Commentary

Was Piniella saving Zambrano for later? Don't ask

Originally Published: October 3, 2007
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

PHOENIX -- Asked whether he could be accused of looking ahead in the series when he took out Carlos Zambrano early to keep him strong for a possible Game 4, Cubs manager Lou Piniella snapped back, "I'm not accused of anything, sir. I've got a good bullpen here, OK, and I trust my bullpen. I'm bringing back a pitcher on three days' rest on Sunday, and I took a shot with my bullpen. It didn't work today. They've done it all year. I've got confidence in them. Period, end of story."

End of story? Are you nuts, Lou? This is the 21st century, the era of 24/7 sports networks and the infinite blogosphere, where the very act of writing out a lineup card is to not only stand accused but also to be guilty until proven otherwise.

More importantly, this was a Cubs postseason game and passions are high because apparently this team hasn't won a World Series for quite some time. The only reason the ratings weren't even higher in Chicago for Wednesday's 3-1 loss in the NL Division Series opener against Arizona is that TV repairmen haven't been able to repair all the screens that were kicked in during the 2003 Bartman game. Hell, there are older Cubs fans still bitter about Charlie Grimm letting Charlie Root pitch to Babe Ruth in 1932.

Sorry, Lou, there is no end of story on the Net, where there is FireLouPiniella.com, FireLouPiniella.net and at least one other similarly named Web site. And one of those went up in November, four months before Piniella's first game.

Piniella said before the game that because he was thinking of using Zambrano in Game 4 Sunday on three days' rest, he would limit his ace to 100-110 pitches Wednesday. He wound up limiting Zambrano more than that, taking him out after six innings and 85 pitches, and bringing in reliever Carlos Marmol with the game tied 1-1 in the seventh.

Listen, you guys, this is only the first game. There's a lot of baseball to be played in this series, OK? It's not doom and gloom, this thing. Let's keep positive, keep playing and go out and win a ballgame tomorrow.

--Lou Piniella

"I said, 'Can I pitch one more?' And he said, 'No, that's enough,'" Zambrano said. "He's the manager. ... My job is to pitch and his job is to manage, and he's done a good job so far. He got us into the playoffs."

Unfortunately, four Marmol pitches later, Chicago outfielders Alfonso Soriano and Jacque Jones watched Mark Reynolds' leadoff home run -- and the game -- sail over the fence.

So, no, that decision didn't work out so well.

But was it a bad decision?

On the one hand, Zambrano was pitching very well -- four hits, one run, eight strikeouts -- and even Piniella acknowledged that he could have gone another inning. On the other hand, the Diamondbacks were nearing the bottom of their very weak lineup, and Chicago's bullpen has been very good, especially Marmol. He had been scored upon only once in his previous 20 outings (dating back to Aug. 10) and was 5-1 with a 1.43 ERA and 96 strikeouts in 69 1/3 innings. As Arizona manager Bob Melvin said, "His numbers are video game numbers with the strikeouts and so forth."

In a perfect world, you would leave Zambrano in there to pitch the seventh. But in a perfect world, your potential No. 4 starter, Jason Marquis, wouldn't have pitched so poorly in September (6.41 ERA) that you felt the need to avoid him if at all possible and keep your ace fresh to start Sunday instead. And in a perfect world, one of your best relievers doesn't give up a home run four pitches into his outing.

There is a school of thought that you can't hold anything back in the postseason, that you have to go all out to win each game at hand rather than look ahead. There is another school of thought that a manager who has won one World Series (with the Reds in 1990) and managed three teams into the postseason (Reds, Mariners and Cubs) just might know a little bit more about his team than a bunch of guys who shop for their clothes at TJ Maxx.

Besides, the game was tied and the Cubs were having almost no luck against Arizona starter and reigning Cy Young winner Brandon Webb. They had just one extra-base hit -- and that was by Zambrano -- and scored their only run on two walks and two singles, one of them an infield hit. There is no guarantee Chicago would have outscored the Diamondbacks the rest of the way, just as there is no guarantee Marmol wouldn't have simply given up two runs in the eighth inning had Zambrano pitched the seventh.

Brandon Webb
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesArizona starter Brandon Webb shut down the Cubs, allowing four hits and striking out nine over seven innings.

"Marmol couldn't get his breaking ball over," Piniella said. "But the reason we didn't win this game was we scored one run on four hits. You're not going to win on the road, you're not going to win anywhere, scoring one run on four hits. I give their pitching credit, but that's probably the story of the ballgame."

Sounds good. But try convincing a ravenous media with a 24-hour programming cycle to fill.

"Listen, you guys, this is only the first game," Piniella said impatiently. "There's a lot of baseball to be played in this series, OK? It's not doom and gloom, this thing. Let's keep positive, keep playing and go out and win a ballgame tomorrow."

If that happens and Zambrano is brilliant on Sunday and the Cubs win the series, then Lou will be vindicated.

And if not? Well, then the heat might finally be off poor Bartman.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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