42. That's the number of consecutive regular-season starts Masahiro Tanaka had made without suffering a loss. 8 of those had come while wearing pinstripes that were navy instead of royal and 1 of them was against the Chicago Cubs. But Tanaka had yet to face an MLB team a second time prior to last night, when he ran into his former suitors again.
Playing in a driving rain that muddied the mound and greased the bases (as evidenced by John Baker's less-than-graceful attempt at a hard rounding of first), the Cubs tagged Tanaka early with hard-hit balls from Starlin Castro -- which, while not a hit, served notice that the pitcher was indeed human -- and Luis Valbuena and then started, gasp!, manufacturing runs.
After Baker's little tumbling act, his battery-mate bunted him to second and he moved to third on a wild pitch, eventually coming home on a single from Emilio Bonifacio. It would be the first of 3 base hits the Cubs collected with a runner on third and one out. Who says they can't hit with RISP?
Of their other runs, 2 came by way of the sacrifice fly (Baker got in the mix again here) and one on a bases-loaded walk. To see Baker's near-ecstatic reaction and the warm dugout reception to his sac fly, which plated the 4th run scored on Tanaka, was to know that this team does still have life.
While some might see this and lament the fact that the team is celebrating a handful of runs against a rookie pitcher on a team barely above .500 -- sort of like the reaction to IU students storming the court last year -- I saw something much deeper. Remember, this is the same rookie pitcher over whom Cubs fans, myself included, were all googly-eyed all winter. He's also the same pitcher who dominated them just over a month ago.
For John Baker, a backup catcher playing every fifth day, that otherwise innocent little fly-out represented his first RBI of the season. And what's more, he had previously tallied a single and a double in the game, doubling his season hit total and raising his average to .114. So it's understandable that both he and his teammates were excited.
And Baker wasn't the only who performed a few unexpected feats: Mike Olt showed that he can do more than just hit home runs. Don't get me wrong, the power is nice. But when literally half of your hits leave the yard (9/18 hits entering the game) and you're only batting around .180, there's certainly room for concern.
Olt drove in 3 runs with the unlikely trio of a single, a sac fly, and a bases-loaded walk. Who had the winning ticket on that trifecta for the man I affectionately refer to as (J)Olt? It wasn't the 17-run laugher we witnessed in St. Louis, but this game still had that feeling that everything was going right for the Cubs.
Not only did the W give the Northsiders their second 3-game streak of the young season, it also gave them a positive run differential (+2) and elevated them above the Houston Astros in the race for the Majors' worst record, even if only by two thousandths of a point (.372 - .370). Okay, so maybe those little things are too little.
But dammit, that's just about all we've got to celebrate these days. So rather than wallow in woulda-coulda-shoulda, maybe we could all be a little more like John Baker, at least once in a while. When they go back to being shut out twice in a week or blowing a few more Shark starts, then we can climb back out on the ledge.
Now if they can just pair the heart and enthusiasm we all saw last night with a little more talent and some consistent performance, the Cubs might be onto something. There are times when "The Plan" seems like little more than a pipe dream of propaganda and empty promises, but watching a game like last night made it feel more like a plausible plot.
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