Chicago Sun-Times
with sports reporters Chris De Luca and Gordon Wittenmyer

May 2009 Archives

Where was Lou?

For the first time this season, Cubs manager Lou Piniella declined to meet with reporters after a game. Who could blame him after a painful 2-1 loss Thursday night to the Los Angeles Dodgers? The same Los Angeles Dodgers who humiliated the Cubs in the first round of the 2008 playoffs.

Piniella chooses to blow off reporters after games about once or twice a season. This time, he left everyone guessing about his whereabouts as the Cubs sent starting pitcher Randy Wells into the interview room in the manager's place.

Though some fans would prefer to see a June 2007-style blow-up from Piniella, the fiery manager is trying to stick to his strategy of remaining ultra positive during the Cubs' toughest regular-season stretch since he took over 2 1/2 years ago. There would have been few positives -- outside of another wasted solid outing by Wells -- for Piniella to discuss anyway, so he bit his tongue. The Cubs have lost nine of 11.

''We had plenty of opportunities to win this game,'' leadoff hitter Alfonso Soriano said. ''A very frustrating game.''

Cubs ace Carlos Zambrano -- trying to earn his 100th career victory -- instead added another chapter to the crazy side of his career in the seventh inning today against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Arguing a close call at the plate on the tying run, Zambrano was ejected after making contact with plate umpire Mark Carlson. After Carlson gave Zambrano the heave-ho, the veteran pitcher pointed his finger in the ump's face and did an animated routine of his own, ejecting Carlson.

Manager Lou Piniella pulled Zambrano away, but Big Z wasn't done. On his way off the field, he chucked the game ball into left-center field -- taking one hop to the warning track -- then heaved his glove against the fence in front of the Cubs dugout. The glove rebounded and was immediately kicked by pitching coach Larry Rothschild.
And Zambrano still wasn't done.

On his way down the tunnel to the clubhouse, Zambrano grabbed a bat and started whacking the recently repaired Gatorade dispenser in the dugout. He nearly struck his own pitching coach in the process, as Rothschild tried to intervene.
Maybe Zambrano knew his outing was coming to an end. His last pitch was his 114th of the game.

Here's what set him off. With the Cubs leading by a run and Nyjer Morgan at third base, Zambrano threw a wild pitch that bounced toward the Cubs' dugout. Zambrano rushed to cover the plate and catcher Geovany Soto's throw arrived at the same time as Morgan, who was sliding head-first.

Carlson called Morgan safe and Zambrano immediately got in the umpire's face. Replays showed Morgan was indeed safe.

Aside from an automatic fine, Zambrano almost certainly will be suspended by the league for his actions.

Jake Fox was finally summoned to Wrigley Field today after putting up obscene numbers at Class AAA Iowa. Now the Cubs must find a place for the defensively challenged Fox to play.

He can play left field, right field, first base, third base and catcher -- his original position. For the game today against the Pittsburgh Pirates, he is starting off on the bench, where manager Lou Piniella feels he can be a valuable pinch hitter for a lineup that needs some pop. Fox was hitting .423 with 17 home runs, 50 RBI, 40 runs, a .503 on-base percentage and .886 slugging percentage.

And what took so long for him to finally get the call?

''I'm short, fat, I'm fighting against maybe a little athleticism issues,'' Fox said.

Fox will also likely serve as the Cubs' designated hitter for interleague games at American League parks. Here is a question-and-answer session conducted this morning with Fox, one of the most likable players in baseball.

The Cubs announced they will hold their second ''Road to Wrigley'' minor-league game, set for Aug. 9 -- a Sunday -- at 1:20 p.m. featuring the Class AAA Iowa Cubs against the Las Vegas 51s, the Toronto Blue Jays' top affiliate. This will be considered an official Pacific Coast League game.

The Cubs say the game -- featuring ''family-friendly ticket prices -- will include all the atmosphere of a traditional minor-league contest. Tickets are available at and start at $5. 

Last season, the first ''Road to Wrigley'' on July 29 between the Cubs' Class A Peoria Chiefs and the Oakland Athletics' Kane County Cougars drew 32,103 fans to Wrigley Field for an official Midwest League game.

Peavy: Beat Cubs, then join them?

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Jake Peavy closed the door on the White Sox one day, slammed the door on the Cubs' lineup the next, and then afterward, Friday night in San Diego, left the door wide open for a possible beat-'em-then-join-'em scenario with the Cubs.

fejtez8u.jpg.jpegHere's a quick glance at what's happening around the National League Central.

The Cardinals have made it official: former ace Chris Carpenter will be activated from the disabled list to face the Cubs on Wednesday at Busch Stadium. By starting Carpenter on Wednesday, the Brewers can then have him start the opener of a key series against the Brewers next Monday at Miller Park. The Cardinals were in desperate need of some good news after losing nine of their last 13 games. But St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz says it's too soon for Cards fans to panic. That said, the Cardinals are definitely hurting from a power outage because of injuries. Meanwhile, former Cubs pitcher Todd Wellemeyer had a strange start Sunday: He became the first Redbirds pitcher in at least 55 years to walk at least seven hitters and hit two batters in the same start.

So much for the Brewers taking a nose dive after losing co-aces CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets in the same offseason. The Brewers are the hottest team in baseball and have made a strong statement after an early stumble. Not bad for a team that was in last place on April 21, Since then, the Brewers have gone 19-5 -- moving into first place -- entering their series finale tonight against the Cardinals. ''We're getting good pitching and great hitting,'' left-hander Manny Parra said ''Everything seems to be going together. It makes it a lot of fun to come to the ballpark.'' There is cause for concern in Milwaukee. Second baseman Rickie Weeks has flown to Phoenix to see a hand specialist after hurting his left wrist Sunday while striking out to open the game.

The Reds entered the weekend in a tie for first place, but slipped in San Diego. The road ahead doesn't get much easier. This was a big setback for the Reds, who entered the Padres series with the most victories on the road (13) and best road winning percentage in the majors. Meanwhile, the Reds still have concerns about Joey Votto's dizzy spells. He is expected to undergo more tests today in Cincinnati.

Cardinals Nationals B_De L.jpgHere's a quick glance at what's happening around the National League Central.

The Cardinals' new double-play combination continues to be a work in progress. On the same day manager Tony La Russa praised the play of second baseman Skip Schumaker -- using the word ''amazing'' to describe the former outfielder's transition -- he benched veteran shortstop Khalil Greene in favor of rookie Tyler Greene.
Give the Cards credit for playing through their injuries and surviving a bumpy start with their new middle infielders. The Cardinals have been in first place -- or shared the top spot -- every day since the fifth day of the season. They are in a stretch of 14 consecutive games against Central foes, starting off 4-4. The stretch includes a key three-game series that begins tonight against the Brewers and a three-game series against the Cubs next week at Busch Stadium. The Brewers series also kicks off a nine-game homestand for the Cardinals. During this stay in St. Louis, the Cardinals figure to get most -- if not all -- of their four key players back from the disabled list.

Are the Brewers the best team in baseball? Some in Milwaukee are making that statement. Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez, coming off a tough series with the Brewers, certainly is impressed. ''They're really good,'' Gonzalez said. ''They're a well-balanced club. They got some veterans up and down that lineup, and that bullpen, at least against us, was pretty good with [Trevor] Hoffman at the end of the game.'' After a rough starter, the Brewers are getting the best performance from a rotation in the majors, the bullpen has been steady and the offense has been clicking. All in all, a nice combination.

The Reds have also gotten off to a nice start and dropped a half-game out of first place because they were idle Thursday. Everything seems to be clicking in Cincinnati, and give manager Dusty Baker credit for making the most of the speed he has with the Reds. ''We've got to get as far away from .500 as we can and take our chances,'' Baker said. ''We've got a long way to go. We've looked pretty good, but we have a long way to go.'' Here's a nicely done breakdown of why things have gone so well early. One big key: The Reds aren't afraid to go from first to third on a single. They lead the majors in that category.

Cubs' Zambrano ready -- and sorry

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Carlos Zambrano issued a pre-emptive apology today to fans for what they're going to see out of him when he returns from the disabled list in a week.

Already ``100 percent'' and ``ready to pitch,'' Zambrano said he won't be running hard on the bases for about a month after his return - per doctors' orders to protect his healing hamstring but against his playing nature.

``I'll be running like Geo Soto or Bengie Molina,'' said Zambrano, who took fielding practice without incident before today's game and is scheduled to make a Class A rehab start Sunday. ``I'll be running nice and easy and just taking my time and not hustling for now. And I apologize to the Cubs fans for [that]. But it's one thing to not hustle and another thing to not play good. I will still perform as good. I will try to do everything right.''

But after that first month back, he said, ``you will see me running like Juan Pierre or Jose Reyes.''

Zambrano, scheduled to make his return from the DL next Friday in San Diego, said none of the restrictions will affect how - or presumably how hard - he swings the bat: ``When you can hit, you can hit.''

Cardinals Pirates Bas_De L.jpg

Here's a quick glance at what's happening around the National League Central.

The St. Louis Cardinals are dinged up, but manager Tony La Russa won't let his players use that as an excuse. Before the game Wednesday, La Russa sent a message to his players, saying: ''This is the lineup we've got. And we can win with this lineup.'' Then the Cards went out and lost to the last-place Pirates, assuring themselves of a losing trip. The Cardinals have lost seven of their last 10 games and no longer hold sole possession of first place in the Central. Here is the list of hurting Cardinals: Ryan Ludwick, Chris Carpenter, Rick Ankiel and Troy Glaus.

One of the teams sharing first place with the Cardinals is the Reds, winners of six of their last seven. The Reds are feeling pretty good about themselves. This is the latest they have been in first place since June 8, 2006, when Dusty Baker was still managing the Cubs. The Reds, however, are concerned about the recent bout of dizziness that has sidelined Joey Votto.

The Brewers are the other Central team in first place with a 20-14 record. They flexed their muscle and got another save from new closer Trevor Hoffman to win for the 16th time in 21 games. Their victory over the Marlins marked the Brewers 12th come-from-behind win this season, tied with the Phillies for most in the majors.

Bobby Scales spent more than 10 seasons and more than 1,000 games in the minor leagues before last week.

And in just nine days in the majors, he has become an overnight sensation for the Cubs as a 31-year-old rookie -- extending his six-for-six-game hitting streak with his first big-league homer Tuesday night, pinch-hitting in the seventh inning.

``What a nice story. The kid persevered, and he's enjoying the moment now,'' said manager Lou Piniella after watching Scales nearly sprint around the bases following his home run. ``Hopefully, it continues.''

Here's a quick glance at what's happening around the National League Central.

The Cubs finally get a day off today after a grueling stretch of 20 games in 20 days. They went 10-10 over that span. Not bad considering their recent run of injuries. The Brewers also completed a 20-20 stretch Sunday. They went 14-6 over that same span.

A big difference for the Brewers has been the work of closer Trevor Hoffman, their big offseason acquisition who opened the season on the disabled list because of a straight right oblique. Hoffman has given the Brewers a big boost, turning a bullpen that was a liability into a strength now that everyone is in their projected roles.

Before Hoffman made his season debut on April 27, the Brewers were 8-10. They have gone 10-4 since, and Hoffman is 5-for-5 in save chances and has yet to allow a run. In six innings, he has allowed three hits, struck out seven and walked none. Remember, despite some solid starting pitching, the Brewers got off to a slow start mainly because their bullpen was a mess. Since losing their first four series, the Brewers have gone unbeaten in series play, going 5-0-2, including their just-concluded series against the Cubs.

The Brewers will gladly accept their 14-6 run over that 20-games-in-20-days marathon.

Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright is 3-1 with a 4.35 ERA, almost a point higher than his career 3.48 ERA entering the season. But Wainwright believes he uncovered a flaw in his delivery while studying video with Chris Carpenter. ''I finally, absolutely know what I can do to pitch better,'' Wainwright said. In this same notebook, we learn that Carpenter is progressing nicely in his rehab work.

So much for the Pirates' 11-7 start that was backed by solid pitching. They have lost eight straight and 12 of their last 13, Pittsburgh's worst stretch under manager John Russell and the team's worst since a 13-game losing streak under Jim Tracy from June 15-28, 2006. ''We've got guys pitching great, then having one or two bad innings,'' first baseman Adam LaRoche. ''And it's all contagious, both ways. At the beginning of the year, it was all working in our favor.''

Plop, plop, fizz, fizz -- no relief

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Question of the week:

Which of the following Cubs' statistics is the most startling?

1. Their rank of 13th in the National League in hitting, which includes a .237 mark with runners in scoring position?

2. Their No. 13 rank in the NL in pitching (assuming Saturday's debacle dropped them behind San Diego)?

3. Their worst-in-league bullpen ERA of 5.65 and most-in-majors bullpen walks total of 61?

4. The fact they've been outscored this season 146-145?

5. Or the fact they've got a winning record despite all of the above?

Cubs looking up, down

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Finishing off a two-game sweep in Houston, the Cubs have begun showing signs of solving a few of their early season problems but still haven't plugged all their leaks and while others could be about to crack the dike.

The uptick:

No Manny at Wrigley

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The 50-game drug suspension of Manny Ramirez today has two immediate impacts on the Cubs and Cub fans:

First, it means the Los Angeles Dodgers superstar will not be allowed to play this season at Wrigley Field. The Dodgers' only trip to Wrigley is May 28-31. He has played one series at Wrigley this decade, going 3 for 14 with a home run in 2005 with the Red Sox.

Here's a quick glance at what's happening around the National League Central.

In scoring a season-high 15 runs to throttle the Reds, the Brewers have won 12 of their last 15 to stay slightly ahead of the Cubs in the standings. Ryan Braun missed two games over the weekend because of a sore back, but has five homers in his last 14 games, including a grand slam Wednesday against the Reds. After wrapping up their series in Houston tonight against the Astros, the Cubs open a three-game series in Milwaukee on Friday. The Cubs took two of three against the Brewers last month at Miller Park. When manager Lou Piniella concluded his postgame news conference Tuesday, he walked out of the interview room at Wrigley Field and said: ''We'll see everybody in about a week. Hopefully, we win four of five.''

St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz points out that the Cardinals still have plenty of issues, but they also have plenty of time to fix them. It helps being in first place. The Cardinals' Chris Duncan has taken his lumps because of his poor in left field -- after making the transition from first base -- but not only has he been steady at the plate, but Duncan no longer seems like such a liability in the outfield.

Astros ace Roy Oswalt had X-rays on his bruised right index finger, and they were negative, clearing him to make his start Sunday against the Padres. Attached to this Houston Chronicle notebook, check out the video of Cubs fans being interviewed at Minute Maid Park.

After a strong start -- backed by solid pitching -- the Pirates have lost eight of their last nine. They stranded nine runners in the first six innings in a 4-2 loss to the Cardinals on Wednesday. In their last six games, the Pirates have hit just .211. Their average with two outs and runners in scoring position is .222, third-worst in the league.

Meanwhile, former Cubs catcher Michael Barrett says he faces a long road to recovery as he tries to come back from a torn muscle behind his throwing shoulder. It could be months before he rejoins the Blue Jays as their backup catcher.

Keep eye on Cubs' starters

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So far this season, the Cubs' starting rotation has been the backbone of the team's ability to hover just above the .500 mark -- the starters going 11-7, with a passable 4.35 ERA and 21 starts of at least 6 innings out of 27 games.

All of which makes this five-game mini road trip potentially telling for the rest of the first half of the season.

A day after manager Lou Piniella stressed the need for Jeff Samardzija to develop more pitches to set up his fastball, the Cubs returned the young right-hander to Class AAA Iowa today and summoned veteran reliever Chad Fox.

Samardzija, 24, allowed one run, two hits and a walk in one-third of an inning Tuesday against the Giants, pushing his ERA to 8.10. After the outing, Piniella broached the subject of Samardzija's struggles.

''He needs to work on his second and third pitches,'' Piniella said of the former Notre Dame wide receiver. ''It's hard to pitch up here with a fastball only.

''You have to get people off your fastball, whether it's Samardzija or anybody else,'' Piniella said. ''Any pitcher at the big-league level needs to have a second and third pitch that they can rely on and get people off the other pitches. You have to throw awfully hard and locate the ball awfully well just to count on one pitch being your dominant pitch.''

Fox, 38, went 1-0 with a 1.59 ERA and two saves in 11 relief appearances for Iowa this season. He has held opponents to a .211 batting average, striking out 10 and walking three.

Bradley appeal heard

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We may not know the results immediately, but Milton Bradley was to have his appeal of that two-game suspension heard today in Houston, via video conference with a major league baseball mediator (believed to be John McHale).

Bradley, of course, drew the suspension from longtime MLB discipline pal Bob Watson after arguing a called third strike from ump Larry Vanover so vigorously in his first Wrigley at-bat as a Cub that the bill of his helmet made contact with the bill of Vanover's cap in the April 16 incident.

Reds Pirates Baseball_De L.jpgHere's a quick glance at what's happening around the National League Central.

Forget about the Big Red Machine. In Cincinnati, they are trying to be the Little Red Wagon. And the Reds' new approach played out perfectly in a 7-0 victory over the Marlins on Tuesday. ''This win united us,'' manager Dusty Baker said. Remember all the preseason talk of the Central being so weak it will be a cakewalk for the Cubs? Well, the Reds are one team that could throw a roadblock into that plan. The Reds have struggled to score runs, and they don't catch the ball particularly well, but their pitching has carried Bakers team. The Reds enter today with the best ERA in the majors at 3.61. The Reds are also the only team in the majors not to have a blown save.

Just as the Cubs were playing last week with a depleted bench, the Cardinals are doing the same. Manager Tony La Russa will risk having a few extra position players in reserve to keep his bullpen at full strength. Meanwhile, that scary crash into the wall only adds to the interesting story that has been the career of the Cards' Rick Ankiel. ''When I hit the ground, I thought there was a chance I broke my neck or my back,'' he said.

The Cubs open a two-game series tonight against the Astros at Minute Maid Park. Something strange is happening with Astros shortstop Miguel Tejada, who was a key figure in the Mitchell Report on performance-enhancing drugs in baseball. Tejada is still searching for his first home run of 2009. The shortstop has gone 168 at-bats without a homer, but he's still batting .297 and leads the Astros with eight doubles, With the feds closely watching a slugger who hit 34 home runs to win the 2002 AL MVP, it makes you wonder why there has been sudden drop in power. Hmm.

The Brewers beat the Pirates for the 17th consecutive time, though this 8-5 victory required a little bit of sweat from Milwaukee. This is the most prolonged beating one team has given another since the Orioles beat the expansion Royals 23 times in a row from May 10, 1969, to Aug. 2, 1970.

After starting each of the Cubs' first 25 games, shortstop Ryan Theriot got a well-deserved day off today -- at least from the starting lineup. He pinch hit in the eighth inning and flew out to right.

The break should have provided the hot-hitting Theriot some time to think about a new nickname, given his recent status as the Cubs' resident slugger. After all, he has three home runs and eight RBI in the last four games he has started.

Any ideas?

''Not yet,'' Theriot said. ''I wanted one. They were going to call me 'Delicious,' but Nick Swisher's already got that one.''

Delicious? For a home run hitter?

''Nick goes deep,'' Theriot said. ''So I don't know.''

Keep in mind, Theriot hit just one home run all of last season, and his career high is three (in 2007 and 2006). Before the recent hot spell, Theriot had gone 620 at-bats without a home run. That was the third-longest homerless drought among active big leaguers, behind second baseman Miguel Cairo (788) and pitcher Tom Glavine (787). Theriot admits he has enjoyed flexing his muscle the last few days, especially the grand slam he hit Friday against the Marlins.

''More important, we've been winning games,'' he said. ''Yeah, [the grand slam's] cool, but a bases-clearing double probably would have given me the same kind of feeling. We kind of hit a lull in the run-scoring department. Yeah, you enjoy hitting home runs, but it's more important that after every game, you're playing music in the clubhouse than everybody sitting in front of their locker thinking about what they could have done differently to help the team win.''

Manager Lou Piniella has been preaching to Theriot the need to be more aware of instances when he should be driving the ball. Theriot says it's not the first time his manager has sent such a message.

''I can vividly remember Dusty [Baker] telling me to drive the ball,'' he said. ''And I went up and hit a triple the next at-bat. It's hard because going the other way is something that comes naturally to me -- hitting the ball to the opposite field. There are plenty of times when I'm trying to do other things and the ball just goes that way. Having that mind-set of driving the ball a little more has paid off, especially at a time when we needed to score some runs.''

Now we just need to work on that nickname appropriate for a power threat.

Any ideas?

Giants Diamondbacks B_De L.jpgRiding a four-game winning streak, manager Lou Piniella unveiled a lineup this morning straight out of a spring training road game.

No red-hot Ryan Theriot, no Alfonso Soriano, no Aramis Ramirez and no Milton Bradley. About the only regular playing his usual position is first baseman Derrek Lee.

For most of the Cubs' regulars, it's a day of rest against Giants starter Tim Lincecum, the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner.

''Look, it's tough to sit anybody, but the fact remains that nobody is going to play 162 ballgames,'' Piniella said. ''I said that we were going to rest people coming out of spring training, and we've done a pretty good job of it so far.''

Here is Piniella's lineup, which features the starting debuts of Joey Gathright and Bobby Scales.

1. Joey Gathright, center fielder
2. Aaron Miles, shortstop
3. Kosuke Fukudome, right field
4. Derrek Lee, first base
5. Micah Hoffpauir, left field
6. Mike Fontenot, third base
7. Bobby Scales, second base
8. Koyie Hill, catcher
9. Sean Marshall, pitcher

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This page is an archive of entries from May 2009 listed from newest to oldest.

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