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Bring Me The Head Of LaTroy Hawkins

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Just how many more times does this have to happen?

Just how many more times can a manager send a pitcher out to close games -- who isn't a closer, who doesn't want to be a closer, who has sucked at being a closer in two different cities in two different leagues?

In a game sickeningly reminiscent of games blown in the last week of September 2004, LaTroy Hawkins did it again, teasing us by getting us one strike away from victory, only to give up a line-drive RBI double to Lyle Overbay, after which he was jeered loudly, deservedly and at length.

An agonizing hour and a half later, the Brewers beat the Cubs 6-3 with a three-run twelfth off reliever Todd Wellemeyer, who threw 53 pitches that felt like 153, because he kept walking people.

Unbelievably, Cub pitchers issued twelve walks today, and even so, the Brewers couldn't score more than three baserunners until the twelfth.

More on this disgusting exhibition of baseball skills in a moment.

First, a little bit about how it felt to return to the Yard after six months away.

This was my 29th Opening Day and with possibly one exception, this was the nicest weather any of us can remember for an opener. The sun shone brightly, not a cloud was in sight, and even though the game-time temperature was announced as 48 degrees, it was clearly warmer than that at the ballpark (even at this hour, 7 pm, my little temperature gauge outside my window reads 53 degrees) -- felt like closer to upper 50's. I spent half the day in T-shirt, shedding my windbreaker and jacket, and Jeff showed up in shorts today.

I ran into Mike downstairs in one of my trips to shuttle tickets to Brian and Phil, and he reminded me to look around -- for this is likely the last Opening Day that we will see the bleachers the way they looked today, with the renovation project supposed to begin this off-season. Frankly, I'd rather keep it the way it is. I'm kind of iconoclastic that way. But we have said this about lights, about skyboxes, about rotating signs behind the plate (it took me till about the sixth inning to even realize that sign was there, that's how unobtrusive it is, though if you were watching on TV it probably loomed much larger), and all these changes have eventually been OK.

So we will adapt.

One thing that took a quick adaptation was -- I said hello to Walter the Scorecard Vendor (who I last saw selling me souvenirs at "Spamalot"), and was promptly greeted with the doubling of scorecard prices to $2. Walter claims they told him they couldn't make any money at $1, but I bet they make even less now; that's a significant increase and there is a competing company that sells independent scorecards for $1. Me, I'll still buy the official one.

And, there were dire rumors about "no outside food allowed" when the Levy Organization took over the concessions inside the ballpark. No such thing actually happened -- still brought in my Super Big Gulp and sandwich -- and in fact, at least in the bleachers, the food hasn't changed. They may be waiting for the renovation to make changes out there, so the only visible changes were the newly-spiffed-up hot dog cart on the ramp, different souvenir cups, and the new dark-green shirts worn by the food employees and vendors.

I'd actually seen many of my bleacher cohorts in Arizona this spring, including Mike, as you know, and today, in addition to being Opening Day, was Phil's birthday. He mentioned that the last time Opening Day fell on his birthday was in 1969 -- the famous game in which Willie Smith turned defeat into victory with a two-run, 11th inning homer.

We were reduced to hoping for such things today, but Todd Hollandsworth was no Willie Smith in the 11th -- he struck out.

Before the game even started I had been interviewed twice (to the chagrin of Jeff the Media Whore) -- once by a Comcast Sports Net crew, and once by an enterprising young reporter from mlb.com (though I see no story mentioning me there).

And what did they want to know? About Sammy, of course. Did we miss him? What about the new guy (Jeromy Burnitz)? Were we going to do anything "special" for him?

Frankly, I was kind of turned off by this line of questioning. The Sosa era is over. I told them both that though he had brought us memories, it was time for him to go, and Burnitz isn't a "replacement icon", or any such thing -- if there is such a player on the team, it has to be Nomar Garciaparra. But the point I was trying to make is that this team isn't about one guy, and that was part of the problem.

Burnitz, for his part, did exactly what he said he was going to do. He was greeted with cheers when he ran out to RF to start the game, and tipped his cap pleasantly -- and I expect that's the last time he'll do so, unless he gets cheers when running out after he's hit a homer.

Which I hope he does soon, or someone does, anyway. It wasn't likely that anyone was going to hit one today with the wind blowing in off the lake, and nobody came close. Kerry Wood had a shaky first inning but after that settled down pretty well; unfortunately, he had to be yanked at the 102-pitch mark in the top of the 6th after walking in the tying run, which didn't position him to win the game. Dave and I got into one of our discussions about whether wins matter for starting pitchers. He said that "Hall of Fame" pitchers will "take the ball" and win the game, and while that may have been true in the era of Gibson, Palmer, Seaver, etc., I don't think that today's starting pitchers have that kind of leeway. He cited Randy Johnson's inning totals -- I countered with the fact that Bobby Cox, manager of several HoF or star pitchers over the years, has made a point of pulling them after six or seven innings, preserving their arms.

The difference, of course, is having a good bullpen or not, and these days, the Cubs simply do not.

Until Hawkins blew the game, I was almost ready to write the opposite -- Mike Wuertz, Chad Fox and Mike Remlinger did hold the Brewers down till the 9th, and I say again, Wuertz is a real potential answer right in-house as closer. I mentioned this to Dave and he said "Maybe -- but he doesn't have the experience."

Well, how are you going to get that unless you do it? He couldn't do any WORSE than Hawkins, anyway, right?

And this is how this Cub team is going to have to win -- on the strength of its starting pitching. Wood's going to have to stop walking so many people. Mark Prior is going to have to be "Mark Prior" -- and it appears that he'll start Tuesday, on target after his rehab start last night. All of this because the bullpen cannot, as Phil has said so many times, "close the deal", and the offense, so good Monday at Arizona, was nearly impotent today. They managed only two hits from the seventh inning on -- a Corey Patterson single and a Nomar Garciaparra single -- and Jerry Hairston's failure to get a good bunt down in the bottom of the 9th, cost them a chance to win it there.

I did drop the tomato piece from my sandwich in a pre-game ceremony with Howard (in a table-turning move, I bought the sandwiches today); it landed on the fifth inning, during which the Cubs... pretty much did nothing. We'll keep trying, and I know I've been hanging around Howard too long because when Jason Dubois singled in the first two Cub runs in the first inning, I said to him, "Dubois are back in town!"

To which he gave me a ceremonial smack on the head with his clipboard.

Four hours and twenty-eight minutes of frustration. It made even the sunshine, waning and getting cooler toward the end of the afternoon, less enjoyable.

But it's still good to be back, back home, back where we all feel at home, and you know this team's not as bad as they looked today.

'Til tomorrow.

When there had better not be a Hawkins sighting after the eighth inning.