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Last night I decided to take in the first few innings of the Cubs game on the radio while I sat on my front porch. The weather was perfect and baseball does so lend itself to radio - if the announcers aren't distractingly bad, like the guys who broadcast from the South Side.
I have long been a Pat Hughes fan, although at least one of his weaknesses has become more pronounced over the last few years and it is a growing annoyance. I realize that the longtime play-by-play man needs to balance his broadcast given a decent-sized range of fans listening in, but too often he wastes time breaking down simple baseball strategy that 90 percent of Cubs fans listening on the radio don't need him to break down. In other words, he needs to do a better job of not being Captain Obvious.
Then there is the matter of the proper pronunciation of Willson Contreras's last name. All of last year, Hughes pronounced it "CONE-treras." That is flat-out wrong and consistently distracting. It isn't just that everyone else pronounces it "Con-TRER-as," it is also that I have a good friend whose last name is Contreras and he tells me that Hughes is definitely getting it wrong.
This could be one of those situations where humans are failed by their ears. One of my daughters has played soccer for years with a young woman whose Bosnian first name is pronounced "Zeh-ra." Many of the non-Bosnian people she meets and interact with pronounce it ZAR-a and when you try to correct them, they insist they are saying it the same way you are. This young woman long ago decided to stop trying to correct people. She even had a Serbian coach a few years ago who didn't pronounce it correctly.
So Hughes has an excuse. I think this is a relatively common phenomenon. At times this year, he seems to have adjusted. At other times he has been back to saying it wrong.
Anyway, Hughes and analyst Ron Coomer were a delight for the first three innings last night. Coomer pulled a Steve Stone in the first inning and perfectly predicted that Marlins pitcher Jarlin Garcia would try to come inside on Kris Bryant and that he would be ready for it. Several Cardinals pitchers had deployed that strategy last weekend and Bryant responded on Sunday with a tape-measure home run.
Sure enough, Garcia threw some inside heat that wasn't inside enough literally a pitch later and Bryant launched it deep into the left field seats for a two-run home run.
Coomer joked that he was heading to a casino and the Cubs ended a ridiculous streak that Hughes had mentioned early in the inning - their previous 13 home runs had been solo shots. The offense was off and running after more than a week-and-a-half of sucking. They eventually piled up four multi-run homers - two by Ian Happ - on their way to a delightful 14-2 victory that upped their record to 17-15. (The division-leading Cardinals are 20-13.)
Bryant's homer got the scoring started but it was Javy Baez's three-run shot in the third that made the biggest difference. Baez is turning into an absolute star this year (his RBIs moved him back into the National League lead in that category), although he suffered a pulled groin later in the game. That happened when Bryant blew what should have been an easy inning-ending double play with a lousy throw to second. Baez had to stretch to get it, came off the bag but then made a heads-up play (like he makes remarkably consistently) to reach back and touch it with his glove to at least get the force.
Dexter Fowler's ridiculous two-out, two-run home run in the bottom of the 14th the night before obscured the fact that Baez had come up and hit the solo blast in the top of that inning that should have been the game-winner. Hopefully, hopefully, hopefully the injury isn't serious. (I'm betting it isn't. And Baez has bounced back quickly from injury in the past.) The guy is worth the price of admission in game after game after game. Anyone who misses a game misses an opportunity to see baseball greatness. (Oh, and he was drafted by Jim Hendry, just in case anyone has forgotten.)
The Cubs are going to be fine but I was right there with everyone else who was highly irritated by their recent lousy play - especially their inability to hit anything but the very occasional solo home run. Baez's home run was big in part because it came right after Bryant's miserable failure to take advantage of a 3-0 count to drive in at least one run (or just take a walk) in a first-and-third-with-no-outs situation. If the Cubs had failed to score in that inning they could have slipped right back into their funk.
In the bigger picture, the biggest worry about the Cubs at this point is that none of these guys (other than Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and now Baez) is going to turn out to be anything special in terms of hitting. Check that, Kyle Schwarber will certainly be better than average at the plate but will that overcome his defensive deficiencies? The guys I'm speaking of, of course, are Addison Russell, Albert Almora, Ian Happ and Mr. Contreras.
The thing about Schwarber's defense is that he is still refusing to do outfield fundamentals. Good outfielders hustle back to the wall, locate it when there is time and then are all set to attack fly balls. Schwarber drifts until he is in lousy position, and is fortunate when he doesn't pay a price. He paid a price in Game 2 versus the Cardinals when a ball he should have caught easily on the warning track instead dropped for an extra-base hit. Later that game he fell down on an absolutely routine fly ball and actually lost a shoe; he was fortunate to be able to scramble back up and make the catch.
Anyway, the Cubs are not even a full fifth of the way into the season, just completed a highly irritating series in St. Louis, but still only trail the division leaders by two games in the loss column. Kyle Hendricks came up big yesterday with eight innings of wonderfully efficient pitching and enabled the bullpen to not only recover from the 14-inning game the night before but also prepare for a game without Yu Darvish (on the 10-day DL with a virus) starting tonight.
Good chance I will bust out the radio again.
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