Thursday, May 27, 2010
Rough day at Wrigley for Paul
By Tony Jackson ESPNLosAngeles.com
CHICAGO -- The ancient little ballpark on this city's North Side has come to define baseball's particular brand of cool, what with its ivy-covered walls, its hand-operated scoreboard, its quirky, lopsided dimensions and its breathtaking view of the trendy, expensively gentrified neighborhood beyond the outfield.
It is the kind of place you are supposed to fall instantly in love with the first time you see it and the kind of place you are supposed to leave having been reminded of all that is great about the game.
But in his first exposure to Wrigley Field, Dodgers rookie outfielder Xavier Paul found the confines to be anything but friendly.
Playing right field in the finale of the first three-game series of his career here, Paul went hitless in four at-bats, stranding three runners, and misplayed two balls in a fateful eighth inning that stuck the Dodgers with a 1-0 loss to the Chicago Cubs before 33,868 on Thursday.
John Ely pitched a stellar game in his return to his hometown, but the Dodgers still lost to the Cubs.
To his credit, and showing an unusual level of maturity for a player of his age (25) and limited experience, Paul took full responsibility for his costly mistakes while at the same time appearing to shake them off.
"That's baseball," said Paul, who is hitting .283 over two separate big league stints this season and almost certainly is headed back to Triple-A Albuquerque next week when Andre Ethier returns from the disabled list regardless of how well or how poorly he plays. "All you can do in this game is play hard. As long as you're doing that, I don't think these guys are going to say much about it."
On an afternoon when fellow rookie and Chicagoland native John Ely turned in yet another dazzling performance in his first career start in his hometown -- he held the Cubs to one hit through the first six innings and two hits through the first seven, allowing only one runner to reach second base -- the Dodgers similarly could do nothing offensively against Cubs veteran Ted Lilly, who shut them out on three hits over seven innings.
Lilly got into only one serious jam, that in a fifth inning in which he walked leadoff batter Reed Johnson, issued another walk to Jamey Carroll with one out and then, after Ely laid down a perfect sacrifice, fell behind in the count to Russell Martin and wound up walking him intentionally to load the bases for Paul.
Paul took two quick strikes, fouled off a pitch, took a fastball for ball one, then popped the next one up to the shortstop, ending the Dodgers' biggest threat on a chilly, blustery afternoon when the wind was blowing straight in from center field.
Paul later followed Martin's leadoff single in the eighth by striking out. Matt Kemp then singled, but Martin got no farther than second after Casey Blake lined out and James Loney grounded to second.
And then, in the bottom of the eighth inning of a game so tight and tense that the slightest mistake figured to be glaring, Cubs third baseman Mike Fontenot -- who had just entered the game defensively in the top of the inning when Jeff Baker suddenly and inexplicably lost sight in his right eye -- led off by yanking a pitch from Ely up the right-field line and toward the corner.
Paul, who like Fontenot hails from Slidell, La., figured he had to cut the ball off to keep the fleet Fontenot from legging out a triple. That was where the quirkiness of Wrigley Field came into play.
"Mike is from my hometown, and I knew he could run," Paul said. "I was just trying to keep him from going to third, because I'm sure he was thinking three right off the bat. I went right after it, but it just took a turn toward the wall."
The result was Fontenot wound up on third anyway. Ely came back to strike out Geovany Soto on three pitches. But rookie Tyler Colvin, who like Fontenot had just entered the game in the top of the inning, pulled another pitch up the right-field line, this one toward the visiting bullpen just beyond first base.
"It hit off the mound, and then it hit off the wall," Paul said. "I tried to keep it in front of me, but it got by me."
As Fontenot jogged home, Colvin wound up on third as well, although he was given only a double because Paul was charged with an error. The run was earned because Ely gave up two extra-base hits, and the Dodgers (26-21) probably would have lost the game even if Paul had fielded both balls cleanly. Still, it was enough to leave a bad taste in the mouth of a player who had played pretty well for the Dodgers since he was promoted May 18, the day Ethier was put on the disabled list. Paul went 0 for 7 in the series.
"He is a tough kid, but if you're going to play at this level, you have to deal with this stuff and bounce back from it," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said.
Paul will have to do his bouncing back in the next three days. After that, it's probably back to Albuquerque.
There was a mini-controversy in the sixth inning when Dodgers third baseman Blake, who had singled, thought he saw Lilly throwing pitches with his foot not in contact with the front of the pitching rubber. It was when Blake pointed this out to first base umpire John Hirschbeck that an argument broke out, with Dodgers first base coach Mariano Duncan coming to Blake's defense and Torre eventually coming out of the dugout.
"Every once in a while, [Lilly] would step about six inches in front of the rubber," Blake said. "I don't know why I happened to be looking, but I just looked down at his foot, and he was standing that far in front of the rubber. I tried to call timeout to say to the umpire, 'Come look at where he's at.' John Hirschbeck is a good umpire, but he said he couldn't make the call from back there because he couldn't see it."
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Hirschbeck was positioned a few feet behind first base, the standard spot for a first base umpire with a runner on first.
"So I asked him to move up and look at it when he is in a better position to get a better look at it, because I felt like [Lilly] was cheating," Blake said. "I know he doesn't have an overpowering fastball, so I'm sure he is trying to get as much of an edge as he can, but that is cheating."
But Hirschback refused to move.
"He asked me to step over there where he was," Hirschbeck said. "I said, 'Casey, I can't step on the bag where you are. I have to stay back here.' From where I was, I couldn't tell, but I'm not allowed to be in another position. [Dodgers third base coach] Larry Bowa said something to [third base umpire] Wally Bell, asking us if we could please keep an eye on that, and we did."
Bell, who was free to move around because there was no runner on third, said he checked Lilly on a handful of pitches and that the fast-working Cubs left-hander was always touching the rubber. However, given Blake's generally laid-back demeanor and Lilly's less-than-convincing defense after the game, the unusually agitated Blake might have had a point.
"There were a couple of times where I think I just would get it and throw it," Lilly told reporters. "And I think maybe I was a little bit ahead of the rubber. I don't know that it was that much. It wasn't one of those things where I was thinking about it. [Cubs first baseman] Derrek [Lee] told me what [Blake] was saying to the umpire. I think if I was doing that, I might have done it a couple of times, but I'm not real conscious of it. I'm just trying to get good footing."
Blake clearly thought there was more intent behind it than Lilly was willing to admit.
"If the umpires aren't going to call that, he is going to keep pitching from there the whole game," Blake said. "It got me really fired up because [Hirschbeck] refused to get a better look at it. That is what made me mad."
Hirschbeck also said that if Lilly really was standing, as Blake suggested, six inches in front of the rubber, the umpires would have spotted that no matter where they were standing.
"I would think so," he said. "That's just like when somebody says a pitch was six inches off the plate, when it was really, like, two inches off the plate."
Rookie Carlos Monasterios (1-0, 1.90) will make his second major league start and his first since May 1, when he pitched well but lasted only four innings in a win over Pittsburgh. He will be opposed by former Rockies ace Jeff Francis (1-0, 0.68), who is making his third start of the season after missing all of last year while recovering from labrum surgery and the early part of this year because of an armpit strain. He has given up one run in 13 1/3 innings.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.