All spring long, new Cubs manager Dale Sveum has preached aggressiveness on the basepaths. Generally speaking, I agree with that philosophy -- put pressure on the opponent and make them execute.
However, there is a difference between aggressiveness and stupidity. In Thursday's 2-1 Opening Day loss to the Washington Nationals, the Cubs demonstrated more of the latter than the former on the bases. They ran themselves into two unnecessary outs -- one in the fourth inning and one in the ninth -- and that looms large in a one-run game. Let's discuss.
Situation 1: No score, one out, bottom of the fourth. Alfonso Soriano on second base, Ian Stewart on first. Jeff Baker at the plate against Washington's Stephen Strasburg.
Soriano, apparently trying to turn the clock back six or seven years, attempts to steal third base and gets thrown out from here to China. Two outs.
What happens next? Baker walks, then Marlon Byrd singles in Stewart. The Cubs get one run out of the inning, but should have had two and could have had even more if Soriano had held his water at second base. No need to give Strasburg, who was struggling in that inning, an easy out in that spot.
Some might blame Sveum for the caught stealing, but I don't believe that call came from the bench. If it had, Stewart would have been running from first base as well. He was not. I think Soriano was going on his own, and it was a horrible, horrible choice. It cost the Cubs a potential big inning.
Situation 2: Washington leads 2-1, bottom of the ninth. One out, Joe Mather at third base, pinch-running for Stewart who had tripled. Brad Lidge pitching, Baker at the plate. Washington's infield is in.
Baker swings at the first pitch and grounds to third base. Mather, running on contact, is thrown out easily at the plate by Washington third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. Two outs. The pressure comes off Lidge, and he strikes out Byrd to end the game.
This call did come from the bench, and I just don't like the contact play when you're down a run. When the game is tied, OK. But when you're trailing, I believe you have to make ground balls go through.
If Mather stays at third on Baker's grounder, yeah, it's still not an advantageous situation for the Cubs. There would have been two out, and that likely would have required Byrd to get a base hit to tie the game. However, with a man at third, Lidge has to worry about bouncing his slider and potentially allowing the tying run to score on a wild pitch. Maybe he leaves one up and Byrd comes through.
But with a man at first, Lidge had no such concerns. He got the third out and earned the save.
One day of bad baserunning isn't going to cause Sveum to change his philosophy, nor should it. But little things make the difference in close games, and it's mistakes like these that cause the Cubs to struggle the way they do.