The drama and frustration that have surrounded the Chicago Cubs continues to intensify.
The sputtering Cubs will try to wrap up a wild three-game series with their first win in seven games when they face the Atlanta Braves at Wrigley Field on Sunday.
Manager Lou Piniella was ejected for the first time this season in Saturday’s 5-3 loss, and crew chief Bruce Froemming claims the fiery skipper kicked third-base umpire Mark Wegner. Just a day earlier, starter Carlos Zambrano and catcher Michael Barrett scuffled in the dugout and in the clubhouse in a series-opening 8-5 loss.
To top it all off, the Cubs (22-31) have dropped a season-high six straight and are 7 1/2 games back in a dismal NL Central after spending about $300 million during the offseason to build a winner.
“Some of the things I’ve seen here, I haven’t seen anywhere else I’ve been,” said Piniella, who was one of the additions the Cubs made to a team that lost 96 games last season. “I’m not fed up with it, but it’s got to stop. Or, obviously, we’ve got to make some changes.”
The Cubs are trying to avoid losing seven straight for the first time since an eight-game drought May 2-9 last season.
“We’re doing stuff you don’t even see,” first baseman Derrek Lee said. “Dropping fly balls. That’s really inexcusable. We’ve just got to do something else.”
Zambrano blamed himself Saturday for the altercation that left Barrett with six stitches in his lip and a bruise below his left eye. Both players were fined an undisclosed amount, and Barrett was available Saturday, but did not play.
Piniella, who was screaming about his team’s poor play by the end of his press conference Friday, might have some punishment coming his way as well, as Froemming vowed to call Major League Baseball headquarters “immediately” about the manager’s tantrum in the eighth inning Saturday. Piniella denied that he kicked Wegner, but he did kick dirt and toss his cap several times after Angel Pagan was called out trying to steal third base.
“He made physical contact with his foot, and he kicked dirt on (Wegner) several times, and the rest was show-and-tell,” Froemming told a pool reporter.
Piniella was suspended indefinitely by Major League Baseball on Sunday. He will meet with Monday with John McHale Jr., the MLB executive vice president for administration to determine how much time Piniella will miss.
The Wrigley crowd littered the field with debris and chanted “Lou! Lou! Lou!,” forcing umpires to clear the Braves from the field and bullpen while the grounds crew picked up the garbage. Play resumed seven minutes later.
In the midst of all the chaos, Atlanta (32-23) won for the fourth time in five games. Yunel Escobar, who was called up to replace injured third baseman Chipper Jones, went 2-for-4 and doubled in the go-ahead run in the eighth in his major league debut.
“We’re doing what we’re supposed to do,” said Andruw Jones, who added a ninth-inning homer. “We’re pitching right, we’re playing good ‘D’ and we’re hitting when we need to hit. Today, Escobar came up and he came through right there.”
Starter Lance Cormier will make his season debut for Atlanta in the finale. Ace John Smoltz was originally scheduled to pitch, but was pushed back to Tuesday because of discomfort in his right shoulder and an injured right pinkie finger.
Cormier, who went 2-1 with a 2.70 ERA in four rehab starts, won a spot in the Braves’ rotation during spring training but was placed on the disabled list with a strained right triceps.
“You really don’t know what to expect the first start coming off of rehab,” manager Bobby Cox told the Braves’ official team Web site. “But if he’s over the plate, he’s going to be tough.”
Cormier went 4-5 with a 4.89 ERA in 20 relief outings and nine starts last season, including 2-1 with a 3.25 ERA in five September starts. He gave up one run in seven innings of a 2-1 home win over the Cubs on Sept. 10 in his first-ever start against them.
The Cubs will counter with Sean Marshall (0-2, 2.70 ERA), who gave up three runs in 6 1-3 innings in his second start of the season Monday, a 5-3 loss to Florida. Marshall did not receive any run support after getting just one run in a 2-1 loss on May 23 in San Diego.
Marshall’s only previous start against the Braves came on May 27 last season, when he allowed two runs in six innings of a 2-1 loss at Wrigley.