Lieber-ation

I wasn't in favor of the Jon Lieber signing when it was announced last fall. "What do we need him for?", I thought. "We already have plenty of starting pitchers."

If not for Lieber the Cubs might have lost two of three in Pittsburgh -- he threw 7.1 scoreless innings in the series in two appearances, racked up wins in both of them, and currently leads the team in wins (tied with Kevin Hart), and is third in innings pitched despite not having started a game, and has allowed only two runs, both unearned, this season so far.

That's what we need him for... and pretty soon, if Rich Hill doesn't get his act together, Lieber may wind up in the rotation. And that's not just me or you talking, it's Lou:

Asked whether he might take Hill out of the rotation to let him work out his issues, given a wealth of starting depth in Lieber and Sean Marshall, Piniella suggested that would be an option.

"I'm going to sit down and talk to our pitching coach about that," Piniella said. "I want what's best for Hill. We've got to get him straightened out. That's the important thing."

With Lieber -- and Sean Marshall, who may throw on Sunday if Jason Marquis isn't over his case of strep -- in the bullpen, the Cubs do have options if starters fail.

Hill failed last night, walking four and allowing three hits and three runs in three innings, throwing 72 pitches, but Lieber held the Pirates down while the Cubs exploded for five runs in the sixth inning; Geovany Soto's two-run HR off Matt Morris gave the Cubs a 4-3 lead and they never looked back, winning 7-3, and I was a little surprised to see Kerry Wood in the 9th inning in a NON-save situation. Closers often have trouble when they can't put up that counting stat (Ryan Dempster was an excellent example of this when he was the closer), but Wood had no trouble putting the Pirates down. Soto, for his part, had three other hits -- two doubles and a single -- and raised his average to .333. Mike Fontenot also homered. Where does a guy that small get that much power (lifetime SLG .415)?

The Cubs have now won six straight against Pittsburgh (including a three-game sweep at Wrigley Field last September), and this is good news because nine of the next 41 games will be against the Pirates. This year's wacky schedule has the Pirates at Wrigley Field next weekend -- and then again the third weekend of May, followed by a return visit to PNC Park the weekend after that.

Speaking of PNC, it's a beautiful place, as those of you who have been there know, an excellent spot to watch baseball. But the Pirates franchise is going to be in trouble if they keep drawing like they did the last two games of the series. Despite good early-April weather, less than 10,000 attended each game (9,798 last night, 9,735 the night before, which tells you what the Bucs' season ticket base must be) -- and a fair number of those were Cubs fans. Even some of the Cubs noticed:

"I wouldn't say it's difficult, but it's not as enjoyable," Derrek Lee said. "You like the crowd excitement, the noise. Opening Day here was great. But [the small crowds] are kind of different."

With only a few thousand fans in the stands near the end of Wednesday's 15-inning game, almost every voice could be heard in the dugout. Manager Lou Piniella even had to have some words with some rude fans.

"About the 14th inning, I think three young men had had enough beers," he said. "I just told 'em to watch the game, nothing more."

Lee was used to playing in front of small crowds in Florida and admitted, "it's easy to fall flat in that atmosphere."

I would have posted this recap last night, given that the game was only about half as long as the previous two, but, having gotten used to extra-inning games, I got interested in watching a couple of them on... Extra Innings. (They're sure getting enough of those so far this year!) And in one of them, the Mets' 4-3 win over the Phillies in 12, ex-Cub Angel Pagan drove in the winning run with a two-out single. Pagan is hot right now, hitting .370 with 9 RBI, but don't expect that to continue.

Finally, after Soto's HR, he came out to catch the next inning and I got a good look at his chest protector, which has the large letters "GEO" right on the top. What's up with that?

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