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Sweet Lou's move backfires, sours Cubs' outlook

Steve Henson
Yahoo Sports

PHOENIX – Manager Lou Piniella got ahead of himself and, next thing he knew, the Chicago Cubs had fallen behind.

Painfully. Hopelessly. Unnecessarily.

Had Piniella witnessed it unfold from the broadcasting booth, where he spent the 2006 season, he would have recited a mantra memorized by any manager – certainly any manager who has more than 3,000 games on his resume.

Play 'em one game at a time.

Do not, under any circumstances, peer ahead to Game 4 during the seventh inning of Game 1 of a best-of-five playoff series.

Yet Piniella did just that on Wednesday night, pulling starting pitcher Carlos Zambrano after six innings and a scant 85 pitches with the score tied at one, not because Zambrano was losing steam, not because the Arizona Diamondbacks were dialing him in, but because Piniella wanted his burly right-hander to be fresh to pitch on three days' rest in Game 4.

Take a hard look at the NLDS schedule, Lou. It reads: Game 4, if necessary. It might never be played. Zambrano's next start might be Opening Day, 2008.

The first batter faced by Zambrano's replacement smacked a home run. Piniella stood in the dugout stone-faced as rookie Mark Reynolds trotted around the bases and right-handed reliever Carlos Marmol slumped on the mound.

The Diamondbacks tacked on another run and closed out a 3-1 victory at Chase Field. Game 2 is Thursday night. And for the Cubs, it's not if necessary, but is necessary.

"I was very surprised Zambrano came out because it was his game, he was great," Diamondbacks second baseman Augie Ojeda said. "I don't know what they were thinking, but it helped us out."

So, Lou, what were you thinking?

"We're thinking of putting him back in on Sunday on three days' rest," Piniella said. "He threw 85 pitches, our bullpen has done a good job all year. We turned it over to them."

Could a manager who won a World Series title in 1990 and who turned around losers in Cincinnati, Seattle and Chicago be guilty of such a fundamental error, of looking ahead to a game that might never occur?

"I'm not accused of anything, sir," he said to a reporter who raised the question. "I've got a good bullpen here, OK, and I trust my bullpen.

"It didn't work today. Period. End of story."

Not quite. Zambrano had thrown fewer than 85 pitches only once this year in the regular season, an 80-pitch outing July 18. He'd thrown 85 or fewer pitches only nine times in 180 starts since becoming a full-time starter in 2002.

No wonder he could hardly believe his ears when Piniella told him he was coming out of a game in which he had retired nine of the last 11 batters he faced and given up only a fourth-inning home run to Stephen Drew.

"He told me that was enough," Zambrano said. "I said something like, 'Can I pitch one more?' and he said 'No, that's enough.'

"You know me, I can throw 120 pitches. I wanted to stay in the game. But he's the manager, and whatever decision he makes is good. If Marmol gets them out one, two, three and we win, nobody talks about it."

But Marmol – a dependable set-up man all season with a 0.72 ERA since Aug. 10 – instead grooved a fastball that Reynolds deposited into the left-field seats. Then Chris Snyder walked with one out, Ojeda doubled and pinch-hitter Conor Jackson hit a sacrifice fly to score Snyder.

That was enough to make a winner out of Brandon Webb, who set down the Cubs for seven innings and was shaky only in the sixth when he gave up a run and pitched out of a bases-loaded jam.

The Cubs were deflated, and their substantial Phoenix fan base was frustrated.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Here's Piniella's pep talk to Cubs Nation:

"Let's not gloom and doom this thing," he said. "This is only the first game of this series. Let's just see how this thing turns out. Let's not get down."

That's easier said than done for a franchise that hasn't won a World Series in 99 years, hasn't even been to a World Series in 62 years, and counts several curses among its folklore.

Down is where the Cubs have always been. It's their natural state of being. And Piniella put them there again. Every patron in every North Side drinking establishment must have been struck by the same familiar dread.

Zambrano probably could have pitched several more innings. No one in the youthful Diamondbacks lineup had ever had a hit against him before Wednesday, having gone a combined 0-for-8. And besides Drew, who followed his home run with a sharp single in the sixth, no Diamondback hit the ball hard against him.

So in the home team's dugout, the reaction to Zambrano's departure was nearly audible, even amid the clamor of a sellout crowd of 48,804.

"Zambrano is a top of the line pitcher, and any time he comes out of the game it's kind of a sigh of relief," Reynolds said.

Reynolds, who began the season in Double-A, quickly became the Game 1 hero. And Piniella is the Game 1 goat, a word that causes shudders among Cubs fans, most of whom have memorized the tale of the curse of the Billy Goat.

In a nutshell: A fan named William Sianis brought his pet goat to Game 4 of the 1945 World Series at Wrigley Field – he had two tickets – but was escorted out of the stadium because of the goat's foul odor. Sianis, who owned the famed Billy Goat Tavern, supposedly placed a curse on the team, and when the Cubs lost Game 7 to the Detroit Tigers, he sent a telegram to owner P.K. Wrigley that read, "Who smells now?"

Now?

Lou's logic.

He wanted to win Sunday when it was Wednesday. Whether Sunday promises a ballgame will depend on the Cubs hitting better than they did, capitalizing on chances better than they did, and Piniella remembering rule No. 1 in every manager's book of clichés and truisms.

Play 'em one game at a time.

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