Cubs GM: 'We are running out of time'

Originally Published: August 5, 2005
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

At the Hall of Fame ceremony Sunday in Cooperstown, the invocation was presented by Friar Roberto Corral, who finished his prayer with a special request for God: Help the Cubs!

Help is on the way. On Friday, shortstop Nomar Garciaparra and pitcher Kerry Wood (as well as reliever Scott Williamson) are expected to be activated; perhaps they can revive the Cubs enough to run down the the Astros and others in the National League wild card race. Wood says his right arm is pain-free, and Garciaparra's severe groin injury appears healed.

Kerry Wood
Wood

Nomar Garciaparra
Garciaparra

"It's time to get going," Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said. "We are running out of time."

It's possible the return of Garciaparra and Wood will invigorate the Cubs, but more likely, it won't be enough to get the team to the playoffs. It would be one thing if they were returning as dominant players, but Wood is coming back as a reliever, a role so different, there's no guarantee that he'll be able to adjust. Garciaparra is coming back following a tepid finish to last season, and a poor start to this year: 8-for-51 with no homers, four RBI and four walks when he was injured in April. And, say most scouts, the bigger worry is his defense. His replacement, Neifi Perez, played it well in his absence.

Wood's move to the bullpen is necessary.

"We have no options," Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild said.

Wood has been on the disabled list twice this season with arm injuries.

"He has been having trouble in the third or fourth inning, when he has had to throw a lot of pitches," Rothschild said. "It's happened two or three times to him, going back to last year in L.A. It has never been so bad that he can't throw, but it has been prohibitive."

Wood threw well in his first rehab appearance, and really well in his second one. It appears he's on board with the move to the 'pen.

"Obviously, I've got to get through the season and stay healthy the rest of the way," Wood said. "I don't have any pain when I'm throwing."

How he'll be used is unclear.

"The first thing we have to do is get him in a game," Rothschild said. "We don't know if it's going to be a meaningful situation. But at this time of year, all of our games are critical. If he can give us three important innings a week, we'll take it."

The Cubs' bullpen is hardly stocked, leading to speculation that Wood, a la Curt Schilling, could eventually become the closer.

"Anything is possible," Rothschild said. "That's way down the road. Starting pitchers are not easy to find, especially with his stuff."

The Cubs need help in middle relief; when they have to go to the bullpen early, they usually get demolished. The Cubs also need Wood in their rotation. What was supposed to be perhaps the best five-man rotation in the game now includes Jerome Williams and rookie Rich Hill. Plus, Greg Maddux finally appears to be slowing down. His remarkable record streak of 17 seasons with at least 15 victories apparently is at its end as his record stands at 8-8.

The first thing we have to do is get him in a game. We don't know if it's going to be a meaningful situation. But at this time of year, all of our games are critical. If he can give us three important innings a week, we'll take it.
Larry Rothschild, Cubs pitching coach,
on Kerry Wood

With ordinary pitching, the Cubs might have to hit their way to the wild card, which seems unlikely given that they are not a great offensive club, mostly because of a maddening lack of discipline. They are last in the NL in walks -- roughly 150 fewer than the Red Sox. To ask Garciaparra to come back and ignite the offense is unfair and unrealistic. He is on his way to the Hall of Fame, but he simply isn't the hitter he was five years ago in Boston.

It would be a great story if the Cubs got hot and, a la the 2004 Red Sox, tore through the final two months, then the playoffs, then went on to win their first World Series since 1908. But weeks like this make you wonder if they have any chance. Tuesday night in Philadelphia, with the bases loaded, Jeromy Burnitz was picked off first on a ball which got by the catcher; no one on the Cubs' coaching staff could remember ever seeing anything like that.

And Wednesday night, their pitchers forgot to cover first base on ground balls three times. In the same game, with the score tied in the ninth, Cubs catcher Michael Barrett allowed a pitch to squirt several feet away from him. The Phillies' Jimmy Rollins, the runner at third, came halfway down the line. Instead of running at Rollins, who was trapped, Barrett threw to third, wide of the bag, and Rollins scored the winning run standing up. A few members of the Cubs said they had never seen a game end quite like that.

The loss dropped the Cubs to 54-53, tied with the Mets for fifth in the wild card race, five games behind the surging Astros. It doesn't look good for the Cubs. Twenty of their final 55 games are against the Astros and the Cardinals. This might be a good time to pray.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.