CHICAGO – Around the Chicago Cubs clubhouse roamed Lou Piniella, tanned skin and calloused elbows and, on this evening, bitten tongue.
How Piniella ever wanted to walk up to every locker, look his lieges in the eyes and tell them what Wednesday meant. Piniella, in his 20th year managing, knows a pennant race, its crescendos and diminuendos, and the delicacy of momentum. And to go into today's off day with a second consecutive loss to the Cincinnati Reds would only reinforce the prevailing sentiment about the Cubs: If they win the National League Central, it's going to be by default.
"I didn't mention this because I didn't want to put any pressure on this team," Piniella said, "but this was really what you would call a must-win."
Win they did, a 3-2 neck-tickler replete with – in typical Cubs fashion – enough flubs and blunders to justify the sense of dread that entombed Wrigley Field until the final out.
Even afterward, as Piniella basked in Ted Lilly's sterling seven-inning performance and Alfonso Soriano's leadoff home run and game-saving outfield assist, his anxiety proofed. As much as he wanted to talk about his team – the best in the National League since June 2, at 58-42 – Piniella's eyes kept wandering to the left, where a TV monitor showed the Houston hosting the Milwaukee Brewers, who entered the night tied with the Cubs for first place.
"Oh, somebody hit a home run for Milwaukee," Piniella said. "How about that."
Actually, it was a double.
Doom, the emotion du century of Cubs fans, has quickly adhered itself to Piniella, and one batter after the double, Milwaukee's Rickie Weeks smashed an opposite-field home run to tie the score, 4-4. Around the Cubs' clubhouse, excitement turned to drudgery. Another opportunity, they figured, frittered away.
Perhaps this is Chicago's season, or at least its regular season. Houston came back to beat the Brewers in the 10th inning, handing sole possession of first over to the Cubs after they ceded it two days ago.
"It's felt this close for the last month and a half," Cubs utilityman Mark DeRosa said. "No one's had a bigger lead than two games. Every game has been important. It's been a grind mentally and physically. But there are only nine games left, and there's no room for error."
Well, maybe a little.
With the game tied at 2, DeRosa led off the seventh inning with a single. Jacque Jones followed by popping out on a bunt attempt and thwarting any rally.
In the top of the eighth, DeRosa flubbed a ground ball from leadoff hitter Norris Hopper. With two outs, Brandon Phillips hit a sharp single to left field, only to see Soriano unleash an awkward three-quarters throw – "He's got that little fade," Piniella said, "… I wish I had on the golf course" – that cut down Hopper.
Cubs shortstop Ryan Theriot hustled into second base after Ken Griffey Jr. bobbled a single with one out in the bottom of the inning and, had he been looking, would have scored on Derrek Lee's single to right field, during which Griffey came up limp and underhanded the ball back to the infield. As it was, Theriot came home on an odd fielder's choice – left fielder Adam Dunn trapped a shot from Matt Murton and got up with enough time to throw Lee out at second base – with what proved the winning run after Bob Howry shut down the Reds for the final two innings.
About as pretty as a plate of hash. And as fulfilling too.
"We have a lot of talent here, but we're not in the playoffs yet," Soriano said. "There are nine games left. And no matter how much talent we have, that's not going to get us in."
That, of course, is the season-long conundrum with the Cubs: How can a team with such talent – so much more than the rest of the division – not pull away? How did they slum near last place for much of the first half, finding themselves at 22-31 on June 2 and 8½ games behind the Brewers on June 23? Why can't they win extra-inning games (2-8) or use the Wrigley advantage to more than a 40-36 home record? What will it take to separate themselves – for good?
"They're not going to roll over," Theriot said. "They've proven time and time again that they're going to continue to win along with us."
Or, as it has been, lose with them.
In the background, as Theriot spoke, played Jay-Z's "99 Problems," which, with the Cubs' history, ought to be verboten. It's been 99 years, after all, since they last won a World Series in 1908, and problems – well, plenty remain, even if they are in first place.
The Cubs don't know whether good hitting can coincide with good pitching, good pitching can commingle with good fielding, good fielding can concur with good hitting – or none of the above. They worry about their schedule, even if it does include doormats Pittsburgh, Florida and Cincinnati. With nearly a full year experiencing it, Piniella understands that managing the Cubs is unlike any other job, which is why he plans on enjoying his day off.
"I'm not even going to think about baseball," he said.
Oh, come on.
"No baseball," he reiterated, standing up and heading back to his office.
After two steps, before he made it to the doorway, Piniella turned around.
"Well," he said, "maybe for a few seconds."