Reeling Cubs need Piniella to explode

The seismometer is trembling. When Lou Piniella erupts, it is spectacular confluence of anger, venting and showmanship, a parade of faces, exaggerated gestures and spittle. A full spittoon’s worth of spittle.

Piniella does not melt down idly, either, not anymore. For the Chicago Cubs to so stoke Piniella’s ire that he feels it necessary to throw a tantrum befit of a toddler takes some doing, and the eight-game losing streak the Cubs are weathering would seem to qualify.

Little irks Piniella more than prolonged misery, his last epic explosion coming June 2, 2007, during a six-game losing streak. He kicked dirt, then kicked his hat and, for good measure, kicked an umpire. Then he watched the Cubs boot their losing attitude and finish on a 63-46 binge. This much can be said of Piniella: He does nothing halfway.

Photo Lou Piniella’s blowups are legendary in MLB. One of his infamous tirades spurred the Cubs to the division title.
(Charles Rex Arbogast/AP Photo )

Including wash himself of a bad loss. In the second game of the current streak, St. Louis Cardinals starter Joel Pineiro(notes) pitched a shutout, his first in six years. The game ended at 9:19 p.m. By 9:29, Piniella was showered, dressed in dark jeans and a striped shirt, and prepared to leave the stench of a clubhouse full of impotent bats.

“Let me tell you this: We haven’t been brutalizing too many pitchers,” Piniella said. “Give the guy his credit. Give him his due. And hopefully we’ll swing the bats better tomorrow.”

They didn’t. They haven’t since, either, scoring five runs in their last five games. The Cubs are mired in their worst losing skid since the 2006 season that got Dusty Baker fired, forced a roster overhaul and led to a Piniella-forged renaissance and a pair of National League Central titles.

Of course, consecutive first-round sweeps in the postseason stripped the luster from those teams and left general manager Jim Hendry at the same place he and every Cubs GM for the last 100 years has been: figuring out how to bring a championship to the most championship-starved team in sports.

It’s not easy.

Here’s the thing: The Cubs are remarkably talented, even after trading Mark DeRosa(notes), losing Kerry Wood(notes) to free agency and purging another nine players who played some role of significance on last year’s 97-win team. They are also, seven weeks into the season, remarkably average, their 21-22 record a simulacrum of mediocrity.

For a team with a $134.8 million payroll, this does not translate – and, in fact, has more the odious scent of ’06 than it does either of the last two seasons. If not for the Cubs’ starting pitching and defense, which rank in the top third of major-league teams, they would be a Blagojevichian disaster instead of a salvageable mess.

“If we play together, we’ll be fine,” said Alfonso Soriano(notes), the Cubs’ $18 million-a-year left fielder who, to do his part, volunteered a shift to his original position of second base. It was well-intentioned, really. Soriano wanted to free a spot in the outfield for Micah Hoffpauir(notes), a big left-handed bat who could help the offense. Problem is, Hoffpauir is a defensive liability, just as Soriano would be at second, and what seems an act of generosity may well have made the Cubs worse.

At the quarter pole of the season, the Cubs aren’t playing together, and they resemble nothing of the team that stampeded through the 2008 with moxie and an unmistakable strut. Soriano twice last week lazed toward hits that Albert Pujols(notes) turned into hustle doubles. Ryan Theriot(notes), the Cubs’ shortstop, doesn’t seem terribly interested in running out ground balls. Now Milton Bradley(notes), who so often proclaims that he deserves none of the scrutiny he receives, told the Chicago Tribune that he thinks umpires are conspiring against him, and they’re to blame for his .188 batting average.

There are a dozen little brush fires in the Cubs’ clubhouse, and even if Piniella were an extinguisher-equipped octopus, he couldn’t handle what an eight-game losing streak wreaks.

“We keep fighting,” Soriano said. “We’ve got a lot of energy. But no. It hasn’t been the same. It’s frustrating.”

Part of it is injuries. The ’08 Cubs were a picture of health. This incarnation lost No. 1 starter Carlos Zambrano(notes) to the disabled list, on-and-off closer Carlos Marmol(notes) with a knee problem and third baseman Aramis Ramirez(notes) for the last two weeks, and up to six more, after he separated his shoulder.

In his stead, Piniella has rotated Mike Fontenot(notes), Bobby Scales(notes) and Ryan Freel(notes). Fontenot is hitting .208. Scales, 31, made his major-league debut time this year and hit .444 in his first 18 at-bats. Since then, he is 1-for-16. Freel is a journeyman best known for conversations with an imaginary friend named Farney.

At third base, Piniella is trying to make chicken salad. The roster’s composition is one beef with the ’09 Cubs. When they traded DeRosa, they lost their most viable backup at third base, as well as second base and the corner-outfield positions. DeRosa was traded ostensibly to free up salary in case the Cubs traded for Jake Peavy(notes), though the money ended up instead going to Bradley.

“They felt two sweeps in the playoffs forced them to go in another direction,” DeRosa said. “That’s the only thing I can think. I know they’ve had injuries, but still.”

They’re the Cubs, and with Zambrano and Rich Harden(notes) and Ryan Dempster(notes) and Ted Lilly(notes) in their rotation, they were supposed to survive even with a tepid offense. Yet Milwaukee has thrived without CC Sabathia(notes). And St. Louis, unlike the Cubs, has weathered a shaky lineup. And Cincinnati, managed by Baker, has more wins from its starting pitching than any team.

And all of a sudden, fourth place looks about right.

“We are still the team [others in the NL Central] want to beat up because we’ve won the division two years in a row,” Soriano said. “But we have to be careful. They’re looking for us. And we can’t forget who we are.”

Which is … well, that’s another issue. The Cubs don’t know who or what they are. Playing for Piniella puts a certain fear into players – “You know what Lou expects,” DeRosa said – and motivates them accordingly. And yet that self-assuredness that no manager alone can imbue in a group, the swagger that the Cubs embodied last regular season, is missing.

“I’m not sure what the identity of this team is,” Lilly said. “I think we’re still trying to find it. It takes some time. It’s not June yet.”

The Cubs start June with a nine-game road swing. The final stop comes in Houston, a trip Freel played up to teammates last week. There, Freel said, he knows of the greatest place to bring a rod and reel in the United States.

“I’m telling you,” Freel said, “it’s the best fishing ever.”

“Ever?” Theriot said.

“Ever,” Freel said. “E-V-A-R.”

Perhaps this is how a team finds out what it really is: via the daily interactions with your brethren. Last year’s Cubs knew each other, their personalities and bugaboos, when to joke and when to leave well enough alone. They knew Dempster does his daily crosswords and Kosuke Fukudome(notes) enjoys reading Japanese books and Zambrano would rather spend his time teaching onlookers how to thwap a tin of snuff against his index finger. Some teams take to this education quickly. Others need time. Many never figure it out.

Maybe, too, it’s as simple as scoring runs. The Cubs’ batting average is .244, and their slugging percentage a modest .400. They strike out too much and are poor baserunners. They are the recipe for a bad offense, and they’ve now given up two more runs than they’ve scored.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s to leave the management stuff up to management,” Lilly said. “Was I surprised by some of the moves? Sure. We won 97 games with that team. But I understand, they want to make us better.”

Piniella realizes the team’s success comes back to him, that he must catalyze it, active, passive or otherwise. And even if he does believe what he says – “It takes a while for everything to come together” were the exact words – not even new Lou is patient enough to practice what he preaches.

The blow-up is nigh. It can’t come soon enough, either. The Cubs’ season may depend on it.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, May 25, 2009