LOS ANGELES – It's gotten so bad Lou Piniella sometimes just goes mono-syllabic from somewhere deep in his soul, as though he thinks he might have an answer for this disaster and then it runs off before he has a chance to put a single word of English beside it.
For example, it's Sunday morning, another requisite perfect day spent in the shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains. Lou has spent the early part of the day with his office door closed, presumably because the smell coming from the clubhouse can be a little overwhelming. It wouldn't be surprising if he stuffed a towel under the door, as well.
Lou apparently isn't in much of a mood for chatting, because he's sent the PR man out to get a read on whether the writers really need him for some pre-game dead-horse beating. Given the bad news, the PR man says we'd get a few minutes but that's all, and yet we find Lou smiling and quite patient with another round of questions about the most pathetic offense – pound for pound division – in baseball.
Given Lou seems at a loss, a helpful beat guy points out the Cubs have scored one or no runs in 25 games. You know, just trying to keep the conversation lively.
To which Lou leans back in his chair, folds his arms across an ever-tightening blue T-shirt, and opens his mouth, as if to make a point there.
"Look," he begins, "[sigh]. Um. Ahhh. [Sigh]."
He uncrosses his arms. Gestures a little. Recrosses his arms. Shrugs. Works in another sigh.
And that's that.
He really has no idea, other than that all the guys who aren't hitting need to start doing that. The Cubs have fired a hitting coach. They've warmed up the place (brought in summer). They've gotten Aramis Ramirez(notes) healthy. They've prayed for the fans to stay off Milton Bradley's(notes) back. They've ridden D-Lee as long and hard as they can. They've checked the small print on their GM's contract (that's a guess). They've even changed owners.
The results have been dreary even by North Side standards, given the current separation of expectation and reality. The Cubs have lost touch with the Cardinals in the Central and are a distant fifth in the wild-card race. They've achieved that lately by piling up bad at-bats and half-hearted efforts, so what Lou has left is to summon the spirit of the '07 Rockies, though he failed to identify who would be playing the part of the Mets and Padres this season.
"It can be done," he insisted.
On Sunday, Lou's door opened and the lineup sheet that came bounding out had Koyie Hill(notes) at catcher, Mike Fontenot(notes) at second, Jake Fox(notes) in left, Sam Fuld(notes) in center and Kosuke Fukudome(notes) in right. It's what a $135 million payroll will get you on an afternoon get-away day when so little could be expected from the alternative.
Asked a few minutes later if it weren't time for drastic change in his lineup, Lou grinned and pointed at the one in front of him. No Alfonso Soriano(notes) (sore knee, severely strained game), no Milton Bradley, no Aaron Miles(notes), no Geovany Soto(notes).
Yup, that'd be it there.
The Cubs went out and scored three runs. They won a ballgame. Sound the trumpets.
Funny thing, after all this time wishing he could get a little production out of left field, Lou got four hits (including a home run and two RBI) from Fox and nearly as much help from Manny Ramirez(notes), the Dodgers' guy out there. Apparently, Manny has decided he'll half-speed it in left until his swing comes around, so he chipped in a few knuckleheaded plays, furthering the left-field contributions for Lou. See? It's all coming together.
The strategy now is to ride an incredibly soft schedule and their veteran bats (soft, too, so far) to Rockies-like glory. It's what's left now that Jim Hendry is done (presumably) adding the final, critical pieces to the Cubs' championship puzzle. They'll be dragging those pieces down the stretch and for a few more years – Soriano, Bradley, Fukudome, to name three – while trying to win anyway and then explaining those semi-monthly paychecks to Joe and Tom Ricketts, the father-son owners who might find they've got a lot more to eat at Wrigley than day-old hot dogs.
For three days here, the Dodgers, also offensively challenged, managed one more important hit a game (usually exactly one) than the Cubs. Fox had that hit Sunday, and those two RBIs. Soriano has four RBIs in his last 22 games. That would partly explain the 2-5 road trip through San Diego and L.A., along with the broader August collapse.
And, yet, Lou will not be turning over the offense to Fox anytime soon, of course. The season will be won and, more likely, lost on the bats of the familiar guys. At least anniversary 101 won't seem quite as devastating as 100.
"I said I was going to play veteran players," Lou said. "They're going to have to get it done. … We'll see what they can do and how for they can go."
They left Sunday afternoon for home. Ahead, they'll play 22 of their next 23 games against losing teams. They'll play 24 more games at Wrigley, 23 of those against really poor teams. So, they'll string hope along that way. Hey, it's what they have. And, as they go, Lou will do his best to make sense of it.
- Lou Piniella