We have reached the halfway point, Chicago baseball fans. I know, I know - technically, the White Sox reached the halfway point on July 5 with this 9-2 win over the Angels, and the Cubs got there on July 3 with this 3-1 win over the Reds. (That's game No. 81 in both cases.) But baseball loves its quirky inaccuracies.
Many fans have come to accept that wins and losses don't do a particularly good job at indicating how well a pitcher really performed. And batting average is, well, pretty below average at telling us just how much damage a guy is doing with his bat. And, yet, these stats persist in the respective minds of fans, players and coaches alike. Why, even I'll admit to feeling good when one of my favorite hurlers gets a W next to his name or when, say, Aramis Ramirez finally got above the Mendoza Line.
But I'm not here to have a sabermetrics argument. I'm here to reflect back on the first "half" of the 2010 baseball season. Namely, what were its defining moments? What will we all remember in years ahead when we think of the April, May, June and little bit o' July of this year? Here are my Top Five picks:
1. The Zambrano Incident
I'm picking the epic dugout temper tantrum of Carlos Zambrano on June 25 at U.S. Cellular Field for No. 1 because it involved both Chicago teams and almost perfectly encapsulated the respective fates of both clubs.
In the visitor's dugout, you had the Chicago Cubs: 32-40 going into the game and coming off two consecutive series losses to AL West teams. What's worse, they'd already dropped two of three to the White Sox at Wrigley a little over the week earlier and desperately needed to save some face in their own city.
In the home dugout, you had the Chicago White Sox: 37-34 going into the game and riding high on a nine-game winning streak. The South Siders had surely established a high watermark of confidence against virtually any National League team and certainly the struggling Cubs. The confidence showed in that much-discussed first inning, in which a couple of doubles down either line and a single by Paul Konerko culminated in a rocket line drive Carlos Quentin home run that gave the Sox a very early 3-0 lead.
The rest is history. Big Z stomps on first base to make the final out of the inning, marches into the dugout and goes off. Derrek Lee takes issue with Zambrano's verbal invectives and the two exchange words at close range. Cubs manager Lou Piniella steps in and immediately orders the Cubs' pitcher's dismissal from the game.
As of this writing, Zambrano remains on the restricted list and, factoring in rehab starts, may not return to the mound until next month. Or maybe he won't return to the mound for the Cubs at all. The incident could have very well marked the end of the turbulent, controversial and, perhaps most tragically of all, productive Cubs career of Carlos Zambrano.
2. The Buehrle Play
A few daring pitchers may try to imitate it in coming years, but no one will ever equal White Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle's amazing defensive play on Opening Day. Here, have a look. The hacky-sack kick off the ankle, the unhesitating pursuit across the first base line, the between-the-legs flip, the conclusive somersault. (Oh, and let's not neglect to mention Konerko's fine bare-handed catch at first base.) It was, as one radio announcer exalted, "a play of a lifetime."
For weeks after the play, it seemed as though Buehrle's amazing play might be the only highlight of the 2010 White Sox season. But we can now speculate whether it was foreshadowing of a team that appeared the victim of misfortune and misplays but remarkably transformed itself into a spectacular contender.
3. The 11-Game Streak
Between June 15 and June 26, the White Sox won 11 games. It was the team's longest winning streak in 49 years. They'll have to 12 in a row to beat the next record up - set by the 1961 Sox. Looking back, we'll remember as the streak that changed a season. Heading into the first win of the stream on June 14, the team was 28-34 and seven and a half games out of first place behind the Minnesota Twins. At its conclusion they were 39-34 and only a game and a half out.
And the notion that they put together this streak against mostly inferior National League teams such as the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Washington Nationals? It seemed a fair enough criticism at the time. The Pirates have been helping other big league teams right their respective ships throughout the season - except the Cubs, of course, who the Bucs sink like a wayward tugboat.
But the team's more recent performance seems to be going a long way to quieting that notion. The team is 9-1 in its last ten games, which includes wins over the always competitive Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and (OK, fine) the Kansas City Royals. In fact, don't look now, the Sox have an eight-game winning streaking going into the All Star Break. A sweep of the Twinkies coming out of the break would beat the 11-gamer and put the Sox firmly in the driver's seat in the AL Central.
4. The Lilly-Floyd Game
On Sunday, June 13, Ted Lilly nearly pitched a perfect game at Wrigley Field. He took an immaculate start into the ninth inning, when White Sox pinch hitter Juan Pierre hit a line drive single to center field. But that's not all. In the same game, White Sox right-hander Gavin Floyd threw eight innings of three-hit, one-run, nine-strikeout baseball. If not for Lilly's dominance, Floyd could have very well had a complete-game win.
For the spiteful Cubs fan, the game put an end to the White Sox aforementioned 11-game winning streak. But it was a bittersweet win in which the North Siders still scored only one run and saw their veteran southpaw just miss out on an historic achievement. On a brighter note, the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks appeared at the game - perhaps driving both baseball teams to greater glory.
5. The Arrival Of Starlin Castro
This being 2010 and all, the first ripples were seen on Twitter. On May 7, an ESPN Deportes writer let it slip that highly rated Cubs shortstop prospect was headed from Double A Tennessee to Cincinnati, where the Cubs were playing the Reds. All day, we watched and waited. Finally, just before four o'clock Chicago time, the Cubs made it official: Castro had been called up and would be the starting shortstop for the Chicago Cubs. The move sent backup third baseman Chad Tracy back to Iowa and tenured shortstop Ryan Theriot to second base.
And Castro's debut was, in fact, historic. He went two for five with a home run in his first major league plate appearance and a triple. Best of all, he drove in six runs - the most by any player in his big league debut. From there, it's been - not surprisingly - an up-and-down journey for the 20-year-old contact-hitting speedster. He committed three errors in his May 10 Wrigley debut, drawing boos from the impatient fans seated within the decidedly Unfriendly Confines.
Since then, Cubs fans have seen both flashes of defensive brilliance (good range, canon arm) and struggles (flubbing routine plays, having trouble covering second base on steal attempts). Offensively speaking, Castro has been similarly inconsistent. In 93 plate appearances in May, Castro put up a .769 OPS (.355 OBP). That fell to a .619 OPS (.299 OBP) in 89 plate appearances in June, but rebounded to a .800 OPS (.359 OBP) in 39 plate appearances so far in July. Overall, he's hit .270/.333/.383 (.716 OPS, .302 wOBA) in 221 plate appearances in 2010. These are hardly spectacular numbers, but his OBP - a key stat for a player with his speed - is right around league average, which should give Cubs fans some hope.
Ultimately, Castro seems well on his way to establishing himself as a core middle infielder for the North Side Nine. He may eventually have to slide over to second base if the defensive brilliance of Cubs prospect Hak-Ju Lee is for real. But, that aside, and though the team has disappointed this season in the win-loss column, Cubs fans have someone exciting to watch at the shortstop position.
- The prodigious hitting power - and perhaps surprising staying power - of Cubs outfielder Tyler Colvin.
- The debut of White Sox third baseman Dayan Viciedo.