Let's get this out of the way first.
I'm sure Marcos Mateo is a really nice guy. I haven't heard any bad stories about him in local or national news media and I'm sure he's nice to his mother and loves animals.
But seriously, Jim Hendry and Mike Quade. The man is simply not a major league pitcher. Can we please, please send him back to Iowa or Tennessee or the waiver wire and get a real pitcher in the Cubs bullpen, someone who can actually throw strikes and get hitters out in critical situations?
The Cubs lost to the Reds 7-4 Monday night and although the boxscore will show that six of the seven Cincinnati runs were charged to Carlos Zambrano, it was Mateo who took the Cincinnati sixth inning into his own hands and turned a close game into one that was, for all intents and purposes, one with an impossible deficit to overcome.
Let's set the scene, in case you missed it or you like reliving train wrecks (figurative, of course), or both. After the Cubs had fashioned back-to-back two-run innings, one of which was courtesy of Carlos Pena's fourth homer of the year, a two-run job in the sixth, Big Z got into trouble as the Reds' hitters began to tee off on him. The Reds have a good lineup, so OK, this isn't totally out of character.
When Z was finally taken out of the game with one out in the last of the sixth after a walk and four straight hits, the game was tied and runners inhabited second and third bases. This isn't an insurmountable situation for a capable major league reliever. Maybe you give up a fly ball and it's a one-run deficit; most teams can at least give a shot at coming back from that with three innings to go.
Jeff Samardzija, who was warming up in the rain on Saturday night and who has been pretty solid this year, was the logical choice. Instead, Mike Quade called on Mateo.
Mateo's first pitch, way out of the strike zone, glanced off Koyie Hill's glove (I won't blame Hill for this one) for a wild pitch; 5-4 Reds.
Mateo's second pitch, a slider, was swung on and missed by Jonny Gomes. Mateo's ears must have perked up. "I got him to swing at that one!" he must have thought. So he threw him another one. That one was deposited into the right-field seats at the sparsely-populated Great American Ball Park for a two-run homer.
Mateo issued two walks -- his final total showed 24 pitches, only 12 strikes -- before finally ending the inning with no further damage. Big Z was shown in the dugout talking animatedly to someone -- wasn't clear who -- before disappearing into the clubhouse tunnel. At no time did Z lose his temper, but you could tell he was pretty upset. And who wouldn't be, after a performance like Mateo's?
Still, it's only the seventh inning; maybe a comeback is in order. And when Alfonso Soriano led off the eighth with a double and Marlon Byrd followed with a single, the faithful Cubs fan is thinking, "Great! Runners on first and third, nobody out!"
Except Soriano decided to try to score. With nobody out and a three-run deficit. It appeared from replays that 3B coach Ivan DeJesus was so stunned that he made no signal at all -- neither a stop sign nor the "Wavin' Ivan" gesture. Soriano was out by 10 feet. It's really not even worth calling it TOOTBLAN... but what the heck, that's what it was. Byrd took second on the throw, but with one out, that was essentially it.
What is wrong with this team? Why can't they handle prosperity? A four-run lead goes away because the manager puts in a reliever who can't relieve. A promising rally goes by the boards because the lead baserunner, whose legs are nearly gone, doesn't have the sense to stay at third base with none out. It got so bad that Carlos Marmol -- who might ordinarily have been saved for a potential ninth-inning opportunity, whether in a tie game or if the Cubs had by some miracle gone ahead -- threw the bottom of the eighth instead. It's already the second time this season that Marmol has been used on the road in such a situation (the other, the 11-2 loss in Arizona on April 28).
This is all very depressing. We're still in a situation where anyone can win a weak Central division, though the Reds are starting to make noise like they want to take charge; this was their fourth straight win. But the Cubs simply cannot afford to carry a relief pitcher who can't get major league hitters out, nor can they keep making baserunning mistakes like Monday night's.