Monday, April 20, 2009

Play Ball on My Time

After a couple days without a Cubs game it's time to get these guys back on the field and finish the month of April strong.

I'm usually an early adopter of most technologies but for some reason I hadn't had DVR/Tivo until finally getting it after last baseball season. The ability to record programs and not have to watch commercials as well as the convenience of watching things on your own schedule is smart TV viewing at it's best. So this is my first baseball season with DVR and it's true brilliance came into play last Friday and Saturday with the Cubs games.

Friday I was working from my home office, with DVR I watched the Cubs game when I got a free minute or two. And what a game it was, after the 3d inning the Cubs seemingly always looking at a deficit, until Soriano and then Marmol put the birds away for good. The beauty of this is; I was able to work a full day and watch a commercial shortened version of the game in time to take advantage of a beautiful AZ spring afternoon/evening to visit Tortilla Flat.

When compiling the list of "Things to do in AZ" page here at Boys of Spring I realized that it had been a long time since I had been to some of the cool places listed on the page...Some I'd never been to. So I decided to head out to Tortilla Flat east of Mesa, I had been on this road many years ago when most of it was still gravel and on that trip came across a huge Tarantula sitting in the middle of the road. The picturesque drive to Tortilla goes NE out old Hwy 88 past Canyon Lake and is only about 40 minutes from my house. I had to take advantage of perfect weather, sunny with a high of about 78 degrees...It has since warmed up, high of 98 (ouch) expected today. At any rate I was able to work and watch the Cubs victory then be on the road to Tortilla by about 5 pm. I'm posting a few photos of the drive.

My only issue with the trip was missing some of the evening sunset because I had decided to go all the way to Apache Lake which is about 15 miles past Tortilla Flat, at least 10 of those miles on a very bumpy winding one lane dirt road hugging the side of mountains. By the time I was headed back from Apache and had ascended the switch backs up from Fish Creek the best sunset shots were lost.

The last 10 miles to Apache Lake made me wonder who in their right mind would think that a road should be built here and then go ahead and build it. I heard the road had been used as an old pony express route, not true, I found out it was built in 1904 in order to build the dam at Roosevelt Lake. By the looks of it the road is much the same as it was in 1904 except now you get the fun of meeting oncoming trucks on this one lane gravel road with sheer drops of thousands of feet. Don't let that scare you, the drive to Tortilla Flat is all 2 lane blacktop and pretty easy going, well worth a day or half day trip...Find out how Tortilla Flat got it's name and more info with links on our "Things to do in AZ" page.

The DVR did it for me again on Saturday as I got many things accomplished while enjoying the Cubs exciting 11 inning victory on MY time...How did I ever live without this device? Friday and Saturday's Cubs/Cards games were incredible, so many ups and downs and sub-plots and in the end sweet wins against the arch-rival evil doers. It won't be long until the Cubs are here to play the D-Backs and I'll be at at least one of those games. Go Cubs!


Canyon Lake on the way to Tortilla Flat


It's fun to ski or board and look up at the Canyon walls


This is pretty much the only business in Tortilla Flat, town population 6


I can't tell you if it's "good food" or not, didn't eat there


The road to Apache Lake, this was an easy driving spot


On the way you must cross several one lane bridges


A glimpse of Apache Lake


Sun on cliffs above Apache Lake


On the way back looking at Canyon Lake after sunset

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Problems Already?

The Cubs are 8 games and 10 days into the 2009 season and what have we learned about this year's club? According to some fans, Marmol needs to replace Gregg as the closer, Milton Bradley is going to be a waste of money, and Aaron Miles is no Mark DeRosa. While these topics may be debate fodder on Cubs message boards across the Internet it's really way to early to draw any such conclusions. More time to see how things develop is probably wise considering these guys will be playing regular season games for pretty close to the next 6 months. However, the next 10 games could give some interesting insight as to the Central Division pecking order.

The Cubs (5-3) are a game behind the Cardinals (7-3), with the two teams playing 7 of the next 10 games against each other. It's a big early season stretch for these rivals, while Milton Bradley may miss a few more games the Cubs want to take advantage of Cards pitcher Chris Carpenter going on the DL and take early control of the division. Will the same Gregg, Bradley, Miles chorus be sung by these fans ten games from now? If not, my guess is they will find a new set of Cubs problems to bring up...If the Cubs struggle during this stretch we may be examining those issues but if they are playing well, it's a lot more fun to talk about the positives.

It's just about time to put a beat down on the birds with The Marshall on the mound.

Go Cubs!

Thursday, April 09, 2009

George Castle and Sweet Lou



A good first series in Houston with the Cubs bats showing up last night to take the final game and 2 of 3 from the Astros. Good to see Dome bust out at the plate, I may have been a bit hard on him in my profile blurb the other day...but like last season, time will tell. Since the Cubs have today off before starting an important set at Wrigley North tomorrow, I thought I would bring you this interview.

Just before the regular season got underway I had the chance to talk with George Castle who wrote the book Sweet Lou and the Cubs. If you're not familiar with Castle, he's covered the Cubs since 1980 for various newspapers and magazines, including the Times of Northwest Indiana. He's written eight books and hosts a nationally syndicated weekly radio show about baseball called Diamond Gems.

As the back cover of the book indicates - "Sweet Lou and the Cubs chronicles from the inside out Lou Piniella's stirring and poignant quest to reverse the team's fortunes after the record 100 years without a World Series championship."

Sure we know how last season ended but this book is about a lot more than that, giving plenty of inside information about Lou and some of his key players as well as coaches, front office, and fans. I particularly enjoyed reading about the things that molded Piniella in his early years to make him the type of manager he is today. This isn't a Cubs sugar coated feel good story, however if you're like me and want the inside scoop on what's really happening behind the scenes, this book is for you.

This is a phone interview (NO VIDEO) it runs 12:45 long, if you hear something in the background about 2/3's of the way through it's George's basset hound.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

No Predictions, Just Cubs

Getting ready for game 2 after yesterdays sweet victory in Houston, Big Z got the opening day monkey off his back and the Cubs are off and running. I was asked to give my predictions for the season and really it's such a crap shoot, most of us know what teams have talent and what teams may struggle. So many variables that like my NCAA basketball pool some picks would be right and some wrong so I'll leave the predictions to the experts in Vegas and instead focus on the Cubs.

I decided it would be more prudent to talk about the Cubs roster as we go into the 2009 season and mention how some of them did this spring. Spring training numbers can be tossed out the window but in some cases it just gives you an idea of how certain players fared, nothing more. These are my short blurbs about each player after having watched them in person for the last month and a half, probably nothing earth shattering but maybe some useful info.

This follows in alphabetical order starting with the pitchers.

Pitchers

Neal Cotts - The only lefty in the Cubs pen unless Sean Marshall is used in that capacity. Had a so-so spring but is a veteran who came to camp in good physical condition. Cotts will be counted on to get key outs in tough situations. He can be a bit inconsistent and the Cubs hope he's more like the 2005 1.94 ERA Neal Cotts than the 2006 5.17 version.

Ryan Dempster - Was very solid this spring, pitching the most innings of any Cubs pitcher, and like last spring came to camp in great shape. Nobody works harder than Dempster. He's a big key to the Cubs fortunes this season and looks ready for another strong year.

Kevin Gregg - Won the closing competition over Carlos Marmol who was MIA for alot of camp with the WBC. Gregg was lights out this spring not surrendering a single run and is completely healthy from his bad knee that hampered him last year. Gregg is another big strong Cubs pitcher who can hit the mid to upper 90's and should prove an effective closer.

Angel Guzman - Came into spring training in the best shape of his career, added a few pounds in muscle. Like Cotts he was up and down this spring, the Cubs have invested a lot of time and effort into Guzman and it's time for him to perform. He has teased with his live arm but struggled with injuries, hopefully this is the year he meets expectations.

Rich Harden - Started out behind the rest of the pitchers as the Cubs wanted to be extra careful with his injury background. Once Harden got going he had a few tough outings including getting roughed up by the Yankees last weekend. He has been an ace when healthy and as the 4th starter, Lou will make an extra effort to not overwork him during the season.

Aaron Heilman - Came over in a trade and was one of the most effective Cubs pitchers this spring, with a 1.89 ERA. Heilman will be counted on for long relief situations and his effectiveness will go a long way in determining how the Cubs bullpen fares this season.

Ted Lilly - Was MIA for quite a while this spring pitching for Team USA in the WBC. Lilly didn't have a great spring for Team USA or the Cubs but is a veteran lefty who can be counted on to eat innings. I think the Cubs would be very happy if Theodore pitches like he has the past two seasons.

Carlos Marmol - Was going to pitch for the WBC, then wasn't, then did. Missing a portion of Cubs camp didn't help him in the closer competition. He is big key to the Cubs success and I think Lou really likes him in the set-up spot. When he's on, he's nearly un-hittable.

Sean Marshall - Won the 5th starter spot with a very solid spring, pitched the second most innings 26.2 going 3-1. The lanky lefty has worked hard developing his pitches and consistency, he will most likely also be used in long relief out of the pen when needed.

David Patton - The Rule 5 guy and probably the biggest surprise of the spring. He impressed Lou with his veteran like presence and mind set even though he's never pitched above Single - A ball. It will be interesting to see how and when Lou uses the rookie this season and if the kid can make an impact.

Luis Vizcaino - If not for the money the Cubs owe him he may not have even made the roster. Vizciano had a 6.10 ERA in 10.1 innings this spring and also walked 6 batters. He's had some decent years in his 10 MLB season's but the Cubs are his 7th team during that time, so I think that says something.

Carlos Zambarno - The ace of the Cubs staff was pretty much lights out against opponents this spring. He's racked up 97 MLB wins before turning 28 years old, however some feel that if he directs his emotions into more focus on the mound the best may be yet to come. Z made no predictions this spring and the maturation process may result in his first 20 win season.

Catchers

Koyie Hill - What a great story for him to make the ball club after the table saw accident that severed 3 fingers and his thumb last year...In case you didn't know they were surgically reattached. Winning the back-up catchers job over veteran Paul Bako was probably a bit of a long shot in mid-February but Hill's knowledge of the pitching staff, solid defense and .385 BA, .558 SLG, and .458 OBP this spring convinced management.

Geovany Soto - Last year's ROY was gone with team Puerto Rico in the WBC much of this spring but started to come on as the Cactus League closed. Soto doesn't want to rest on last year's achievements and is solidly focused on improving his play this year. The experience of having a full year under his belt with the Cubs pitching staff can only help the chemistry and rapport.

Infielders

Mike Fontenot - A good spring helped cement Fontenot as the everyday second baseman. If he stays healthy his At-Bats will definitely go up from his 243 last year, even though Aaron Miles may platoon some in L/R situations. Fontenot could be ready for a break out year at the plate with the extra playing time and perhaps give the Cubs some unexpected power from the second base position.

Micah Hoffpauir - His play this spring gave Lou Piniella almost no choice in picking the power hitting 1B/OF for the final roster. Hoffpauir led the Cubs this spring in HR's (6 - tied with Soriano), doubles, and drove in 9 more runs than his closest teammate. Hoff is not a good defensive outfielder but played surprisingly well at 1B, although his glove may never be compared to D-Lee's. He gives the Cubs a power left-handed bat off the bench.

Derrek Lee - Started slow this spring because of a minor injury but picked up steam by the end of the Cactus League season. Always in great shape and wielding a perennial gold glove, his infield mates love having the big guy at first to clean up any errant throws. Lee is looking to get his HR number more towards 30 than last year's 20, something Manager Lou has indicated would be helpful.

Aaron Miles - Actually had a pretty good spring at the plate but is going to need to win Cubs fans over as many view him as a replacement for fan favorite Mark DeRosa. Miles brings versatility with him having played 2nd base, SS, 3d base, and even a few games in the OF. He's a switch hitter with a career .289 average, who also has a World Series ring.

Aramis Ramirez - Had a fairly uneventful spring training, came to camp in great shape and was given a number of days off due to the length of this years camp. He has become Mr. Consistent for the Cubs at 3d base, his blend of hitting power, high batting average, and solid fielding are not always easy to find...Thank you Pirates!

Ryan Theriot - Has come into his own over the past couple season's and if this spring is any indication more good things are on the way. His .412 BA and .488 OBP this spring put him near the top of both spring categories. He may not have the range at SS that some others have but he consistently makes plays and works hard at improving his game.

Outfielders

Milton Bradley - Another Cub who started slow this spring due to a minor injury but turned on the switch and finished spring training on fire, .460 BA, .526 OBP, and .800 SLG. He seemed to blend in easily with his teammates and set an example of hard work and professionalism. Bradley's drive towards perfection sometimes frustrates himself as he thinks he should get on base nearly every time. Playing regularly defensively is going be a new thing for Milton having started a total of only 78 games combined in the outfield over the last 3 seasons.

Kosuke Fukudome - Another Cub who missed a large part of Cubs camp playing in the WBC. The jury is still out on Dome as to his ability to consistently hit Major League pitching. He finished spring training with a .200 BA and also hit only .200 in the WBC, he did have a .407 OBP in the WBC. The longer MLB season compared to Japan's Pro Leagues caused Dome to fatigue; at least that was the reason many gave for his fall off at the plate as last season wore on. Cubs fans don't want any excuse this year, just hit, or...what's the Japanese word for "pine".

Joey Gathright - Came in early to Mesa and worked hard, he wants to be known for his baseball skills and not just his speed, but it's his speed that sets him apart on the Cubs. A true base stealing threat and defensive replacement, he was a key piece of the puzzle Lou was after. Gathright didn't disappoint as he made play after outstanding play defensively and stole 9 bases this spring, 2 more than all his other teammates combined. Finished the spring with a .408 OBP.

Reed Johnson - Came into camp in the best shape of his career and had an outstanding spring training. He's the reason many Cubs fans aren't overly concerned if Fukudome can't get his bat going as Johnson provides solid defense and clutch hitting. Johnson also provides the kind of hustling blue collar mentality that endears him to fans and teammates.

Alfonso Soriano - Tied Hoffpauir for the spring HR honors with 6 and hit .325. Not the traditional leadoff guy but he provides energy and power, it's also hard to argue with the Cubs win-loss results when he's leadoff. Soriano's best base stealing days are over, he was 0-3 in his attempts this spring. He loves to play the game and when he gets hot at the plate it's fun to watch.

Go Cubs!

Monday, April 06, 2009

Tonight it Begins

A new season starts this evening for the Chicago Cubs and like many fans I wonder will this be the year? Of course that question needs to be clarified, does it mean, will this be the year the Cubs make it to the World Series? Or will this be the year the Cubs WIN a World Series? The bottom line is every season is different and they need to make the playoffs first. The Cubs are two time defending Central Champs and that status puts a big target on their back.

This Cubs team is a different one than the 97 game winners of last season with many new faces, hopefully a retooled better version...One that has the talent and drive to persevere through the regular season and then find the will and resourcefulness to win in the playoffs.

Today however isn't the time to think or worry about a World Series it's the beginning of a journey, one that will have many ups and downs, unexpected events, and with any luck give all Cubs fans much enjoyment along the way. We can worry about the playoffs in 6 months but right now we will see how this reconfigured team will set it's course in a new season.

Think about it, what lies ahead during the next 162 games? Will Big Z or Dempster become the Cubs first 20 game winner since Jon Lieber in 2001? Will Milton Bradley stay healthy and keep his emotions from getting the best of him? Will Fukudome rebound at the plate or will he be a $48 million platoon defensive specialist? Will Kevin Gregg be a lock down closer? All of the answers to these questions and so many more are about to unfold for us beginning tonight. Let's play ball, go Cubs!

I apologize for not having the episode of CubsAZ for you today but the day before the final Cubs Cactus League game last Thursday I came down with a cold that developed into a brutal sinus infection and am only starting to feel a bit better today.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Cubs Leaving AZ After Dramatic Win

Cubs fans got an exciting finish to their 2009 Cactus League Season as Reed Johnson scored on an Andres Blanco hit in the bottom of the 9th giving the Cubs a 9-8 victory over the Cleveland Indians. 7,933 came out on another beautiful Arizona day to boost the Cubs record setting Hohokam season attendance to 203,105 in 19 games.

Neither team had their full compliment of starters in the today's lineup, which for the Cubs meant not facing Mark DeRosa again. Of course, many of the Cubs big guns didn't play either, including D-Lee, A-Ram, Geo, and The Game (Milton). That didn't stop the Cubs from scoring 7 runs in the first two innings, highlighted by an Alfonso Soriano HR in the 1st, and a bases clearing triple from Koyie Hill in the 2nd. Joey Gathright was 2 for 4 and walked, stole 2nd, and scored on Mike Fontenot's base hit in the 4th. Koyie Hill was 2 for 3 and leaves the Cactus League with a .392 BA.

Ryan Dempster got the start went 4 innings giving up 3 runs on 5 hits, two of them HR's, but also struck out 7 Indians with no walks. Chad Gaudin was not real sharp giving up 3 runs on 6 hits in 2 innings. Carlos Marmol, Chad Fox and David Patton all worked an inning with Patton having the least success, blowing the save by giving up run on 3 hits in the 9th.

Ryan Dempster got a hit in the Cubs' big 2nd by basically flinging his bat at the ball dumping it into right field. Joey Gathright is showing that he has more than just speed to offer, however his wheels are what make him a valuable commodity as the Cubs strengths don't include great team speed. Gathright made several running catches covering alot of ground and had a stolen base where he easily beat the throw. Koyie Hill made a good throw nailing Wilson Valdez trying to steal 2nd. Reed Johnson has had a number of late inning pinch hit opportunities this spring and came through for the Cubs today. Either Lou is testing Reed in that capacity, or really just wanted to get the win today and get some momentum heading to the regular season.

The Mesa Hohokam organization rookies sang the 7th inning stretch aided by Mesa Mayor Scott Smith who mentioned before starting the song that he hopes the Cubs will be in Mesa for a very long time to come. An inside source close to the negotiations between the Cubs and Mesa tells me that things are going very well in spite of what you might read in the papers and not to worry about the Cubs leaving their spring home here in AZ.

It's been a longer than normal spring but I think the Cubs have accomplished most of what they needed to in order to prepare for the regular season. Like everyone, I am ready for the regular season to start and can hardly wait until Monday. Just a reminder, to help you celebrate opening day we will have a CubsAZ video show that will be posted in our media/TV viewer on the morning of the 6th. Go Cubs!

Boys of Spring photos of today's game once again provided by Garrett Craig.


Soriano gets things started going yard in first inning


Koyie Hill legs out a bases full triple


Joey G runs down another one


Chad Gaudin


Scales about to tag out runner at third


Marmol




Reed Johnson pinch hit single in bottom 9


Johnson beats throw after Blanco's single for Cubs win


A little celebration for the victory

Early Start on Get-Away Day

Just a reminder today's game at Hohokam starts one hour early at 12:05 pm AZ time.

We will have a special CubsAZ video show on Monday April 6 to kick off the regular season, it will feature a roster analysis, interviews, Cubs music video, and preview the upcoming season.

I'll be back later this afternoon and give you the scoop on today's final Cubs Cactus League game against the Cleveland Indians.