Southpaw Struggles

Game Eighty-Seven – Cubs 2 Pirates 6
WP – Shane Youman (2-0) LP – Carlos Zambrano (10-7) Save – None

Lou Piniella stated in his pre-game show before Sunday’s game that he will be spending the All-Star break down at his home in Florida and planned to relax for a couple of days. Hopefully he will come back from his retreat with a game plan for his team on how to beat left handed pitchers. The Cubs finished the 7-game road trip, and first half of the season, with a 4-3 record with all 3 losses coming at the hands of lefties. The Cubs predominately right-handed lineup has not had the success one would expect from a team with so much talent from the right side of the plate. Shane Youman pitched a fine game but it was by no means a dominating performance. The Pirates rookie allowed just 2 runs on 6 hits with a couple of walks and strikeouts in 6 innings of work. The Cubs record against lefty starters fell to 8-14 on the season, worst in the National League.

Carlos Zambrano finished his first half the way it started, with a loss. Zambrano was not sharp, pitched deep into counts and did not have the same command he had been displaying in his last 6 starts leading up to Sunday. Although Zambrano had problems finding the strike zone early on, he was effective nonetheless and kept his team in the game. Bobby Howry gave up 3 runs on 4 hits in the bottom of the 8th inning that gave the Pirates the cushion they needed in the 9th to take the rubber game of the series.

It is very easy to sit back and nitpick what is right and what is wrong with a team, especially on a daily basis. Piniella said the ultimate baseball cliche before Sunday’s game, “It is a long season, 162 games. It is a marathon and not a sprint.” And he is absolutely right. His team started the season with tons of expectations and did not deliver but he righted the proverbial ship and has it going in the right direction. Think about it. When this season started the Cubs were Jim Hendry’s team, he assembled it and gave Piniella a bunch of pieces and said, put it together, make it work and make it win. Slowly but surely Piniella is making it his team. While the Faithful may not agree with his decisions and moves, the bottom line is they are winning ballgames….to the tune of 22 of their last 34. The Cubs are playing better fundamental baseball and to everyone’s surprise winning without the benefit of the long ball. The second half should be very interesting and for the first time in a couple of years, there will be scoreboard watching involved.

Carlos Zambrano did not bring his A-game on Sunday and early on his performance was very reminiscent of Opening Day. Zambrano could not find the strike zone, at one point he had thrown more balls than strikes, and his early command problems led to him being lifted after the 7th inning for Bobby Howry. His elevated pitch count (122 pitches, 70 for strikes) forced Piniella’s hand to the pen, typically not a move when a team’s ace only allows 3 runs on 4 hits in the first 7 innings of a game.

The Cubs were unable to give Zambrano an early lead to work with after Alfonso Soriano was picked off in the 1st inning. He retired the first two batters he faced before walking Adam LaRoche. On a 0-2 pitch to Xavier Nady, he hit him but retired Jason Bay on a pop out to Koyie Hill. Zambrano retired Jose Bautista to start the 2nd but gave up a walk to Ronnie Paulino. Jack Wilson followed with a grounder to Derrek Lee, but the Cubs were not able to turn the double play and Zambrano went to a 3-2 count on the pitcher before retiring Youman on a fly out to left. The missed double play was not the defense’s fault, it was a difficult play but the walk coupled with the deep count on Youman led to Zambrano’s high pitch count.

Nate McLouth led off the 3rd with a walk and after Freddy Sanchez flied out for the first out of the inning, Zambrano’s pitching count was….49 pitches thrown, 23 strikes, 26 balls. With LaRoche at the plate, McLouth stole 2nd and advanced on Koyie Hill’s throwing error (Theriot misplayed the ball as well) to 3rd. LaRoche worked a full count after starting 0-2 but looked at strike three for the second out. Zambrano got ahead of Nady but on a 1-2 pitch he dumped a single into right center for the first Pirate hit of the game, McLouth scored to tie the game. Jason Bay then hit his first home run since June 22nd over the centerfield for the eventual game winner.

With 2 outs in the 4th Zambrano gave up a single to the pitcher, Shane Youman. McLouth followed with what appeared to be a double of the right field wall but Mark DeRosa made a great throw back to 2nd to throw out McLouth and end the inning.

Zambrano retired the next 9 batters he faced with 3 of the last 6 being strikeouts. The last 3 innings Zambrano pitched he was able to get into a rhythm very similar to the one that saw him win 5 of his previous 6. When Zambrano left the game, the Cubs were down 3-2 and appeared to be in good shape for a late inning comeback against the Pirates bullpen.

Bobby Howry gave up back-to-back singles on his first two pitches of the 8th to Freddy Sanchez and Adam LaRoche. Howry got ahead in the count, 0-2, to Nady before giving up a single to left to load the bases. Jason Bay singled to left on a 3-1 pitch to score Sanchez and LaRoche. With Nady on 3rd, Bautista hit a sacrifice fly to right to score the Pirates 6th run of the afternoon.

Aramis Ramirez led off the 2nd inning with a bloop single to right and Mark DeRosa followed with a single to left. Mike Fontenot attempted to sacrifice bunt them into scoring position but Bautista picked the ball up on the 3rd base line instead of letting the ball roll foul….the bases were loaded with no outs. Angel Pagan hit a sacrifice fly to right center to score Ramirez and DeRosa advanced to 3rd on the play. But Koyie Hill flied out to shallow center for the second out and DeRosa was unable to tag up and score. Zambrano grounded out to 2nd to end the inning.

After the 2nd inning the Cubs offense made it very easy on the rookie. They showed little patience at the plate, with the exception of Ryan Theriot who walked twice on the afternoon. Youman retired 8 in a row between the Theriot walk in the 3rd and the Theriot walk to lead off the 6th.

Derrek Lee followed Theriot with a single and the Cubs had runners on 1st and 2nd with no outs in the 6th. Ramirez then hit into a 5-3 double play but DeRosa doubled home Lee with the second run of the game. Mike Fontenot worked the count to 3-2 before swinging at ball 4 and grounding out to 2nd to end the inning,

Shawn Chacon retired the 6 batters he faced and after the Pirates took the big lead in the 8th, only Aramis Ramirez could manage a hit in the 9th….a lead off bloop double but he was stranded at 2nd when Pagan flied out to center to end the game.

The loss ended the Cubs first half of the season but a four day break looks like what Lou Piniella’s crew needs.

The entire roster, with the exceptions of Derrek Lee and Alfonso Soriano will be off until Thursday afternoon when the players will workout before opening a 10-game homestand. The Cubs will start the second half with the Houston Astros and Carlos Zambrano is scheduled to pitch the opening game of the series. Piniella announced the Cubs will start the second half with a rotation of: Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, Jason Marquis, Rich Hill and Sean Marshall.

Quote of the Day

"Baseball, just a game as simple as a ball and a bat. Yet, as complex as the American spirit it symbolizes." - Ernie Harwell
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