Thursday, April 3, 2014

Game of the Day (4/2/14)

Pirates 4, Cubs 3 (16). For future reference, when there is a game with a (16) next to it, it's usually going to be the Game of the Day.

Chicago leadoff man Emilio Bonifacio had gone 4 for 5 on Opening Day, and he kept up the good work with a leadoff single against Charlie Morton - and then was promptly picked off. Morton struck out the next two Cubs to end the first; Edwin Jackson would hit a batter and walk another in the bottom of the inning, but a double play in between the two free passes extinguished what might have been a scoring chance. Both teams would rally in the second; the Cubs put two runners on when Anthony Rizzo was hit by a pitch and Nate Schierholtz singled, but Ryan Sweeney hit into a double play to defuse the situation. Meanwhile, a one-out single by Neil Walker and a walk by Travis Ishikawa were followed by a Jordy Mercer single that brought in the game's first run.

The Cubs tried again in the third with two-out singles by Bonifacio and Luis Valbuena, but Starlin Castro whiffed to leave them both on. Jackson and Morton both settled in from there - in fact, neither starter would allow another hit while in the game. Chicago put a pair of runners on in the fifth thanks to Pittsburgh errors, but stranded both of them. Rizzo drew a walk in the sixth, but was erased on a double play. Starling Marte opened the bottom of the sixth with a walk and moved to second on an errant pickoff throw; after a strikeout and a walk, Jackson was relieved by James Russell, who started his outing by whiffing Pedro Alvarez for the inning's second out. Russell Martin then grounded to short - and Castro made an error that allowed Pittsburgh to score its second run of the day. Sweeney drew a leadoff walk in the seventh, but Tony Watson recovered to strike out the side.

Combined with a ten-inning shutout to open the season, the Cubs were now working on a 17-inning scoreless streak. The two-run Pirate lead was looking secure, especially considering the excellent performance of the back end of their bullpen in 2013. But facing Mark Melancon, Bonifacio led off the eighth with his third hit of the day, and Valbuena singled him to second. Castro grounded out, advancing both runners into scoring position, and Rizzo was hit by a pitch to load the bases. Schierholtz then hit into what appeared to be an inning-ending double play, but the force at second was overturned by replay, as Walker's throw pulled Mercer off of the base. The successful challenge resulted in the first run of the 2014 Cubs' season. The celebration was presumably muted, however, as Sweeney then grounded out to leave the tying run at third.

Pedro Strop worked around a single in the bottom of the eighth, and the Chicago lineup went back to work against Jason Grilli. Junior Lake singled with one out, and after pinch hitter Mike Olt was retired, Bonifacio stepped in again. He recorded his fourth hit of the game, moving Lake into scoring position, and Valbuena followed with a game-tying RBI single. Castro popped up to leave the go-ahead run at third, and Hector Rondon worked a spotless bottom of the inning to send the teams to their second consecutive extra-inning game.

In the tenth, Justin Wilson worked around a Sweeney single, and Rondon did the same with a walk to Jose Tabata. Jeanmar Gomez entered for the top of the eleventh and allowed a leadoff double to Lake. One out later, he intentionally walked Bonifacio.

I'm going to pause here for a moment. Emilio Bonifacio is not a hitter who is intentionally walked on a regular basis; in fact, entering play yesterday, he had seen the catcher stand up and receive four wide ones against him only twice in his major league career. The first was in the twelfth inning of this game, setting up a force at home. The second was in the eleventh inning of this game, also setting up a force at home. So in his entire big-league career, Bonifacio had never before been intentionally walked purely because the opposing team did not want to face Emilio Bonifacio - not even with the pitcher on deck. Now he has. (On a similar note, all three of his intentional walks have come in extra innings.)

Anyway, once history had been made, Valbuena struck out, with Lake and Bonifacio pulling off a double steal on strike 3. Castro flied to center, leaving the go-ahead runs in scoring position. Brian Schlitter came on in relief, with Castro being double-switched out of the game in favor of Darwin Barney (Bonifacio moving from second to short), and recorded three quick outs in the bottom of the inning.

Rizzo led off the top of the twelfth with a home run, giving the Cubs their first lead of the year. That brought closer Jose Veras out of the bullpen. With one out, he walked Ishikawa, who was replaced by pinch runner Clint Barmes. Mercer was hit by a pitch, Tabata hit into a force that moved the tying run to third, and Marte singled Barmes home to even the score once more at 3. Veras would go on to load the bases, which brought last year's NL MVP to the plate; with a full count, Andrew McCutchen struck out, and the game continued.

Stomly Pimentel came in for the thirteenth and managed the rare feat of retiring Bonifacio on a line drive bunt attempt. After Valbuena drew a two-out walk, the Cubs pinch hit with Travis Wood, who is typically a starting pitcher; this is what happens in the thirteenth inning of games when you carry 12 pitchers on your roster. Once Wood was predictably retired, Wesley Wright relieved in the bottom of the inning, and initially appeared to be trying to end the game as quickly as possible: he allowed an Alvarez single, hit Martin with a pitch, and tried and failed to force the lead runner on Walker's bunt, loading the bases with nobody out. Naturally, Barmes proceeded to hit into a 7-2-3 double play.

This is not quite as weird as it sounds; the Cubs simply went to a five-man infield, with left fielder Junior Lake (who played shortstop in the minors) being the fifth, and the one who happened to have the ball hit to him. It's still a fun scoring quirk, though. A Mercer intentional walk was followed by Tabata hitting into a force to keep the game going yet again.

With two outs in the fourteenth, Pimentel walked Sweeney and allowed a single to Welington Castillo to put the go-ahead run at third, but Lake struck out to leave it there. Wright worked around a walk in the bottom of the inning. In the top of the fifteenth, Bonifacio singled with one out, his fifth hit of the game. (Entering the 2014 season, Bonifacio had played 612 games and had as many as four hits in three of them. He started this season with two four-hit games, including the first five-hit outing of his career, which may actually be more impressive than the previously highlighted intentional walk.) Bonifacio stole second, Valbuena walked, pinch hitter John Baker struck out, and Rizzo flied out, leaving the go-ahead run in scoring position once more.

Carlos Villanueva replaced Wright and recorded three quick outs in the home fifteenth. After three drama-filled frames, Pimentel worked his first 1-2-3 inning in the sixteenth, and in the bottom of the inning, Mercer singled, Tabata bunted into a force, and Marte singled to put the winning run at third. Pinch hitter Tony Sanchez then singled as well, finally, mercifully, bringing the winning run across the plate - and hanging Villanueva with his second loss in the Cubs' first two games of the year. (Does anyone know who the last pitcher was to pull this off? It wouldn't surprise me if it's fairly recent, but I could also see it having been a while.)

This is obviously a fantastic game - it lasted 16 innings, had blown saves by both teams including one in extra innings (which WPL absolutely loves), featured a 7-2-3 double play, and had the go-ahead or winning run at third five times in the ninth inning or extras before the sixth one finally scored. But just how good was it? WPL gives it an 8.53, which is unsurprisingly the highest score so far in 2014. It would also have been the fifth-highest mark reached in the 2013 regular season, and within striking distance of #3 (like, close enough that if Sanchez had popped up and McCutchen had driven in the winning run, it would have claimed the spot.)

So it's pretty likely that we just saw the best game of April, at least, and there's a nonzero chance it'll end up as the best game of the entire year. Not bad for day 3 of the regular season.

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