Monday, April 4, 2011

Three Observations from the Cubs' 2011 Opening Weekend

Article first published as Three Observations from the Cubs' 2011 Opening Weekend on Blogcritics.

Well, opening weekend has come and gone, and the Chicago Cubs managed to play to most critics' expectations by dropping the first series to their recently established nemesis, the Pittsburgh Pirates. No longer the team's go-to for easy wins, the Pirates showed resilience by coming back in the ninth of Sunday's rubber game against what many had assumed was the Cubs greatest strength in closer, Carlos Marmol. A look at what was learned in games one, two, and three.

1) Starlin Castro is the real deal. Manager Mike Quade played around with Castro as the leadoff hitter on Sunday, and Cubs television broadcasters Len Kasper and Bob Brenly mentioned that Starlin may eventually be a candidate for the 3-hole, but what I really want is for Castro to bat first, second, and third. Today, he worked the count from 0-2 to earn a walk to lead off the game. This came a day after the Cubs showed horrible patience by going through several seven pitch innings as a team.  With regards to leadoff hitters, I think Fukodome has shown some patience, but Castro provides more of a speed threat. Two triples today and a .615 batting average to start the season ain't half bad. I say give him as many at-bats as possible, so that equates to another start at lead-off.

2) The Cubs starting pitching may keep them in contention. All three starters (Ryan Dempster, Carlos Zambrano, and Matt Garza) made it through six innings and they were able to keep the Cubs in each ball game. True, Dempster gave up the two big homers, but Friday's weather was less than desirable, and Quade will probably pull him in similar situations later in the season. Big Z overcame some early jams to settle down, and Garza, despite giving up 12 hits (all singles), struck out an equal number and has already contributed to a happier clubhouse. With Randy Wells coming off a strong spring training, and the first three starters each going past the sixth, the Cubs should be able to rely on their biggest strength coming into 2011 which is...

3) The Bullpen, or is it? Yes, the big three of Sean Marshall, Kerry Wood, and Carlos Marmol will be fine. Woody was bailed out today by a strong throw from Tyler Colvin (a strong defense also bodes well with only one error on the homestand), and Marmol obviously cost the Cubs a win. However, most teams would kill for these fearsome threesome, and if the Cubs bats can muster some additional run support, a 2-3 run lead, and hopefully most 1-run leads will be protected by the pen.

Keeping Score: I made the preseason prediction of 85 wins, and the Cubs could have been ahead of schedule with a win today.

On Deck: Of course, with 160 games remaining, we haven't reached the must-win stage of the season. However, the Cubs need to take series in April, or else their confidence may take an early hit. I'll call the next three game homestand against Arizona a "critical series."

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