Monday, April 03, 2006

Cubs Club Reds in Season Opener; Offense Prevails with No Pitching to be Found

The final score of the 2006 season opener says more than enough about the kind of day that the Reds had: Chicago 16, Cincinnati 7. When you have to go all the way back to the 1877 season opener to find an opening day loss this lopsided, you know you had a "special" day. One can only hope that this game is not indicative of the rest of the season to come, or this will be a very long season indeed.

The highlight of this game probably took place before the game even began. President George W. Bush threw out the ceremonial first pitch of the game, the first sitting president to ever do so before a Reds' season opener. When the game actually began, one might have wondered if the President could have done any worse than the real pitchers in the game.

The game started off on the wrong foot from the very beginning. Aaron Harang, the new designated ace of this staff, took the mound with a good spring behind him. All of that good work from spring training meant next to nothing when the Cubs rocked him for five (5) runs in the top of the first inning, although only two of those runs were earned. The first four batters of the inning all reached (Juan Pierre with a triple, Todd Walker with a double to score Pierre, Derek Lee with a walk, and Aramis Ramirez with a single). With the bases loaded, Jacque Jones lifted a fly ball to left that Adam Dunn misplayed for an error (which could have been blamed on the swirling winds on the day), but Walker scored and the other two runners advanced. Trouble seemed to be averted when Michael Barrett lined into a double play (also with the bases loaded) to take out Ramirez at second and leave Lee and Jones on the corners. Nobody would have guessed that the Matt Murton, the number seven hitter, would be the star of this game, but Murton cranked Harang's offering to deep right center for a three-run homer and a five-run lead for the visiting team.

The Reds would respond on offense in the bottom of the first, as the first three batters (Tony Womack, Felipe Lopez, and Ken Griffey Jr) all reached (walk, single, walk, respectively). Adam Dunn then flied out to deep center to score Womack on a sacrifice fly while both Lopez and Griffey were able to advance. With only one out, Edwin Encarnacion struck out, but Scott Hatteberg reached on a walk with two outs. Austin Kearns came up with a chance to add more runs, but he flied out to deep left on a great defensive play by the aforementioned Murton (who turned in a big first inning) while crashing into the scoreboard.

While Harang would settle down after the first inning (allowing only two hits and no runs through the next four innings), the Reds offense began to whittle away at the 5-1 deficit. In the bottom of the third, Dunn singled to with one out followed by a walk by Encarnacion. With two on and one out, Hatteberg, the new first baseman and off-season free agent signing, made good with a big three-run homer to deep right to cut the margin to 5-4. Two innings later, in the bottom of the fifth, Adam Dunn provided more offense by leading off the inning with a homer, tying the game at 5-5. After a double by Austin Kearns with two outs, Carlos Zambrano, the Cubs starter, was taken out of the game for reliever Will Ohman, who delivered the third out with a flyout by Javier Valentin.

Now that the score was back to square, one would have thought Harang would be feeling pretty good about things, but manager Jerry Narron may have left him out there one inning longer than he should have. The sixth inning was the beginning of the unravelling of the game, as the first four batters of the inning all reached base (Barrett walked, Murton hit one deep in the whole to short that became a single, Ronny Cedeno reached on a bunt single to load the bases, and then Angel Pagan delivered a run-scoring single). The Cubs had retaken the lead at 6-5. With the bases loaded and nobody out, Harang was taken out of the game in favor of lefty Chris Hammond, the one-time Reds starter now back as a middle reliever.

Hammond had an outing he would probably rather forget. Pierre got an infield single on a hit back to the mound that Hammond could not convert for an out and allowed a run to score. Then Todd Walker singled in two more runs (all three charged to Aaron Harang, who was charged with six earned runs on the day), pushing the score to 9-5, chasing Hammond in favor of late roster addition Mike Burns. Burns promptly came in to allow a double to Derek Lee, scoring Pierre from third and keeping runners at second and third. With first base open, Burns intentionally walked Ramirez to get to the pitcher's spot, but the Cubs used pinch-hitter Neifi Perez, who delivered a single to score another run (now 11-5) and keep the bases loaded. The first outs of the inning were finally notched when Barrett grounded into a double play, but one more run scored on the play to bring the score to a lopsided 12-5. Murton walked before Cedeno finally ended the inning on a strikeout swinging. The two runs that scored after Burns came in were charged to Hammond, who has the dubious honor of an "infinite" ERA with two runs allowed in no innings of work.

The Reds were once again in a definite (and even bigger) hole, but this time they would not recover. They would score only twice more before the game was over, once in the bottom of the sixth on a sac fly by Griffey and the other on a sac fly by Rich Aurilia in the bottom of the seventh. The margin was 12-7 after seven innings and stayed that way until the ninth, with the pitching finally "stable" after Matt Belisle pitched a one-hit seventh and Todd Coffey pitched a one-hit eighth.

In the top of the ninth, the Cubs put some insurance on top of their already sizeable lead. Rick White took over the pitching duties for the Reds but struggled to get outs. He allowed a single to Pagan and then a bunt single to Pierre. Jerry Hairston Jr reached on an infield throwing error by third baseman Encarnacion to load the bases. Lee hit a sac fly to score Pagan (13-7) and advance both Pierre and Hairston. Ramirez was then intentionally walked. Perez grounded into a fielder's choice, forcing Ramirez at second but scoring Pierre (14-7) and advancing Hairston to third. Barrett then came up with a two-run double to close the scoring at 16-7.

The Reds then went quietly in the ninth, with only a single by Aurilia with two outs, and the game was over with a final score of 16-7. Will Ohman, the Cubs relief of Zambrano with only one-third inning worked, notched the win (1-0) while Reds' starter Harang suffered the loss (0-1) with a poor first outing (5 IP, 9 H, 9R, 6ER, 3 BB, and 3 K). Given the large margin of victory, nobody was in line to earn a save, but the offense was clearly the story of the game.

Both teams have an off-day on Tuesday as the Reds hope to regroup with a Wednesday afternoon special at home to split this short two-game series with the Cubs. Newest addition Bronson Arroyo will take the mound for the Reds while Glendon Rusch will oppose him for the Cubs. The start time for Wednesday's game is an earlier 12:35 Pm (the "business man's special"), as the Pirates then come to town on Thursday night for a four-game series.

Here's hoping that Game 2 might show us some pitching capability (and a better outcome) for our home team. It certainly cannot get much worse than Game 1, but one game does not a season make. 161 games remain; we just got our first loss out of the way early.

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