- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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Cubs manager Lou Piniella walked through his team's training room Tuesday afternoon to survey the situation and chat with his wounded.
He nearly missed the game.
Piniella said he's not complaining or making excuses for his limping ballclub. "I'm just stating facts, believe me," he said.
We believe him. He's missing two pitchers from his starting rotation, and the guy inserted to fill in -- naturally -- hurt himself. His best hitter received a cortisone shot in his shoulder Tuesday morning, pretty much enabling him to play the rest of the season in pain. And his previously dependable platoon centerfielder picked the wrong time to get hurt.
"When [Reed Johnson] was healthy on the roster, we weren't facing left-hand pitching," Piniella said, "and all of a sudden we're facing left-hand pitching and he's not available."
Catching the Philadelphia Phillies in about as much of a funk as you'd hope to catch the defending champs, having lost eight of their past 11, the Cubs dropped the first game of the homestand in all-too-typically-painful fashion, 4-3 in 12 innings.
In losing their fifth of the past six games, the Cubs wasted a terrific night from Rich Harden, who retired the first 16 Phillies batters and whose first hit given up was a two-run home run by Jimmy Rollins.
"One mistake," Harden said.
The Cubs' bullpen would follow with many more. Carlos Marmol relieved Harden in the eighth, plunking one batter (his 11th of the year) and walking three more, the last forcing in the go-ahead run.
The Cubs would tie the game at 3-3 when Milton Bradley singled home Kosuke Fukudome in the bottom of the ninth. But Ben Francisco, in from Cleveland a week ago via trade, hit a line shot off a 2-1 slider line into the left-field basket off Kevin Gregg in the 12th for the eventual game-winner.
It was Gregg's 11th home run allowed this season, five of which have either tied the game or given the opponent the lead.
"That's more home runs than I've given up in probably three, four years," he said. "Combined."
Not quite, but it is more than the past two years combined. More telling stats for the Cubs: Jeff Baker was 4-for-5 but didn't have an RBI. His only hitless at-bat was a strikeout with two runners on in the third.
"We've talked about chances all year," Piniella said.
Piniella didn't talk about his team playing well in his pregame press conference as much as he did about "stabilizing," evoking images of the Cubs on collective life support. And though it's certainly too early to pull the plug on this team, it's not a bad analogy.
"These next two weeks to me will tell a lot [about] what's going to happen the rest of the season," Piniella said.
Three games behind St. Louis going into Tuesday night's game after a 4-6 road trip, the Cubs could put themselves in a very precarious position if they can't stabilize over the next few weeks.
And while you can say they can't catch a break, what with Carlos Zambrano on the DL, Aramis Ramirez getting a cortisone shot in hopes of coming back Saturday only to know he'll play in considerable discomfort the rest of the season, and new pitcher Tom Gorzelanny nursing a bad foot, this Cubs team isn't the same caliber as last season's.
While it's not always clear-cut when trying to quantify, through 111 games last year, the '08 Cubs were hitting .279 with 121 more hits and 98 more runs batted in than this year's club at the same point. And this year's team -- as evidenced Tuesday night by the 12 runners stranded in 12 innings, compared to five by the Phillies -- lag well behind in the clutch.
Give this year's team credit for hanging in there, seemingly with Scotch tape and Popsicle sticks. But did Ramirez come back too soon?
"I don't know. That's a good question," he said. "They didn't rush me, I just wanted to come back and play."
He said it only hurts when he swings and misses or reaches for a line drive above his head, which is like a comedian saying it only hurts when he hears laughter. He also said he hopes to return Thursday, which Piniella is hoping for even if Ramirez is still not himself.
But with 50 games remaining, it's getting to the point that "There's still a lot of baseball left" is not going fly anymore.
"I wouldn't say [time] is running out," Gregg said. "We've got to play good baseball. We've got to pitch, we've got to have good timely hitting. As we get closer to the end of the season, yeah, we've got to start winning more ballgames."
In other words, time's running out.
The Chicago Cubs are battling injury, ineffectiveness and a season that is running out of games.