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Don't get carried away by Big Z just yet

4/19/2011

Just another Monday night in the majors? Yeah, just another Monday night.

It was cold at Wrigley Field, cold enough to make you think the Chicago Cubs should tear down the lights and go back to playing day games all the time.

The cameramen looked like they were headed for an Arctic expedition. Fans wore parkas and ski caps. At one point in the top of the eighth inning, Cubs announcer Len Kasper intoned, “It might be snowing.” It was, after all, about 32 degrees by then. And Carlos Zambrano was pitching in short sleeves.

Just seeing Big Z out there in the eighth inning was enough to warm the hearts of Cubs fans. Once the workhorse of the Cubs staff, Zambrano doesn’t turn 30 until June but all those innings and pitches early in his career caught up to him in recent seasons. (He averaged 215 innings and 95 walks per season from 2003 to 2007, a span when only Livan Hernandez and Barry Zito threw more total pitches.)

In the previous two seasons, Zambrano pitched as many as eight innings just three times. But there he was against the Padres, striking out the side in the seventh and cruising through the top of the eighth. He worked fast, threw strikes and even though he wasn’t overpowering he struck out 10. In that seventh inning, he didn’t dial up a fastball more than 90 mph until the final two pitches against Ryan Ludwick, instead relying on good movement, a nice front-door slider to catch Nick Hundley looking and a couple of 70-something curveballs. It was one of the best starts of his career -- just the ninth time he’s recorded a Game Score of 85 or better.

Is Big Z back? I wouldn’t say that. The hitters were hacking away in the cold (the 10-inning game lasted just 2:26, proving major leaguers can play quickly if they want to), so I wouldn’t read too much into the effort, especially after three mediocre starts to begin the season. But for one night it was nice to see something resembling the old Z racking up the strikeouts.

* * * *

Here’s one plate appearance against Tim Lincecum in the Giants’ win over the Rockies. Chris Iannetta leading off the bottom of the sixth inning:

1. Fastball low and inside for a ball, 91 mph.

2. Curveball, inside corner, called strike, 84 mph. (Lincecum catches his heel on the rubber on his next pitch, stumbles and aborts the delivery.)

3. Changeup in the dirt, ball two, 77 mph.

4. Sinking fastball fastball, swing and a miss, 87 mph.

5. Fastball away, just off the plate, ball three, 91 mph.

6. Curveball, foul tip, 85 mph. Still 3-2.

7. Back to the sinker, swing and a miss, 86 mph.

What was poor Chris Iannetta supposed to do? He saw seven pitches, saw four different types of pitches, saw six different speeds, saw fastballs on both sides of the plate, and didn’t see a single pitch above the kneecaps.

Frame that at-bat, kids, because that is how you pitch in the major leagues. You don’t have to be 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds and throw 95 mph heat to win. Locate your pitches, change speeds, and keep everything below the belt. When Lincecum first arrived in the big leagues, he wowed us by throwing 97 mph fastballs past hitters high in the zone. He doesn’t do that anymore. He manages a game, out-thinks the hitter. He’s no longer The Freak. He’s more like The Pitcher.

* * * *

A Hall of Fame pitcher named Waite Hoyt, who later became a longtime broadcaster with the Reds, famously once said, “It’s great to be young and a Yankee.” Hey, of course it was fun -- he was palling around with Babe Ruth.

I kind of think that’s how it is to be playing for the Phillies these days. The team is winning, the stadium is packed, life is good.

Unless you’re Kyle Kendrick.

He was in the rotation last season, but now he’s the long man out of the bullpen. Which means he doesn’t get to pitch very often. Which means when he entered in the top of the 12th inning of a 3-3 game against the Brewers he hadn’t pitched in nine days.

He walked Rickie Weeks on four pitches. Carlos Gomez bunted toward Kendrick, but he fired the ball too high for second baseman Wilson Valdez for an error, putting runners at first and third. Ryan Braun hit a sacrifice fly. Prince Fielder was hit by a pitch. Kendrick threw a wild pitch, so Casey McGehee was intentionally walked. Yuniesky Betancourt hit a sac fly. Mark Kotsay was intentionally walked, somewhere in there Phillies fans started booing, and then Jonathan Lucroy singled in another run and the Phillies lost 6-3.

Speaking of Phillies fans, one emailed me after the blow-up, writing, “It blows my mind that a right-hander, who throws under 90 with sub-par secondary pitches, is still in the major leagues. I really don’t know how the Phillies don’t have a young righty who throws over 90 with a good second pitch.”

And so it may be another nine days before Kendrick gets to pitch again.

* * * *

The Indians and Royals battling for first place. It must be April. It was 57 degrees at game time, overcast and windy, and Royals fan aren’t quite jumping on the bandwagon just yet, as the announced attendance was 12,214. Hey, 20-plus years of disappointment will do that to you.

It was an interesting game, if not necessarily one for the Smithsonian. I was excited to see Tim Collins, the Royals’ 5-foot-7, 21-year-old rookie reliever enter in the 10th, but Carlos Santana walked, and Collins tried to sneak a 1-1 inside fastball past Shelley Duncan. But you do not sneak a 1-1 fastball past Shelley Duncan (at least on this night), and Duncan drilled a double into the left-corner to score Santana. Things unraveled from there and the Indians scored four runs, won 7-3 and they’re now 12-4. Sure, it is April, but they’re in first place and right now it’s pretty great to be young and playing for Cleveland.

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