I stared down the barrel of the gun. Looked into the eye of the beast. Pitched to Joe Mauer.
I took Grand Avenue. Willingly.
The details are unimportant. I knew better, but a late change in Tuesday afternoon plans and a quick look at directions to Mesa for Cubs-Rangers led me to believe I could outsmart The Grand and force it, once and for all, to do my bidding.
I got to the game an hour late.
(To be fair, the sold-out crowd of more than 13,000 in a stadium and parking lot not set up to handle much more than that factored in. But The Grand won. Again.)
I walked in just as the game's two pivotal at-bats took place. Neftali Feliz was evidently sharp in innings one and two and to start off inning three, taking care of the Cubs the first time through their order -- two strikeouts in a one-hit first, two strikeouts in a one-hit second, and an infield pop-out and fly to left to quietly start the third.
But then the top of the order came back up: single, double, and the two at-bats I arrived to see -- a two-run Xavier Nady double and, after Marlon Byrd was down 0-2, he worked the count full before shooting a hard single through the box, driving home the third run of the inning and staking Chicago to a 3-0 lead that would hold up in the 4-1 Cubs win. Feliz was slated to go four innings, but his trouble the second time through the lineup ended his day after three.
This team expects to win this year, and Feliz simply isn't ready for the responsibility of giving the club six or seven strong, every fifth day. Not yet. That's OK -- there are other candidates making strong cases to round out the rotation, and Feliz may still develop into a lockdown rotation horse. But he's not there yet.
As for C.J. Wilson, his unlikely candidacy for the starting five gains momentum. After Omar Beltre pitched the fourth (interesting; missed low from time to time, but had several Cubs hitters guessing wrong in a scoreless frame that included two strikeouts), Wilson came on for the fifth, with a plan for him to log four innings of his own. Pitch counts have long been an issue for the lefthander, even in his late-relief assignments, and first-pitch strikes have been a problem in camp.
Wilson met the challenge. He faced 15 batters, starting 12 off with strikes (including the final nine he faced). His first inning of work, in fact, went from uh-oh to dazzling quickly -- after starting leadoff hitter Ryan Theriot off with three pitches out of the zone, he came back to strike Theriot out looking and, overall, fire seven strikes in eight pitches to retire Chicago in order. In his second frame, nine strikes and five balls. In his third, seven strikes and one ball, locking up the opportunity after just 33 total pitches to go out for a fourth inning of work. He needed 14 pitches in that inning, but did a good job wiggling out of a mess he created after Tyler Colvin singled sharply to center on a full count and Nady clubbed a ground-rule double to right center on the next pitch. Faced with runners at second and third and nobody out, Wilson got a grounder to third and two grounders to second to strand the runners, end the inning, and complete his day.
In his four innings of work (47 pitches, 32 for strikes), Wilson gave up one run (a no-doubt Jeff Baker homer in the seventh) on three hits, no walks, and five strikeouts -- all looking. His pace seemed good, he mixed a sharp breaking ball with a fastball that he located well, and he did a good job working both sides of the plate. But the big thing may have been pitch one: those 12 out of 15 first-pitch strikes followed an effort his last time out when he was just 4 of 12.
Wilson's biggest disappointment of the day might have been that the Cubs opted to use the DH in the game, stripping from him a long-awaited opportunity to hit.
Interesting top of the fifth: Justin Smoak and Taylor Teagarden each worked the count full and forced Cubs pitcher Esmailin Caridad to throw six pitches, but given their minor league track records, that wasn't so surprising. But then Joaquin Arias worked a seven-pitch walk, which on some nights is as many pitches as he'll see in four at-bats combined.
I still just don't see Arias (who proceeded to get caught stealing) winning the utility infield job, and my guess is that he'll be traded rather than exposed to waivers.
Josh Hamilton's bruised left hand is better, but he had a tooth infection yesterday.
Ian Kinsler could miss another full week with his right ankle sprain but is expected to be ready for Opening Day.
Warner Madrigal's MRI showed no structural damage, and he'll try to work back from his forearm tightness in hopes of getting back on the mound before the end of camp.
Eric Hurley looked like a quarterback getting in his pregame warmup tosses yesterday morning, as a nearby coach was hauling in the return throws from the catcher during Hurley's bullpen session (a concession to Hurley's broken left wrist).
A few notes from live BP on the minor league side Tuesday morning:
Lefthander Glenn Swanson is now throwing from a Venafro-esque low slot.
Righthander Danny Gutierrez's power curve wasn't quite as nasty as Matt Thompson's the day before, but it's a true swing-and-miss pitch.
Righthander Wilmer Font had trouble getting on top of his curve, but the 19-year-old looks physically more and more like a big league pitcher every time I see him. Hunch: He gets traded in July. Sold high.
Another hunch: While Font is considered anywhere from the fourth-best pitching prospect in the Rangers system to the seventh-best in most reputable rankings, this time next year righthander Neil Ramirez will be in that same tier.
Lefthander Robbie Ross is far from imposing physically but always seems to be in command on the mound. Love his future.
I went to a tryout for the Reds in Georgetown, Texas in the spring of 1990. One stage that day was a BP set-up where pitchers and hitters each toed in, one at a time, facing each other for one series of pitches before stepping out for the next pitcher and hitter. I figured out with about a dozen hitters ahead of me that I was going to miss Austin McCallum lefty Robbie Beckett (who would be San Diego's first-round pick a couple months later) by one hitter. A left-handed hitter, I think I lost three pounds in those 15 minutes hoping no hitter would duck out ahead of me, forcing me to step in against Beckett, a huge kid with huge velocity and huge unawareness of where his pitches would land (he'd walk about a batter per inning in more than 860 pro innings of work).
I thought about that experience yesterday for the first time in many years, as left-handed hitters Jacob Kaase and Tommy Mendonca both got buzzed up and in by filthy but erratic southpaw Geuris Grullon during back-to-back BP turns.
I finally saw something out of Jurickson Profar yesterday that I wasn't crazy about: an Alfonso Soriano look to his right-handed cuts. (But Profar is half Soriano's age. He'll get straightened out.)
Mike Lowell is seeing action for Boston at first base (he has one hit and a strikeout in four trips over two appearances) but "is not moving well," according to scouts who talked to ESPN's Gordon Edes. (Edes then pointed out that Lowell has never run well.) The Marlins are said to have shown some interest in bringing the veteran back to Florida.
Kevin Millwood got a back-fields Orioles intrasquad assignment this time and was a little better: three runs on four hits over five innings (88 pitches).
Interesting: Washington released controversial 25-year-old outfielder Elijah Dukes. Not even a designation for assignment?
Houston got infielder Jose Vallejo through waivers and outrighted him to AAA Round Rock.
Kansas City optioned catcher Manny Pina to its AA club. It will be Pina's third run at the Texas League.
Righthander Derrick Turnbow ended his comeback attempt with Florida due to shoulder pain.
Righthanders Sidney Ponson and Jake Dittler signed with the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League.
On the punch list for today and tomorrow: Hoping to see Alexi Ogando, Miguel Velazquez, Vlad Guerrero, Michael Main, and Tommy Mendonca at work.
And no more of The Grand.
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(c) Jamey Newberg
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