Considering Ted Lilly gave up four home runs last night, it's hard to categorize his start as a success. But putting Lilly's performance into context is crucial for understanding why the Bulldog's less-than-perfect stat line was exactly what the Cubs needed last night.
The Cubs pounded out an 11-6 win last night behind outstanding offensive performances from two left-handed hitters, Kosuke Fukudome and Mike Fontenot. Aramis Ramirez had an outstanding night as well. The balanced offensive attack was working at full capacity for at least one night.
While the offense certainly got the job done, it seems that many Cub fans are less impressed with the pitching of Ted Lilly.
Indeed, out of context, it wasn't a good start. Lilly gave up four home runs over five innings, and eight hits overall. He gave the Astros a good number of pitches to hit, and in some cases, they were able to knock the cover off the darned thing.
But you know what? That's exactly what Lilly was supposed to do.
Lilly used the large cushion afforded to him by his teammates to get through innings as quickly as possible. Although Lilly only pitched five innings, he needed just 73 pitches to do so. If that rate were to continue, Lilly would have been under 105 pitches through seven innings—a fine start indeed.
More importantly, of the 73 pitches Lilly threw, 50 were for strikes. Why is that number so crucial?
When you've got a big lead, the last thing you want to do is walk opposing hitters. Instead, a mindful pitcher will throw strikes, and force the opponent to put the ball in play. Sure, Lilly allowed four home runs, but because he didn't walk anyone, none of the home runs hurt him too badly individually; three were solo shots, and one was a two-run homer.
Of course, giving up four home runs is never in the game plan for a pitcher when he takes the mound. Lilly would have much rather won last night's game by a score of 11-0. Presumably, there are some adjustments Lilly needs to make going forward to limit the number of hits and long balls allowed. At the same time, Cubs fans need to recognize the context of Lilly's performance before completely throwing him under the bus.
It will be interesting to see how Lilly performs in his next start, which will almost certainly be closer than last night's game (although, who would complain about another 8-0 lead after two innings?). Because he's a fly ball pitcher, Ted will almost certainly give up another couple long fly balls, some of which may leave the yard. But a larger proportion of balls to strikes might force opponents to swing at more pitches out of the zone, increasing Lilly's strikeout numbers and keeping runs off the scoreboard.
Lilly's next start will likely come on April 13th, as the Cubs play their first game in Wrigley Field against the Colorado Rockies.
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