- Phil Rogers
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There was a time when one of the best-selling jerseys in Chicago was a Cubs top, No. 03, bearing the name "Bartman." It was very popular among White Sox fans.
Picking up on that theme, on Tuesday night in St. Louis, a fan wore a Cubs jersey, No. 69, with the words "Next Year" written from shoulder to shoulder. This, of course, was hardly the only link to the Cubs' ongoing crisis -- semicrisis, really -- and the collapse of Leo Durocher's team in 1969, a calamity that ranks alongside the one starring Mrs. O'Leary's cow in Chicago annals.
After a Carlos Marmol balk and the difference in properly executed bunts allowed St. Louis to hand the Cubs their eighth loss in nine games, manager Lou Piniella finally began acting like, well, Lou Piniella.
"We're playing like we're waiting to get beat," said Piniella, who had declined to do a postgame interview after Sunday's 4-3 loss in Cincinnati. "You don't have a big enough lead in September to play ball like that. Teams [that] play ball like that invariably get caught, no matter how big the lead."
Piniella was shouting by the end of his soliloquy, which was directed at a room full of reporters, not a clubhouse full of players.
"You can talk about having fun, talk about relaxing," Piniella said. "You've got to get your shirt[sleeves] rolled up and go out and kick somebody's ass! Period!"
You can't blame Piniella for getting angry. That's his job, and his character. He was trying to bring a sense of urgency to the closing stretch for the Cubs, but the reality is that this is still not an especially urgent time for the National League's best team. This is 2008, not 1969.
The Cubs led by nine games on Aug. 16, 1969 but went 17-26 the rest of the way and had their doors blown off by the New York Amazin's. In the worst stretch, the team built around Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ron Santo and Fergie Jenkins lost 11 of 12.
But the 2008 Milwaukee Brewers show few signs of being the '69 Mets, who won 38 of their last 49 games. Despite the one-two combination of CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets (who are due to start again on Wednesday and Thursday), the Brew Crew has serious problems of its own.
Ned Yost's team has lost seven of nine, including a horrid, 11-inning 5-4 loss to Cincinnati on Tuesday night when it wasted another chance to gain ground. The Brewers have gained only two games on the Cubs during the stretch that had Piniella screaming; they've moved from 6½ back to 4½ games back.
"The guys are trying their hearts out," Yost said. "They're just not getting much production. It's like, 'Man, where is this coming from?'"
The Brewers aren't the only saving grace for the Cubs this September. Had the wild card been in effect in 1969, the Cubs would have hung on to make the playoffs. Their 92 wins were two more than that of any other runner-up.
Back on Aug. 29, the Cubs had an 11-game cushion for making the playoffs. That has slid to 7½ games over Philadelphia, the wild-card runner-up. That margin would be 6½ if the Phillies had been able to beat Florida on Tuesday, but like the Brewers, they missed the chance to pick up any ground. The Cubs' magic numbers shrunk without their having to win.
That's why Piniella is screaming in the middle of a forest.
Strength in numbers
Because Major League Baseball is sticking to the prolonged postseason schedule that includes unnecessary off days, pitching depth will not be required in October. Teams willing to occasionally use their best starters on short rest could go to the World Series behind three starters, with the top two starting eight of 11 games in the first two rounds.
But pitching depth will be tested as teams fight to play in October. The White Sox are most feeling that, thanks to Monday's rainout against Toronto. They were swept by the Blue Jays in Tuesday's doubleheader, with No. 5 starter Clayton Richard allowing five runs in four innings. They're scrambling to find a starter for Saturday's game when they play Detroit.
White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen's choices are to bring back Javier Vazquez or Richard on short rest or use a sixth starter, most likely rookie Lance Broadway. The White Sox were giving some consideration to dipping into their farm system to preview hard-throwing lefty Aaron Poreda, who was their first-round pick in the 2007 draft, but it seemed more likely that they would stick with players already on the roster.
The White Sox were among the teams that considered signing Bartolo Colon over the winter. He wound up with Boston and, after being sidelined most of the season with a bad back, will play a role in the Red Sox's pursuit of Tampa Bay.
In one of the more interesting minor league playoff games in recent memory, Colon matched zeroes with Phil Hughes for Pawtucket last Sunday. He's set to start a game in Boston's doubleheader Saturday against Toronto. His arrival kept manager Terry Francona from having to again turn to Michael Bowden, who gave the Red Sox a win over the White Sox on Aug. 30.
Not yet ready to quit
British philosopher John Stuart Mill is credited with a line that often finds its way into the plotlines of movies: "Ask yourself if you are happy, and you cease to be so." The baseball version of that is to ask yourself whether you are in contention, and you'll cease being so.
That's true most of the time, anyway. But after hanging around on life support for the past month, St. Louis and Houston suddenly seem to have a reason to keep dreaming. The Brewers' ongoing funk has allowed the Cardinals to move within 3½ games of Milwaukee, albeit in third place in the wild-card race, while Houston is four back.
"A lot of teams kind of abandon ship, give up at the half and try new things and see how it works for next year," Astros pitcher Roy Oswalt told the Houston Chronicle. "We kind of stayed with the guys we had and made a run for it. We may have started too late, but we've made it interesting."
Things could be even tighter a week from now. After Wednesday's matinee against Cincinnati, the Brewers leave for a 10-game trip with the first seven games in Philadelphia and Chicago.
• Weather isn't the only thing working against the White Sox these days. First baseman Paul Konerko has followed MVP candidate Carlos Quentin into the trainer's room. Konerko was to be evaluated Wednesday after having to be helped off the field in the nightcap of Tuesday's doubleheader when he seemingly strained his right knee.
The initial exam showed that the injury wasn't too serious but will keep Konerko out at least a few days.
• Twins manager Ron Gardenhire's discipline is amazing. Despite problems getting a lead to closer Joe Nathan (the bullpen is 2-11 since Aug. 1), Gardenhire hasn't extended a starting pitcher beyond 112 pitches in the past 42 games. Ozzie Guillen has been almost as conservative, as he tries to get youngsters Gavin Floyd and John Danks to the finish line.
• On the other hand, Ned Yost of the Brewers has given his starters eight 120-pitch starts this season, four more than any other team in the majors. The Cubs have had four; the Mets, Phillies and White Sox have had three apiece. Tampa Bay is one of six teams whose pitchers haven't had any 120-pitch outings.
• Carlos Zambrano had a successful bullpen outing on Tuesday, one day after Rich Harden was judged ready to rejoin the Cubs' rotation. Harden will pitch Thursday in St. Louis, Zambrano on Saturday in Houston. Piniella currently has his starters lined up in this order for the playoffs: Zambrano, Ryan Dempster and either Ted Lilly or Harden, with Jason "The Fifth Beatle" Marquis set to be dropped from a playoff rotation for the third year in a row. But Marquis is pitching well. His 4.23 ERA in the second half is better than Zambrano's (5.26) and almost as good as Lilly's (3.96).
Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has its Web site at www.chicagosports.com. His book, "Say It's So," a story about the 2005 White Sox, is available in bookstores, through Amazon.com and by direct order from Triumph Books (800-222-4657).
After Tuesday's 4-3 loss to the Cardinals, manager Lou Piniella finally began acting like, well, Lou Piniella.