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Don't Panic: Cubs 7, Astros 9

Really. Don't. Yes, the Cubs lost their fourth in a row, 9-7 to the Astros in 11 innings last night, the first time they've lost that many in a row at home since May 20-June 2, 2007 (one game to the White Sox, then a road trip, then six more home losses to Florida and Atlanta), ending on the day Lou had his famous hat-throwing tirade with umpire Mark Wegner in a loss to the Braves.

But. Thanks to the Mets' extra-inning win over the Brewers, the Cubs' lead stays at 4.5 games and the magic number was reduced to 20. Now, I did say I'd post it here once it got to 20, but it just doesn't feel right to do that after a loss like last night's. Win tonight, right the ship, and the number will appear on the right sidebar tomorrow.

Some are going to try to make comparisons between this losing streak -- the second four-game streak of the season -- and what happened to the 2004 Cubs in the final week, when they self-destructed while in the driver's seat to the wild card. Nothing of the sort is true. That dysfunctional team was too busy calling the broadcast booth and having poor managerial decisions made to win. The personnel is different -- only four players remain (Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, Carlos Zambrano and Kerry Wood) and so is the manager.

What's happening to the Cubs this week is, I think, more comparable to what happened to the 2005 White Sox. That team was 87-51 on September 7 with a 9.5 game lead in the AL Central. With 24 games to go they had reduced their division magic number to 14. They then proceeded to lose... four in a row, and ten of 14, reducing their division lead to 1.5 games before righting their ship and ... well, you know what they did that October. The other difference is that when the Sox got cold, their pursuers, the Indians, suddenly were the hottest team in baseball -- from Sept. 5, 2005 through Sept. 24, they went 17-2, before dropping six of their last seven. You could also look at the 2006 Cardinals, who everyone remembers as "just" squeaking into the postseason with a mediocre 83-78 record. But they were 80-69 with a 7 game lead and a magic number of six with 13 games left. They lost seven in a row and eight of nine, reducing their lead to only a half game, before clinching on the last day of the season, and you all know what happened to them in the postseason.

I don't think the Cubs will have anything like that happen to them -- after all, the Brewers have also lost the first two games of their series at home -- so don't panic. I don't see the players or the manager panicking, and Lou says:

"Did anybody think this was going to be real easy?" Piniella said. "You didn't hear that from me all year, have you? We're in a stretch now where things aren't going our way. We've got to keep playing and keep battling and keep our confidence, and that's it."

Exactly. (Although, "You didn't hear that from me all year, have you?" isn't exactly the King's English.)


I thought Lou made several dodgy managing decisions last night:

  • Sending Bob Howry out again in a "keep it close" situation -- and he once again failed, allowing five straight Astros to reach base. Four of them scored, making the Cubs' comeback task very difficult. Presuming the Cubs do right the ship and make the playoffs, I suspect Howry pitched himself off the postseason roster last night.
  • Double-switching Jim Edmonds, who had hit the game-tying HR in the 7th, out of the game, even though the Astros are virtually all right-handed out of their pen (save for Wesley Wright, who threw the 9th and 10th).
  • Asking Mark DeRosa to sacrifice in the bottom of the ninth. DeRo has 12 career sac's, two this year, and he's having a career year and had already homered last night. Let the guy hit!
  • Sending up Casey McGehee to pinch-hit in the 9th, making his major league debut in a critical situation like that. This led to a number of really lame "Casey At The Bat" jokes in our group, and had McGehee actually done something positive, lines from that poem might have led this recap. Instead... well, the Cubs' not-so-mighty Casey did exactly what the guy from Mudville did.
  • Leaving both Carlos Marmol (35 pitches) and Kerry Wood (40 pitches) in to throw two innings each, assuring that neither of them will be available tonight. This was only the third time all year that Wood threw two innings, and it showed when he gave up the game-winning HR to Geoff Blum... the first extra-inning HR he had hit in his career (well, except for the one in this World Series game, speaking as we were of the 2005 White Sox), and only the second HR Wood had allowed all year.

I think Lou has been great for this franchise in many ways. But last night, I think his moves, and non-moves, may have helped cost the Cubs the game. Jon Lieber sat on a folding chair through all four hours and seventeen minutes, finally warming up as the Cubs made one last valiant attempt to tie the game off Jose Valverde in the last of the 11th. Why wasn't Lieber in the game earlier? In long games like this, a guy like Lieber, who throws efficiently and doesn't walk people, could have thrown three innings, saving Wood for tonight.

It wasn't all Lou's fault. The Cubs hit into four double plays, killing rallies in the 1st, 2nd, 5th and 8th innings -- and one was Derrek Lee's 25th GIDP of the season, two short of Ron Santo's team record set in 1973 and five short of Brad Ausmus' NL record set in 2002. Those are two records I'd rather see Lee NOT set. And even with all that, the offense, which had been absent most of the homestand, pounded out fifteen hits (four homers) and drew eight walks and the Cubs survived three errors by Aramis Ramirez, who is normally about as sure-handed as they come (not one of the errors led to any Houston scoring).

The game was not sold out -- a large chunk of empty seats were in the LF lower deck, and the attendance of 39,846 was the smallest since May 30. Still, the crowd brought the season total to 3,014,301, the earliest date the Cubs have passed the 3 million mark. Many had left by the time Blum's HR was hit, a little after 11 pm Central time.

So. Where do we go from here? Z's arm is bothering him again and he'll have it checked out today, and that cannot be good news. Ryan Dempster has to step up tonight and stop the streak right here. And remember these words from an old '60s song:

And I think it's gonna be all right
Yeah, the worst is over now
The mornin' sun is shinin' like a red rubber ball -- "Red Rubber Ball", The Cyrkle