Lou Piniella’s Disastrous 2007 NLDS Blunder Will Cost the Chicago Cubs

October 4, 2007

By the sixth inning of the Chicago Cubs – Arizona Diamondbacks playoff game, the third playoff game of the day (does life get any better!), I anticipated a game for the ages. Two of the games’ workhorses, Carlos Zambrano of the Cubs and Brandon Webb of the Diamondbacks, the reigning NL Cy Young winner, were battling the opposing lineup…and each other.

I foresaw matching zeros until extra innings appeared. Two heavyweight fighters going toe-to-toe, mano-y-mano for the duration; both men standing, but only one bloodied at the end.

I just wanted to watch and enjoy the game, not to analyze everything involved. I do too much of that in my life already. My only thought was could I stay up long enough to witness the ending to this probable gem of a game?

Leave it then to Lou Piniella, the Cubs’ free agent manager, to force me, at nearly midnight, to think more than I wanted.

When Piniella inexplicably pulled his starter, Carlos Zambrano, at the end of a “monster” day at work (6 innings, 1 ER, 85 pitches), he created an atmosphere of confusion not only with me, but also with the players. Second baseman Mark DeRosa was perplexed and so was Diamondbacks second baseman Augie Ojeda.

“I was surprised,” Ojeda said. “He’s (Zambrano) usually a guy who goes 120, 125 (pitches). And especially in the playoffs. It was his game. He was pitching great. Six innings, 85 pitches, that’s not bad. He’s usually a guy who throws a lot of pitches. I don’t know what they were thinking there, but it kind of helped us out because he was pitching a great game.”

The Cubs players in the dugout heard the news before the rest of the nation:  Piniella was going to give his “workhorse” a short night, saving him for a possible Game 4. Reliever Carlos Marmol started the 7th inning and immediately gave up the go ahead run when Mark Reynolds homered.

While Marmol has routinely pitched during the 7th inning this season (a specialist if you will), this is the playoffs and a game where your ace is dominating. 

When your team has a chance to win a Game One on the road, the starting pitcher should be allowed, check that – he should be REQUIRED to go more than 6 innings.

The only time your ace needs to be removed from a playoff game is when he is getting pounded, which Zambrano was not. Zambrano tried to plead his case for one more inning (how about 2 or 3 more?), but was rebuffed. When questioned after the game, Piniella said, “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, and I’ve got confidence in them, period, end of story.”

The point here is not that the bullpen has “done it all year,” but in a tie game against the Diamondback’s ace, you need to worry about the current game and not about the future! There is no guarantee there will even be a fourth game!

Zambrano has been a workhorse all year, throwing more than 100 pitches in 26 of his starts, reaching a high of 127. Why did the Cubs give Zambrano a contract extension this year worth $91.5 million? They gave him that money to be the #1 man on the staff, and a #1 pitcher is supposed to pitch deep into post season games.

Throw the pitch count clickers out the window in the post season; only real men need apply to pitch in October!

What Piniella’s decision also did, besides give the Diamondback’s  a two-run lead, was allow Webb to only throw 7 innings, giving the Arizona ace an early night, too. Unfortunately for Cubs fans, Webb’s early night came on a victorious evening for his team as he left with a lead. While I doubt now that the need should arise, Webb should be ready for a Game 5, on full rest and in his own ballpark.

However, Webb’s next start will likely be in Game 1 of the NLCS.

Why would Piniella want Zambrano for Game 4 on three days’ rest anyway? Zambrano’s only start this season on short rest (In fact, it was Zambrano’s only start EVER on three days’ rest) was September 18th against the Cincinnati Reds where he was pummeled over 5 1/3 innings.

He lost 5-2, allowing 7 hits, 3 walks and 4 ER’s while whiffing only one batter. He obviously did not take too well to the short rest, and that loss pulled the Cubs back into a virtual tie for first with the Milwaukee Brewers.

The next day, Ted Lilly pitched on three days’ rest, winning his game. According to GM Jim Hendry, Piniella wanted his two aces to go on short rest the balance of the season. Hendry agreed, saying “It’s part of the game. It’s September. You cut back on the side stuff in between (starts) and go after it.” After evaluating Zambrano’s performance, the experiment was quickly extinguished.

So the question remains, why want to pitch Big Z on three days’ rest during the playoffs? Wouldn’t you want your ace to be available for a possible Game 5? Does the manager not have any confidence in his other starters? No one could find out because at the post game press conference Piniella became defensive and wouldn’t answer any more questions on the subject.

But, when you win a World Series 17 years ago with the 1990 Reds, you can pretty much refuse to answer questions about the biggest bonehead decision of the year, and in Piniella’s career.

By the way, since that 1990 season Piniella is only 50 games over .500 as a manager, and that includes the record 116 win season with Seattle in 2001. He is not that good as a manager, ask the people of Tampa.

It’s interesting that Piniella is so strict with his pitchers because he is from the Old School of baseball, learning under managers Billy Martin, Bob Lemon, Dick Howser and Jack McKeon. All these managers allowed their starters to throw the ball deep into games, even when their team was behind in the game.

Besides the reduced starts during the season in today’s game compared to years past, managers not allowing a starter to go deep into a game even when the team is behind is the main reason why 20 game winners are practically extinct.

Thirty years ago Piniella was a member of the 1977 New York Yankees, featured this summer on ESPN’s made for TV movie, “The Bronx is Burning.” Led by Reggie Jackson and a strong starting pitching staff, these Yankees beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in six games for the World Series Championship.

Besides Game 1 of the 1977 World Series, when Don Gullett “only” went 8 1/3 innings, every starting pitcher for the winning team went the entire distance!

Mike Torrez started Game 6 for the Yankees, throwing 119 pitches in his series-clinching complete game. This was after 3 days rest when he beat the Dodgers in Game 3, throwing 125 pitches. The only time a starting pitcher that series was removed was when he began to get hit hard.

One of the videos you continually see from that series is the last play of the World Series when pinch-hitter Lee Lacy popped up a bunt, which the ball caught by Torrez. At this point, the Dodgers already had a run in during the ninth inning and two men were already on base! If Lacy reached base, the tying run in leadoff hitter Davey Lopes, would have come to the plate.

Do you really think any of today’s managers would have let Torrez start the 9th inning of that game, let alone finish it up in that situation? Absolutely not. It much easier for today’s manager to go to his bullpen, no matter the result, and say, as Piniella said Wednesday night “…they have done it all year…”

Because of the money involved, and the dearth of good starting pitching, managers and organizations have been babying starting pitchers for the last decade. I can understand during the first week or two during the season when the arms are not yet fully strengthened and the weather might not be conducive to long stints, the starters can be brought along more slowly.

But when October arrives and the playoffs are here, that is when the real money is earned. Last night Piniella should have remembered back 30 years to those 1977 Yankees, starter Mike Torrez and the other men Billy Martin pitched in that series.

 Piniella should have let his horse Carlos Zambrano go the distance, like Josh Beckett did about three hours earlier for the Boston Red Sox. Remember that in baseball only real men need apply for work in October.

Maybe Piniella filled out the wrong application.