Why the Cubs lost to the Diamondbacks

On paper, the Cubs have a better team than the Diamondbacks. Of course, as they say, that’s why they play the games.

I started my previous column by outlining the Cubs’ starting pitching advantage. I saw Webb as slightly better than Carlos Zambrano, but Ted Lilly and Rich Hill as significantly better than Doug Davis and Livan Hernandez.

I was correct on the first count, as Webb bested Z by one scoreless inning. I don’t agree with all of Lou Piniella’s decisions, but it’s silly to second-guess taking Zambrano out at 85 pitches. The media has latched onto this choice, repeating ad nauseum that Lou shouldn’t have played for game four before winning game one. Really, it was a fine decision regardless of Zambrano’s pitch count. This year, Carlos Marmol has been lights out, much better than Zambrano. There was no reason to believe Marmol couldn’t handle Mark Reynolds, Jeff Salazar, and Chris Snyder as well as Zambrano or better.

But Marmol still allowed the home run to Reynolds, and that’s what counts. I can’t measure it or prove it, but Marmol looked flat-out nervous out there. I love using numbers to explain and predict, but intangibles make the game great.

(Side note: Piniella has also been called out for letting Zambrano swing away with no one out and a man on second. Z had doubled in his previous at-bat and ripped a lineout in this one. You can only call this a mistake in hindsight.)

The Cubs only scored one run in game one. I’m not trying to take credit away from Webb, but he didn’t look incredibly sharp despite his line. I think the Rockies would’ve scored three or four runs off him that night.

Game two had two culprits for me, one obvious and one not.

Ted Lilly, for lack of a better phrase, crapped the bed. So much for the value of playoff experience, right? He looked terrible from the get-go and cemented himself in Cubs lore by spiking his glove after Chris Young homered. One of the TBS announcers said it was a Little League type move. A few more intangibles may explain the meltdown: Lilly looked downright frightened out there, and Geovany Soto’s inexperience couldn’t have helped. It might’ve made sense to start Kendall in game two and pair Geo with Hill. Soto and Hill had teamed up previously in the minors.

Game two is where I think Lou failed. He just didn’t manage it with a sense of urgency. TBS interviewed him in the dugout, and he reminded us how Lilly had been knocked around early but sometimes recovered to give five or six decent innings. Why take that gamble here? Lou played this like a regular season game instead of a must-win. He should’ve removed Lilly for a pinch-hitter in the top of the fourth. Instead he let Lilly whiff to strand a runner. Then he pulled Lilly the following inning for his worst reliever, Kevin Hart.

I would’ve pinch-hit for Lilly with my best available player, and then pushed Bob Howry, Kerry Wood, Carlos Marmol, and Ryan Dempster to their limits to finish out the game. The Cubs needed to win that game.

Game three put on display another common theme, Cub bats going ice cold at the wrong times. The Cubs hit into about 300 double plays; Livan Hernandez worked out of jams all night. Rich Hill disappointed, but a good team would’ve scored five runs off Hernandez and made a game of it.

Alfonso Soriano hit two singles with one walk in 15 plate appearances in the series. Derrek Lee was 4 for 12 (all singles) with a walk. Aramis Ramirez, 0 for 12 with a walk. The Cubs paid these guys $30 million this year, and they all had decent seasons. They all just went cold at the wrong time. I don’t want to deny credit to Diamondbacks pitchers but Soriano and Ramirez wouldn’t have hit Jose Lima. It wasn’t an issue of passion, or choking, or whatever. The Cubs’ Big Three just went cold for a three-game stretch. The same trio could rake in next year’s Division Series.

You have to give props to the lights out Arizona pen, which lived up to its billing with 8.1 scoreless innings. Jose Valverde was flat-out nasty. These guys really made each contest a six-inning game.

Augie Ojeda, I have no explanation for. But I equated Stephen Drew with Ryan Theriot, and that was misleading. Theriot’s played at the top of his abilities this year, Drew at the bottom. Drew has a much higher ceiling and his talent shined through. Additionally, Chris Young’s 2007 OBP problem wasn’t apparent in this series and will probably fade in 2008. He’s a bona fide star in the making.

You can talk about the D’Backs’ good fortune to have gotten this far, but the team is brimming with real talent. Some of the luck may dry up next year and the kids could still improve enough to take them past 90 wins.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

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