What bothered me most about the play in the seventh inning where Derrek Lee tried to score on a pitch that got away from Nats catcher Josh Bard isn't that plate umpire Bill Welke blew the call -- Bard tagged Lee with his glove, but the ball was in his hand, and Lee had actually made a neat slide to try to get around Bard.
What really bothered me is that there was no fiery Lou Piniella charging out of the dugout, cap-throwing, yelling, screaming, supporting his team. I'm not usually one to say that kind of action from a manager is justified -- but this time, when the call was so clearly wrong, and the run would have tied the game, I think a manager who's engaged, interested, trying every straw he can grab on to for his team's fading postseason hopes, would be out there in Welke's face, getting tossed if he has to, getting a smallish crowd (maybe 20,000 in the house of an announced 35,174) loud and supportive.
Nope. Lou sat on his hands, the way he's sat on his hands much of this year. I'm not sure what Lou's deal is. He's given a lukewarm answer to direct questions about whether he wants to come back for the option year he signed on his contract last offseason ("I'm planning on returning", Lou said), but he's acting like a guy who wants to retire to pina coladas on his back porch in Tampa.
The Cubs lost to the Nationals 5-4, losing a series they should have won, and this play wasn't the only reason they lost, obviously. But it is a symptom of a team curiously out of sync; they paid good lip service (in the quotes I posted this morning) to the idea that they're still in playoff contention (and I suppose, by the very tips of their fingernails, they still are), but they're not playing with the urgency that comes with such contention.
The game, really, was lost in the first inning when, after Randy Wells gave up three to the Nats, the Cubs loaded the bases with one out and failed to score. Jessica asked me if there's any way to find out how many times that's happened. I said, "You mean bases loaded and not scored? Plenty." She meant how many times in the first inning. I'm not sure if there is a way to break that down, but it occurred to me that there have been many such times in 2009. The Cubs left RISP in the first, fourth and ninth, in addition to Lee being cut down wrongly at the plate in the seventh, seven left on base in all, including the tying run with only one out in the ninth. Ryan Theriot, who used to be so good at hitting the other way last year, could have tied the game with one of those flares to right that he used to hit with regularity. Instead, he grounded to third.
Wells threw OK after the first inning, giving up only three more hits; unfortunately, one of those hits was a homer to Adam Dunn, his 34th (that's nine more than any Cub has, and I still think those would have looked pretty good in blue pinstripes, no matter how bad the defense), and that wound up as the difference in the game. After Dunn's homer Wells, Kevin Gregg, Angel Guzman, and John Grabow kept the Nats hitless, issuing only four walks (three of them to Willie Harris, who had to come into the game after Nyjer Morgan jammed his hand stealing a pair of bases in the first inning).
But the Cubs simply couldn't do anything off Sean Burnett and Mike MacDougal, and another loss is chalked up.
What is more interesting to discuss this evening are the waiver claims made on Aaron Heilman and Rich Harden, supposedly both by National League teams. Thanks to Heilman's best BCB friend brian custer for posting this FanShot about the claim while I was at the game.
I will tell you that sitting as close to the Cubs bullpen as I was, I did not see Heilman sitting there during the game, and he is usually very recognizable, since he wears the old-fashioned blue pullup stirrup socks. It may very well be that the Cubs have already let him go -- I sure hope so, and I can't imagine any NL contending team really thinks they can help him.
About Harden, that's an interesting dilemma. I think it would be worth exploring signing Harden, who is a free agent, in the offseason -- but that could still be done even if a trade is worked out with some other NL team. I wouldn't just give him away, as he has thrown very well since the All-Star break and could command a decent prospect or two, and it wouldn't cost the acquiring team much money, considering there's only about $1 million left on his contract for this season. On the other hand, if Harden is offered arbitration by the Cubs and leaves, the Cubs (I believe; correct me if I'm wrong) are due two amateur draft picks due to Harden's Type A free agent status.
So the Cubs have 72 hours to either work out a deal or pull Harden back from waivers. If they can make a trade that would benefit the team in the future, I'd say do it, even as I hold on to faint hopes that the Cubs will make postseason play.
The Mets come in tomorrow. That's a team the Cubs should be able to beat. But then, I said that about the Nationals, too. Keep the faith, anyway.