When you come to the fork in the road, take it. -- Yogi Berra
There are a couple different versions of that quote, but you get the idea. We're at that fork in the road -- you know, the one that screams out "replace the manager!"
And so Jim Hendry must take it, regardless of his personal feelings for Lou Piniella or Piniella's reputation and longevity as a major league manager.
Here's what Lou said about why he left Ted Lilly in one batter too long last night:
"We needed one more out from Lilly," Piniella said. "I had Carlos Marmol ready to come in to pitch, and we didn't get it. Lilly pitched a good ballgame. One more out and we bring Marmol in to face [Lastings] Milledge, but we didn't get to that."
Really, Lou? Really? After Lilly had thrown 12 pitches in the eighth inning? I didn't really have a problem with him coming out for that inning, since he had been so dominant the first seven. At 100 pitches, letting Ted start the eighth was a decent idea.
But once a runner got on base -- a four-pitch walk to Andrew McCutchen -- Marmol needed to be in the game. Then, not after Lilly gave up the game-winning two-run homer to Neil Walker, Walker's first major league homer, giving the Pirates a 3-2 win over the Cubs.
Marmol hadn't thrown more than one inning in an appearance since May 14 and was hardly overworked. Just as Lou made the wrong decision leaving Ryan Dempster in too long on May 9 in Cincinnati, just long enough for Joey Votto to nail him for a game-winning three-run homer while Sean Marshall stood ready in the bullpen, this was the latest in a series of wrongheaded decisions that scream out for Lou's replacement.
"I don't know", Lou says. "I wish I had the answers", Lou says. The answers are right here, Lou, right in front of you.
And Lou's big lineup changes? I actually liked the lineup he put out there last night; it rested several regulars who needed it. (But please. Get Aramis Ramirez to the DL. Now.)
But the only player who really accomplished anything was Xavier Nady, who went 4-for-4 with his third homer of the season, producing both runs in the third inning, giving the Cubs a 2-0 lead. Nady raised his triple-split line to .263/.337/.434 (.771, up 119 points in one day). But the rest of the team produced two singles and Kosuke Fukudome's triple; Fukudome scored on Nady's homer. The rest of the lineup might just as well not have been there at all. The Cubs dropped to 1-7 against the Pirates, and the most frustrating thing is this: five of those games have been decided by one run (including the last four) and another by two runs. With a key hit here and there, better bullpen work, or better decisions by the manager, the Cubs could be 5-3 or 6-2 against Pittsburgh this year and we wouldn't be having this discussion.
One more note on the game before I return to the discussion of this team's future. Can we please stop pitching to Garrett Jones? He homered again last night. In the eight games vs. the Cubs this year, Jones -- a Chicago-area native -- is 14-for-30 (.467/.500/.900, and no, that's not a typo -- that's a NINE HUNDRED SLG) with four doubles, three HR and 12 RBI. Enough. Just walk him every time.
Ten games under .500 seems to be the breaking point for this, or any team; there has been only one team in Cubs history that has reached that low and finished the season with a winning record (1968; that year's Cubs started 35-45 and then had a 49-33 run to finish at 84-78). The 2007 team was nine games under (22-31) when they started their run; they went 63-46 and won the NL Central.
I've said this before but it bears repeating. Two recent teams, with talent, struggled like this early in the season. The 2003 Marlins replaced Jeff Torborg at 16-22. Even then, they got worse before they got better; they immediately lost seven of their first ten under Jack McKeon to drop to that magic ten-games-under mark at 19-29. For the rest of the season they went 72-42 to win 91 games and the wild card.
Last year's Rockies were 18-28 when they fired Clint Hurdle, who had taken them to the World Series two years earlier. They went 74-42 under Jim Tracy and returned to the playoffs. Incidentally, almost the same thing happened with Tracy as with McKeon -- the Rockies lost four of their first six under him before going on a run of 17 wins in 18 games (and 20 in 23) that put them back in contention.
It can happen. This team has a lot of talent. Lou Piniella wasn't my first choice in 2006, but he did a good job his first two years. He's no longer the right manager for this team; he seems detached, depressed and disinterested and his bizarre "look, what do you want me to do" statements aren't what a baseball team, or any business should want in a leader. Jim Hendry may have too much respect for Lou to fire him; fine. Figure out a way to have him gracefully announce his retirement and bring someone else in. It almost doesn't matter who it is at this point. Sometimes just the act of putting a new guy in charge is what a team needs to energize it.
It's time. Thanks, Lou, for the dirt-kicking tirade two years ago today, for the amusing quotes ("You saw the damn game!" "What kind of baseball do you play?") and the two playoff seasons. But it's time for you to retire.