This time, the failure was James Russell's. Russell started out the 2013 season really well, allowing just two runs in his first 27 appearances through May 31 for a 0.87 ERA. Since June 1? Not so good -- 13 appearances, 11⅔ innings, 18 hits and five walks allowed (I'll save you the calculation, that's a 1.971 WHIP), and nine earned runs for a 6.94 ERA.
This time, it wasn't Dale Sveum's fault; I suppose he could have brought Russell in to start the eighth inning, but Blake Parker did all right in his second inning of relief. Parker's mistake was to retire only two of the three batters he faced, giving up a leadoff single to ex-Cub farmhand (sigh) Josh Donaldson. Thus Russell was summoned -- correctly, in my view -- to face Josh Reddick. Unfortunately, Russell walked Reddick, putting the tying run on base. Then he got ahead of Derek Norris 0-2.
That seems to be the downfall of many modern pitchers, who can't put hitters away when they're ahead of them. Russell put two pitches in the dirt, and then Norris slammed a three-run homer to deep center field. Though the Cubs had the top of the order coming up in the ninth, you knew, just knew, that it was over at that point. Luis Valbuena walked to lead off the ninth against A's closer Grant Balfour, but ill-advisedly took off for second as Starlin Castro was striking out; he was thrown out easily for a double play. Hint to Luis: you're not a base stealer. Valbuena is just 1-for-4 in SB attempts this year, 5-for-15 in his career.
All of that ruined a couple of nice Cubs comebacks in front of a surprisingly sparse crowd. Announced as 17,273 (the smallest announced crowd I've been part of since this 2009 game in Pittsburgh), there couldn't have been more than about 12,000 in the house, possibly due to the BART rapid-transit strike in the Bay Area. Maybe two-thirds of the crowd stuck around till the end on an unusually cool evening, and there was a large contingent of blue-clad Cubs fans.
A's starter A.J. Griffin breezed through the first two innings, giving up just a double to Dioner Navarro, while the A's took a 3-0 lead on Chris Rusin, who was on a pitch count due to throwing on three days' rest. (Which raises the question again: why not start Matt Garza Tuesday on his normal four days' rest, and throw Rusin Wednesday?) The Cubs broke through with a five-run fourth, highlighted by a three-run homer by Alfonso Soriano, upon which I thought, "Every Soriano homer gets him closer to being on another team."
But the A's tied the game on what I can only describe as a total brain fart by Castro. With one out and a runner on first in the bottom of the fourth, Eric Sogard lofted a fly ball into short left field. It was clear that Soriano had the ball; I don't know who called who off of it, but Castro not only took the play away from Soriano, he swatted at the ball, knocking it maybe 50 feet away, almost into the massive foul territory at the Coliseum. Naturally, that led to the next hitter, Coco Crisp, bouncing a two-run single into right field, tying the game. It might have been worse, except Crisp got himself picked off.
The Cubs took a 7-5 lead in the sixth inning on a pair of singles and a two-run double center by Welington Castillo. Castillo then made the mistake of thinking he could take third on the throw. This from a player who, in 125 previous major-league games, had no triples and no stolen bases (one attempt).
Why would you do that? You're in scoring position with one out if you stay on second base, Welington. And when Valbuena singled to right, you probably score, and maybe the Cubs put up even more runs than that.
But no. Now there are two out and no runners on base, and Valbuena is stranded when Castro gets called out on strikes.
As I have written many times, this team lives on slim margins of error, and Tuesday night's game was a perfect example. Instead of the game being tied, maybe the Cubs go ahead and score more runs and put that game away. Good teams do that; the A's, 49-35 and, with the win, in first place in the A.L. West, are a good team. The Cubs -- not so much. Instead, it remained tied, and then Russell joined the parade of failed Cubs relievers, who have now blown 17 save opportunities, most in the majors (Russell is 0-for-6).
I'll have a separate article later this morning on my impressions of the O.co Coliseum, where I'll return Wednesday night for game two of this series. Perhaps Matt Garza will have better results against the A's Bartolo Colon.