26 May 2007

Observer's Notes: 25 May 2007

by Joshua Worley

It was an exhausting game to cheer for. By the end it felt like an emotional triple-header, one mental game for each time the real game seemed decided. A Dodger win, followed by a Cubs win, followed by another Dodgers win.

Of the three, it's the middle game of the mental triple-header that's going to remain strongest in my memory. It's hard to shake that feeling of utter despair, the sick disbelief of seeing every ball crushed, then the dull resignation that every ball will be crushed, the moment when hope quits, faith surrenders. Even Broxton, the rock, crumbled. He was liquefied. Seeing that was the worst blow of the inning. Five straight batters laced the ball all over the stadium against him. The last three weren't having good years, but it didn't matter. The inning belonged to the Cubs. They were virtuous with the bats.

The Cubs fans made so much noise. The symphony of Cub line drives and the Cub fans' rising cheers were the sounds of the inning. Percussion and chorus, percussion and chorus, again and again, a beautiful joy; a comeback win in the enemy stadium. Every Dodger fan was silent, except for the occasional shouted plea for Broxton to return to us, to bring back his wicked fastball and restore order. He never did.

There were a lot of Cubs fans at the game, most of them transplanted Chicagoans no doubt, all cheering on their hard-luck Cubbies. They were loud when things went the Cubs way, but they were also loud at other random moments, as if to make a show of strength, to lay claim to the ballpark. Cubs fans sat in front of us and to the left of us; we felt surrounded. One fan to the left of us in particular was very loud. He consistently chanted, "Let's go Cubbies!", though because of his peculiar accent it often sounded to me as if he was shouting "Let's go Padres!".

The most entertaining player of the first emotional game was Juan Pierre. Every ball he hit was wildly entertaining. In the first inning he swung away but produced a lovely bunt down the first base line. The pitcher had to scoop it up and toss it from his glove all in one motion: a marvelous play that the umpire said beat Pierre. Removed from any context, that was the play of the game. Pierre racing down the line, the pitcher desperately heaving the ball out of his glove, the Dodger fans thinking surely it won't work, surely it will catch in the glove or Pierre will be too fast: all decided in a moment by the umpire. That was the first time the Cubs fans around us really got to cheer. "He's safe," I grumbled. They showed a replay on diamondvision: I guess it was defensible to call him out.

In Pierre's second at bat he seemed to be going for redemption, or revenge, for his lost hit from his swinging bunt in his first at bat. This time he really did bunt, and again the ball went up the first base line creating a tough play for the pitcher. But this bunt was not quite as good as that first swinging bunt. The pitcher had time to pick up the ball and throw, and he had Pierre beat ... but the throw was too high. The first baseman leapt, Pierre passed first base, and the first baseman came down with the ball. The first baseman clearly lost contact with the bag for a moment, right around the time Pierre hit the bag, but did he have the ball in his glove a moment before his toes left the bag, or did he come down a moment before Pierre hit the bag? It was impossible to say. This time the umpire called him safe, and inexplicably the scorer called it a single. A decent major league throw would get Pierre there; it had to be an error. But it was a hit, and Pierre was on first, ready to do his thing. After a very obvious throw to first Griffster remarked that this pitcher's move to first wasn't very good; I said that surely that was his commercial move, as Vinny would call it. He had to have one better than that, I said. What I assumed, and did not say, is that Pierre would be aware of this too. Yet on the very next pitch Pierre went, except that it wasn't a pitch but a throw to first, and Pierre was then gunned down at second. I'll give Pierre this: he's plenty fast, and nearly had that thing beat anyway. But he was out, his luck in getting an unearned hit was thrown away. We heartily cursed his stupidity, then decided that there should be a ghost runner in place of him. We cursed his stupidity again after Nomar walked, and said the ghost runner, the "ghost Pierre" was on second. We cheered and cheered when Kent hit his home run, a no doubt about it bomb nearly half way up the bleachers, and then joked that the ghost Pierre had come around and scored. Alas, the ghost run didn't count, and it was only 3-0 Dodgers, not 4-0.

In Pierre's third at-bat he just poked the ball over the heads of the infield; the center fielder raced in to catch it, the shortstop and second baseman raced out to catch it, but finally a patch of grass between all three caught it and Pierre had another of his typical bloop hits. They are such cheap little hits, but it's such fun to watch the fielders race to catch these frustrating little hits. This time Pierre didn't fool around out there, and he came in to score on Kent's lovely double to the gap. Kent was clearly the player of the first half of the game, the offensive hero that seemed to lodge this game firmly in the Dodger win column. After it was 5-0, I had the game mentally as a win, which of course made the seventh inning massacre that much more devastating when it came.

The second most entertaining player of the first six innings of the game was Ted Lilly at the bat. I think he was the worst hitter I have ever seen. The first time he came up he had a man to bunt over, but he couldn't made contact on a bunt even once. It was as if he just held the bat out there and closed his eyes and hoped for the best. How hard is it to at least foul off a bunt? I mean, it's so easy to foul off a bunt that there is a special strikeout rule about it. The second time he came up there were runners in scoring position with two outs, so now he had to swing. His first swing made contact, but it was the weakest contact I've ever seen. He awkwardly brought the bat around and hit the ball about as late as it can be hit, producing a little foul dribbler. His next two swings were pathetic lunges at the ball, each one worse than the last. After that at-bat my mother remarked that she could have done better at the plate. I think she was right.

Lowe was brilliant in his typical ground-out way for five innings, and it seemed that he might be able to pitch another complete game masterpiece with us in attendance, as he did a year ago. But it was not to be; in the sixth inning his outs were fly balls and his ground balls were hits; he had clearly lost it. I don't fault Little for any of his moves in the seventh inning. He could have left in Beimel longer, perhaps, though Biemel's one out was a long fly ball. The 'pen just kerploded ... there's nothing else to say about it. It was stunning that it took Rudy Seanez to restore order.

I had lost all hope and will to cheer on the Dodgers after Broxton's kerplosion and that final horrible error by Abreu that gave the Cubs yet another run. The three-run deficit felt final: the Dodgers might be able to reel in two, but three was out of reach, especially after the impossible seventh. So it was that I sat stoic and bitter as Martin came to the plate in the bottom of the eighth. I had been thinking about leaving early for the last inning or so; though I normally loathe the thought of leaving any game early. But I just wanted to get out of there. I wanted to shut it out, just get on the long road home.

Then I heard it, the first sound of hope. It was from a Cubs fan, no less. "Come on, Howry!" he shouted, to newly inserted Cubs reliever Bobby Howry. It was the way he shouted it that produced a spark of hope. It was a plea, a prayer, almost. I know you suck, but please be good just this once. 4-11. The record of the Cubs bullpen. I knew the Cubs 'pen had struggled at time, but I didn't have any sort of feel for who was really vulnerable. Now I knew; this was one of the vulnerable ones.

I still wasn't quite ready to have faith again, though. When Martin got to two balls in the count, I was just hoping he could work a walk. Just get some baserunners and see what happens. I always hope for walks in that sort of situation, because hits can be stolen; a walk has no defense. But more importantly I lose my trust in the batters to hit the ball well; it seems like a gift from the opposing pitcher is needed. But Martin singled the other way, and then Luis Gonzalez singled as I was muttering "double play" as if to make that feared outcome sting less when it happened. Now with two runners on I had my faith in the game back; I was dragged back from that bitter despair. When Abreu singled the bases loaded I turned to Griffster and said, "Now it's over, they can't do anything with the bases loaded." She would have none of that, though so often in the past she had said it to me.

The Saenz at bat was the most exciting moment of the game for me. The possibility of a grand slam was so real; it saturated the air. All of us, Dodger fans and Cubs fans alike could feel it. It felt like this at bat was the moment the game would turn on, and what a game, what a wild and unpredictable game! I was clapping and stomping the whole at bat, and what an at bat it was. Saenz battled and fouled off some sliders, once ripping one foul that would have been a fair line drive if the pitch had been a fastball. I don't know what species of pitch he hit up the middle for his single. I just remember thinking at that point that we had them. I no longer doubted that the Dodgers would win.

And then, at the end, I finally got to see Saito pitch live. Back when the Dodgers were up 5-0 I had a momentary wistful thought that yet again I wouldn't get to see him; lately it seemed that every Dodger game I attended was a blowout either way. Saito did not disappoint when I finally got to see him. He had a strikeout, but what I'll most remember about his perfect ninth was the way Aramis Ramirez lunged off-balance at an 0-2 pitch. He was completely flummoxed and sent up a lovely little mini-pop-fly to Furcal for the first out. I think Saito has the nastiest outside strike I've ever seen from a Dodger.

My one regret from this game is that I didn't watch Saito after the last out. I wanted to see that great, happy smile, but I was just too caught up in cheering the win, the impossible win, after Clark caught the last out to look down. I just forgot. I'm guessing my smile was nearly as big as his, though.

What a game.

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