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The Ace Digs Us A Hole

Maybe it's time to stop calling Carlos Zambrano the "ace" of the Cub pitching staff.

Despite that tag, and his new $91 million contract, he's been decidedly mediocre since his win over the Reds in Cincinnati on July 29. Since then, in nine starts he's 2-6 with a 6.28 ERA. In fact, apart from Z's two good months (June and July, when he was 9-3 with a 1.98 ERA in 12 starts, the rest of the year, encompassing 20 starts (122 IP), he's 7-10, with 64 BB, 90 SO, 19 HR allowed and a 5.68 ERA.

Ladies and gentlemen, that's Steve Trachsel territory (Trachsel combined between Baltimore and the Cubs: 7-10, 74 BB, 52 SO, 18 HR allowed, 4.74 ERA).

I'm not going to blame the three days' rest, because Z hasn't thrown well on four days' rest, either, the last six weeks. His arm slot looked low again the first couple of innings, and he got hit, in Chicago style, early and often, scoring twice before the second out was finally recorded on the basepaths, when Brandon Phillips got caught in a rundown. Z's 14th HBP of the season (tying him for the league lead), didn't help matters any. By the time the carnage had finished, most of the air had been sucked out of a sellout crowd of 40,801. We told my new friend, who I wrote about on Monday, that he was the "1" added on. Though the Cubs lost, he enjoyed his return to the bleachers, and also despite the loss, we told him he can come back any time. There was a mini-run at the ticket windows Tuesday morning and afternoon after Monday's exciting comeback win, but things were pretty silent in the ballpark most of the rest of the evening, except when Jacque Jones' two-RBI single in the fourth inning closed the score to 3-2 and gave brief hope that the Cubs had another comeback in them.

Not this time -- last night, the bullpen couldn't keep the score close. Kerry Wood, who, encouraged by the only other time the crowd had any life in it, had a chance to shut the Reds down with the bases loaded in the 8th and keep the score at 4-2, instead walked Cub nemesis Javier Valentin (Valentin, a career .250/.308/.401 hitter, is .302/.381/.581 against the Cubs lifetime, with 6 doubles and 6 HR in 86 at-bats), forcing in the fifth run and, for all intents and purposes, ending the game. Even pinch-hitter deluxe Daryle Ward looked bad last night, getting called out on strikes to end the game. And despite a strong wind blowing out the entire game, it didn't really help any fly balls -- the air was very dry, seemed to have no lift in it at all, and Edwin Encarnacion's HR, the only one of the evening, needed no wind help.

Credit where credit is due: the term "ace" was indeed used properly last night, to describe Reds starter Aaron Harang, now 16-4, not only Cincinnati's top pitcher but one of the best in baseball. Harang constantly had Cub hitters off-balance. It's no shame to lose to a pitcher like this -- but when you supposedly have your "ace" on the mound, you'd like to expect that at least he'd match the other team's guy, not put you in a 3-0 hole after two innings. If there's a Cub "ace" right now, I'd say it has to be Ted Lilly, and he needs to be just that tonight.

And so, with Milwaukee's 9-1 blowout of Houston last night, the two teams sit in a virtual tie, both six games over .500, with the Brewers having two games in hand, and thus one game up in the loss column (one of those "in hand" games will be played tomorrow, when the Brewers begin a four-game series in Atlanta, while the Cubs have an off day). Winning tonight, and thus winning the series, is imperative. Despite thoughts of hanky-panky by the Astros in taking both Roy Oswalt and Woody Williams out of their rotation for the Milwaukee series, they claim it's all on the up-and-up:

The Brewers missed Astros ace Roy Oswalt because his wife was to have labor induced. And veteran Woody Williams volunteered this week to move to the bullpen to allow the Astros to use prospects in the rotation the rest of the year.

That meant rookie Felipe Paulino making his first major-league start in place of Oswalt on Tuesday and rookie Juan Gutierrez going today.

OK, I buy the Oswalt thing -- but not the Woody Williams shift. Against contenders you shouldn't be "using prospects in the rotation". Houston's got ten games against non-contenders starting Thursday. Use the rookies then, Cecil Cooper, not now. And why didn't Hunter Pence start yesterday? (Tinfoil hat note: Cooper was one of the stars of Milwaukee's only World Series team. Does he want to help them get back there?)

Anyway, those are excuses. Go out and win games. If the Cubs and Brewers should happen to wind up tied, the Cubs will host the tiebreaker game. They were 5-4 vs. the Brewers during the regular season at home, 9-6 overall. But given Carlos Zambrano's struggles at Wrigley Field this season (5-9, 5.27, compared to 11-4, 3.26 on the road), you'll forgive me if I hope that this supposed "ace" wouldn't be the guy called on to win if that game is needed.

Onward. Keep the faith. It's by no means over.