Escobar enjoys memorable debut
Rookie goes 2-for-4 with an RBI double in first game
CHICAGO -- When Yunel Esobar dreamed about his Major League debut, he didn't exactly envision it entailing the part in which Lou Pinella's latest epic outburst would lead to the Wrigley Field outfield grass being littered with seemingly any and every object available to the fans in the bleacher seats.
But other than that, Escobar's much-anticipated big-league debut at Wrigley Field on Saturday afternoon had the makings of a storybook script. His strong defense at third base combined with a decisive, eighth-inning, two-out RBI double enabled the Braves to continue their recent success with a 5-3 win over the fighting-mad Cubs.
"This is what I dreamed about when I first left Cuba and got to the United States," said Escobar, with Braves bench coach Chino Cadahia serving as an interpreter. "It was especially great because it was in a city like Chicago and there were so many people here. Having the game-winning RBI, playing good defense and having the team win, I couldn't have dreamed it any better."
Because of heavy rains, Escobar's Friday night flight to Chicago was diverted to Ft. Wayne, Ind., where he stayed until Saturday morning. His first steps on the Wrigley Field turf came 70 minutes before the first pitch. But with a quiet confidence, the 24 year-old shortstop, who defected from Cuba in 2004 and was selected by the Braves in the second round of the 2005 First-Year Player Draft, showed he's quite capable of being a force in the big leagues.
"I had plenty of confidence in myself that I could get the job done," said Escobar, whose two-hit debut began with a first-inning single in an eight-pitch at-bat against Cubs starter Rich Hill.
While history will always account for the single off Hill, Escobar may be more likely to always remember the 1-1 Will Ohman pitch that he directed into left field to score Scott Thorman with the game-winning run.
"It's fun to see any young kid come up," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "[Escobar] battles. He's a no-fear type of player and hitter."
The Braves, who have won three straight games for the first time since May 12, and four of their first five on this current six-game road trip, received an insurance run when Andruw Jones began the top of the ninth with a homer off Michael Wuertz. That provided some breathing room for Bob Wickman during a scoreless ninth that netted him just his third save in six career opportunities at Wrigley Field.
"We're playing good baseball right now," said Jones, who has raised his batting average from .213 to .230 during his current eight-game hitting streak.
As for the Cubs, who have lost 10 of their last 12, the only excitement their fans have experienced this weekend came during Saturday's eighth inning, when Piniella burst out of the dugout after third-base umpire Mark Wegner correctly ruled that Escobar had applied a tag before Angel Pagan had reached third base.
Pagan, who began the bottom of the eighth with a leadoff double off Rafael Soriano, was attempting to take third base on a passed ball charged to Braves catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. As soon as the call was made, Piniella raced toward Wegner, slammed his hat to the ground and then proceeded to repeatedly kick dirt on the umpire. As the long and heated argument progressed, fans littered the outfield grass with debris, causing play to be halted for approximately 10 minutes.
"As soon as I saw [Piniella] come out of the dugout, I started walking towards ours," Jones said. "I've been here when a manager has gotten thrown out before."
Once order was restored and the Braves players returned to the field, Soriano and Wickman preserved a strong effort from Chuck James, who allowed two earned runs and six hits in six innings. Because Tyler Yates and Martin Prado committed two-out errors that allowed the Cubs to tie the game with a run in the seventh, James was denied the opportunity to win consecutive starts for the first time since April 11.
"Chucky pitched great," Cox said. "I thought he pitched super."
The same could be said about Hill, who has allowed just two earned runs in the three career starts (20 2/3 innings) he's made against the Braves. He was doomed by his own throwing error during a three-run third inning, in which two unearned runs scored.
Escobar played an important role early in the third-inning uprising. On his own, he opted to attempt a sacrifice bunt that Hill fielded and errantly threw to second base in an attempt to retire Prado. Edgar Renteria followed with a double and three batters later, Matt Diaz doubled off the left-center-field wall to give James a three-run lead.
Hill, who had a two-out RBI double in the sixth, was victimized by Escobar's defense when he attempted to begin the bottom of the fifth with a bunt single. The strong-armed Cuban charged the bunt, barehanded it and fired a pinpoint throw to first base. When Alfonso Soriano followed with a homer, the defensive gem proved to be vital.
"That's what we expected out of him," James said of Escobar, who has spent most of his professional career as a shortstop. "He's a good ballplayer and he showed it again today."
While Chipper Jones remains on the disabled list until at least Friday, Escobar will be able to continue to prove he belongs at the Major League level. There may not currently be a lasting spot for him in Atlanta, but for now, he knows he can only continue to make the most of this opportunity.
"I've always had a lot of confidence in myself," Escobar said. "It's just the game of baseball."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.