Drifting in and out of sleep last night (since I have to get up at 3:30 am for work on Saturdays, and thank you to BCB reader northsider for posting the extra inning comment thread), I woke up just in time to see Skip Schumaker's walkoff HR fly over the RF wall in St. Louis, finishing the Cubs' 5-3 loss to the Cardinals in 11 innings.
It's got Lou Piniella so exasperated that he doesn't know what to say. In this Bruce Miles article in the Daily Herald, Lou elaborates on his "You think I'm stupid?" remark at Thursday's postgame press conference:
After the game, Piniella took exception to a question from a radio reporter who asked if Piniella had thought about moving Reed Johnson from center to left and replacing Soriano, who had come off the disabled list Thursday after suffering a right-calf strain.
"The question that was asked yesterday, the guy who asked it knew the answer before I had to answer it," Piniella said. "Why ask it? Why can't he report the news instead of trying to create news?
"I'm not going to take Soriano out for defense. He knows it, you know it, and unless there's a double switch, that's the only way he's coming out of the ballgame. Everybody knows that. You don't take superstar players out of the lineup. You don't do it."
But then, in Bruce's game recap from last night, Piniella shows his frustration, which matches all of ours:
"I've got no explanation for the left-field play," Piniella said. "I really don't."
Soriano dropped a playable fly ball in the 7th inning -- well, "dropped" isn't the right word, because he appeared to never touch it -- that helped the Cardinals eventually extend their lead to 3-1 after Yadier Molina hit a ground-rule double. The Cubs actually caught a break on that play, because the ball bouncing into the seats held a runner at third. Otherwise it'd have been 4-1. At the same time, if Soriano makes that play (or if Derrek Lee hadn't made an error on Rick Ankiel's grounder on the previous play), the Cardinals score NO runs in that inning and then Soriano's two-run HR in the 9th inning would have been a game-winner.
Such is what happens when you're in a bad stretch, and the Cubs are in a really bad stretch (now six losses in the last eight games). I was actually encouraged by that inning, because Bob Howry did his job -- got Ankiel to hit a ground ball and Albert Pujols to hit the popup that Soriano couldn't field. When Troy Glaus struck out, that should have been a 1-2-3 inning. Kerry Wood also threw a 1-2-3 ninth inning, good news after his Thursday meltdown.
All of this wouldn't have been necessary if Rich Hill had just done his job. He walked four batters in the first inning, forcing in a run, at which time Lou had had enough and yanked him, and that may be it for Hill in the rotation for a while:
"Hill can't start like this in the big leagues," Piniella said. "Come on. Every time he pitches, it's an adventure. He's doing his best. I have no bullpen. I don't know what the solution is. I can't start him anymore until this thing gets taken care of. I would think that if we did something, we'd put (Sean) Marshall in the rotation, for now."
Give credit, at least, to Michael Wuertz and Jon Lieber, who together threw five innings and allowed only one run, keeping the game close. But Lou is right. I can't figure out what's wrong with Hill, who appears to have seriously regressed from his fine season last year. He's walked 18 in 19.2 innings and doesn't seem to have a clue out there. I don't think he's hurt, because his velocity seems OK; is it a mechanical problem? Larry Rothschild has already worked with him on that once this year, and that resulted in Hill's only win of the season. Hill has now thrown 353 pitches in five starts -- not getting past the sixth inning in any of them -- and only 55% of them have been strikes (194). Contrast that with Carlos Zambrano's excellent start this year (after a couple of years' worth of Z walking way too many) -- Z has thrown 723 pitches, 458 for strikes (63%).
Would an all-expenses-paid trip to Des Moines for Rich be useful? I say it would; what's the point of putting Hill in the bullpen? If he's a long reliever, he's likely to come into situations where the team is behind, maybe with runners on base, and if he can't throw strikes -- that's potential disaster.
The Cubs did have their opportunities last night, having nine hits and five walks... but leaving thirteen men on base in 11 innings isn't going to cut it. The Cubs left RISP in the 7th, 8th, 9th and 11th.
And Chad Fox... well, he threw strikes (14 in 23 pitches), but everyone he faced hit the ball hard (save Brendan Ryan, who bunted). I'm not so sure he's the answer to the Cubs' current bullpen woes, either. Just remember this: Lou won't stand pat if something isn't working, and even with the swap-out of Kevin Hart for Fox, there are still problems with both the rotation and the bullpen.
Perspective: after 29 games a year ago, the Cubs were 15-14, but already five games out of first place. This morning they trail by 1.5 games and are two games better off than the 2007 edition.