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Sean Marshall pitches, plays left field, pitches again

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sean-marhsall-outfield.jpgIt was a move that literally came out of left field.

There was Cubs manager Lou Piniella, in what looked to be a very public call-out of left fielder Alfonso Soriano, replacing the struggling veteran in the field with pitcher Sean Marshall.

With the bases loaded and no one out in the ninth inning-- and before Marshall could throw a pitch to Cardinals shortstop Brendan Ryan -- Piniella strolled out of the dugout and sent the left-handed hurler out to left and Soriano out of the game. Aaron Heilman came on to relieve Marshall on the mound.

It was confusing. And uniquely exciting.

One can't blame home plate umpire Marvin Hudson for taking a little longer than usual to make sure of exactly what kind of double-switch the home team was pulling. For the sake of expedience, Piniella looked to write it down for him, taking the ump's cheat sheet and showing him he was serious about the switcheroo.
In one moment on the last day of the season's first half, the blocking of the bizarre play that has been the Cubs took a dramatic turn.

Exit stage right, Alfonso.

But, as the events played out, there seemed to be a pretty sound strategy to the unexpected move. And if you took it just as a message to a scuffling Soriano, you missed the point, according to Piniella.

"No, I'm not frustrated about anything," he said. "I'm really not. We did what we had to do to try to keep the game in check and it worked."

After Heilman struck out Ryan, Piniella sent Reed Johnson out to left field to replace Marshall, who in his few short minutes as an outfielder was the recipient of a standing ovation and a chant.

But his work wasn't done. He was headed back to the mound, where he retired the final two batters of the inning, with a giant assist from Johnson, who made a spectacular diving grab of a Colby Rasmus liner that saved at least two runs.

Johnson is, after all, a real outfielder.

Piniella said he told Soriano about his intentions to bring Marshall back to the hill upon taking the outfielder out of the game. The slugger's .233 first-half average and 0-for-4 showing on Sunday wasn't the impetus -- winning was.

Marshall was the first Cubs pitcher to perform such a move since Les Lancaster in 1990. But, according to Piniella, all of those fly balls the pitching staff catches in their downtime aren't for nothing.

"Our pitchers, we insist from time to time that they catch balls in the outfield, so we utilized that practice a little bit today."

For his part, Marshall had a healthy amount of confidence in his ability to play the position. 

"It ended up working out alright," said Marshall, who shags balls in the outfield during batting practice. "It wasn't completely unfamiliar to me, but definitely in the big leagues it's a lot faster."

So, while it was my, and perhaps your, knee-jerk reaction to think this was a move about Soriano, it was much more nuanced. It was one of those inside baseball managerial moves that come about every blue moon that highlight the complexity of the game. Piniella pulling it out against one of the game's best in Tony La Russa made it even more special. La Russa's decision to hit starting pitcher Adam Wainwright in the 8-spot? Well, that just looks conservative next to this ninth-inning manuever.

In fact, after the game, the Cardinals leader conveyed his appreciation for the rare move.

''I stopped [Cubs first base coach Matt] Sinatro and said you tell Lou that was a classic," La Russa said. ''It was fun to be a part of it no matter how it turns out. It takes creativity, and it takes guts. Lou showed both of them.''

If only it would have ended in a win.

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This page contains a single entry by Kyle Koster published on July 13, 2009 2:35 AM.

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