a flyout that advanced DeJesus to third. But then Rizzo, who had gone almost 40 at-bats without striking out heading into the game, picked a bad time to end his streak.
After stumbling and almost falling just after he rounded second, Sweeney still insisted on heading for third. And then he executed a brutally bad head-first slide. The guy was lucky he didn't hurt himself as he hit the ground chest first and failed to extend his arms. The ugliness of the whole thing made it easy for third base umpire Manny Gonzalez to call Sweeney out - without argument - though replays showed he might have gotten in there.
Sometimes just looking like a professional - like the whole of the Mets relay team on that play - can help calls go your way.
The same goes for a wild swinger like Castro, who isn't going to get the benefit of the doubt that batters with a razor-sharp sense of the strike zone do.
Wood is the least culpable of the bunch - mistake pitches happen to the best of them. But he should have had the advantage over a rookie with two strikes and two outs in the seventh inning of a game with his team down by one.
Nonetheless, when Wood began the season with eight quality starts (at least six innings pitched, no more than three earned runs given up), he had statisticians looking all the way back to Hippo Vaughn to find a previous Cub starting pitcher to do the same. Now that it is nine quality starts in a row to start the campaign, we have to go even deeper into the archives: Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown was the last local to do it and he did so in the magical year of 1908.
We did see a positive example at Wrigley on Saturday for all the kids to follow. Unfortunately, it came from a Met.
Coaches constantly talk about players adopting a different hitting plan based on circumstances. When the pitcher gets two strikes, for instance, a batter needs to focus on shortening up his swing and giving himself a better chance to make contact, put the ball in play and potentially make something happen, especially if there are runners on. (Unlike what Rizzo did in that first inning on Sunday.)
One of the things that has driven White Sox fans crazy this year has been Adam Dunn's absolute unwillingness to change his hitting plan no matter what the circumstance. He always swings from his heels even in a two-strike count. And he has absolutely refused to change up when teams deploy the radical defensive shift on him which puts three infielders on the right side of the diamond.
The Cubs deployed that sort of a shift on the Mets' Rick Ankiel on Saturday by moving third baseman Luis Valbuena - a natural second baseman - to the right side of the infield and leaving Castro all alone on the left.
Ankiel went to the plate knowing that his team, down by five in the seventh, just needed baserunners, so he accepted the gift formation and easily put a bunt down the third-base line for the infield hit.
Hey Adam Dunn, it wouldn't kill you to do the same sometime. Youth baseball coaches everywhere would thank you.
Jim "Coach" Coffman is our man on Mondays. He welcomes your comments.
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Posted on Feb 20, 2018