- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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This was not what Lou Piniella had in mind when he talked about needing to rest his bullpen.
Not what Ryan Dempster was thinking, either, when he talked about his return Tuesday night against Houston being like Christmas Eve.
Unless, of course, he used to get coal in his stocking as a kid.
On Dempster's first pitch back after a 26-day layoff, Michael Bourn ripped a fastball to center field for a single. The next batter, Jeff Keppinger, drilled a fastball to right for another base hit. Miguel Tejada followed by crushing another four-seamer to left-center to drive in the game's first run but was robbed of an extra-base hit by Kosuke Fukudome, who made a leaping grab into the Wrigley Field ivy.
Welcome back, Ryan.
Dempster had been on the disabled list with a fractured toe sustained when he jumped over the fence in front of the Cubs' dugout to celebrate an extra-inning victory over Milwaukee and landed funny. He was not laughing.
He lasted five innings, allowed nine hits and six runs, five earned, while striking out three. He also threw a wild pitch and committed a throwing error that led to a run. Worse for the Cubs was that after using five relievers in Monday night's extra-inning victory, they ran through five again Tuesday. And everyone was hit hard as the Astros pounded out 17 hits in snapping the Cubs' five-game win streak with an 11-6 victory.
"Gosh, we've been in our bullpen a lot," Piniella lamented after the game.
Dempster, who threw a desired 85 pitches, insisted his toe has felt fine for the past week and a half, but three and a half weeks out with no rehab assignment is still three and a half weeks out.
"Yeah, he was rusty, no question," Piniella said. "He gave it his best shot. He just wasn't sharp."
Dempster being Dempster, he did not try to avoid the heat.
"I felt good going into the game. I felt ready," he said. "I just didn't do a very good job. I didn't do a good job of hitting management, knowing the game. I got a runner on first and third [in the third], one out down 2-0. Not only do I not get the guy at home, but I throw the ball in center field.
"I put us in a hole, the guys keep fighting back, we score three and I go and give up a two-run home run on my third-best pitch [to Tejada in the fifth]. It was frustrating. It was by no means my best performance, and it was disappointing, too, because we play 13 innings last night. I knew I was on a short pitch count, but I wanted to give the bullpen a little bit of a break, and you feel like you let those guys down. "
Down five with no one left on the Cubs' bench, two men on and Carlos Zambrano pinch hitting, the last strains of "Let's go Cubbies" still could be heard. But all hope aside, it wasn't fair to expect Dempster to bounce back into peak form Tuesday night. And it probably isn't fair to expect him to do so for a few weeks.
The good news continues to be the resurgent offense, specifically that of Aramis Ramirez, who extended his extra-base-hit streak to six games when he blasted a tying three-run home run in the fifth inning. He is hitting .500 in his past 26 at-bats with seven runs, five doubles, three home runs and 10 runs batted in during that stretch.
"Our weakness over the first half has been driving in runs, and to add a guy like that, who scores runs and produces runs like that, there's really no better guy, or no better addition that we could have," outfielder Reed Johnson said of Ramirez, who also made a diving stop on a Tejada grounder in the seventh and threw him out from his knees.
Giving up 17 hits won't cut it, however, regardless of how well the Cubs' young pitchers have held up thus far. And regardless of the high hopes of Ted Lilly, who was back in the clubhouse one day after arthroscopic knee surgery and optimistic that he will be back "as soon as possible" after a 15-day stint on the disabled list retroactive to July 21.
"We're having fun, and I want to be a part of it," Lilly said before Tuesday's game.
Hopefully more fun than Christmas Eve.
Tuesday night's game against the Astros was not what Lou Piniella had in mind when he talked about needing to rest the Cubs' bullpen.