For Cubs, Sox, the defense never rests
Beleaguered teams stick with their guys through injuries, slumps and... softball games?
CHICAGO -- I'm not sure what they're doing for fun this weekend in New York and Ohio during the Yankees-Mets and Indians-Reds series. My guess is that playing meaningful baseball games passes adequately for entertainment.
Here in Chicago, where the weathermen had about as solid a performance on Friday as Randy Wells, White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen chided the local media for being "boring"; Cubs manager Mike Quade actually bristled temporarily; and Carlos Zambrano and Juan Pierre demonstrated firsthand that playing in Chicago is the equivalent of suiting up against the lions in ancient Rome.
For Quade, the day began with a briefing by his PR man, who warned him to expect questions regarding his pitcher, Zambrano, whose latest transgression included both lobbing a softball 43 feet and moving slightly to his right as a 12-incher arced into the top tier of the stands behind home plate, Thursday night.
Granted, Zambrano has long since derailed his own chances for any sort of sensible benefit of the doubt. So when he showed up for a scheduled appearance at a Chicago Bandits softball game on the same day he exited in the second inning of a start at Wrigley Field with a sore back, it was going to come at a cost.
And -- naturally -- video footage.
My first reaction was: good for Zambrano, showing up at a women's pro softball game under any circumstances following a tweeted request earlier in the week by the Bandits' center fielder. Three years ago, shortly after a stint on the 15-day disabled list with a shoulder injury, Zambrano actually got into the batters box against a Venezuelan women's Olympic team pitcher at a Bandits' exhibition game, and struck out. On a change-up, no less.
On Friday, because it's Zambrano and because it's, well, us, the Cubs manager had to be asked for his reaction before being queried about Zambrano's condition, which later was announced will necessitate a 15-day stay on the disabled list.
"So he made an appearance," Quade blustered. "I certainly didn't expect him to go home and sleep for two weeks and hope [his back] got better. If you come and tell me he took batting practice or threw three innings somewhere, oh boy. But he was at a charity event. . . . People 85 years old throw out first pitches here and do a great job, so I got nothing. Sorry."
After Friday's game, a 6-4 victory by the White Sox, Zambrano gave an eloquent explanation of his own.
"Chicago is a big town but it's a small town," he said of the scrutiny. "You can't hide in Chicago.
"I know I came out of the game early but I had this thing set up through my foundation. If I don't go, they criticize me too, 'See, he doesn't show up, he's a bad person, he doesn't care about the fans.' I had a good time, I threw the pitch, I enjoyed the ladies playing softball."
There was actually a mini-debate brewing that if he would have just thrown the thing underhand, it would not have been a problem.
Obviously, those people have never watched pro softball, where the top pitchers are in the 80s.
"It was just one pitch," Zambrano said. "I didn't pitch nine innings, I didn't play defense. It was just one single pitch. I didn't even throw 20 miles per hour. I threw 10, nice and easy. My arm didn't get hurt, my back stayed the same, I support the team and people were happy I was there after gave my word I was going to be there."
Like Zambrano, the Cubs do have a certain resilient quality. Though they have only won 34 games, they have come from behind in 22 of those victories and have had 11 players miss a combined 342 games heading into the weekend series. And Quade presides over a seemingly looser clubhouse than a superior White Sox club.
Now there's loose and bad, and there's tight and bad, and the Cubs and Sox have been both. But the Cubs could have been expected to be less-than-stellar against the Giants after dropping a doubleheader on Tuesday and instead came back with dramatic walkoff wins on pinch hits Wednesday and Thursday.
Quade stretched Wells in an attempt to preserve his bullpen Friday, but with eight games in the previous seven days and a yeoman effort by the bullpen on Thursday, he had little choice. The better team dominated Friday, as it did in winning two of three at U.S. Cellular a week and a half ago.
As for Guillen, whose team is familiar with the whole one-step-forward, two-steps-back thing, the Sox skipper spent the first five minutes of his pregame media session Friday defending Juan Pierre, and the next three talking about Adam Dunn.
Perplexed why fans and media have made Pierre out to be "junk," Guillen was justified in wondering why there is disproportionate criticism of his leadoff hitter while reiterating that bringing up Dayan Viciedo would be a mistake.
Guillen called Pierre "Chicago tough" before the outfielder went 1-for-4 with a two-run triple, a walk and a run scored. But no, no stolen bases (which makes it 11 and still counting in 21 attempts).
"Look at the numbers by Juan Pierre at the end of the year," said Guillen, banking that Pierre -- 10-of-23 with two doubles, a triple and six RBIs in his past five games, raising his average from .248 to .262 -- will have another strong second half.
"We've got players out there, and you know who, they've got worse numbers than Juan. I wish I had 25 Juan Pierres. With all respect to Paul Konerko, [Alex] Rios, Dunn, if you ever manage Juan Pierre, you appreciate the way this kid goes about his business."
Pierre appreciates the support as well.
"I know when I'm playing bad," he said. "I know when I'm not getting the job done. No one puts as much pressure on me as I do myself to get the job done. [Guillen] knows how I go about my business. It might not turn out the way I want every day but it's not because I'm not prepared."
As for Dunn, who did not play Friday but is expected to play at least once this weekend at either first base or right field and bat third, neither he nor Pierre are solely responsible for the Sox being below .500.
"What are my choices?" Guillen asked yet again about sitting Dunn, who should start seeing better pitches batting in front of Paul Konerko. "[Mark] Teahen? He's hitting about .210 too. That's all I can do, play him. Every time I bench him, it cost a lot of money."
Playing the Cubs will help most teams' moods. But it will take more than a three-game win streak to mount the momentum the White Sox need to make a run for the playoffs.
"People think my coaching staff and me are sitting in my office or on the bus or on the airplane talking about sex or something," Guillen said. "No, we're talking about the team, how we're going to put the team together, how we're going to be better."
Whatever happens, it's going to be interesting. Always is.
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.