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Piniella comes up short with the Zambrano decision
By Barry Rozner | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 10/4/2007 12:49 AM | Updated: 10/4/2007 10:40 AM

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PHOENIX -- Finally.

A Cubs manager has finally said to heck with the history, to blazes with the drought, go scratch your 99-year itch.

After many of his predecessors chose to flaunt it, or at the very least rely on it as some perverse crutch, Lou Piniella threw it under the bus, to the wolves or, if you must, out to the snakes.

Take your pick, but by all means take it somewhere else.

With the media descending like locusts on the Cuddly Little Bears who can't win The Big One, hoping to make it into a national love story, Piniella couldn't give less of a spit.

"This is the 2007 Cubs," Piniella said gruffly Wednesday night when asked if his team feels more pressure because of a century's worth of failure. "We should just be concerned about the 2007 Cubs.

"Nothing more, nothing less.

"What's transpired in the past is really of no significance now."

No, what's significant is what transpired late in Game 1 of the NLDS, which the Cubs now trail by a game after the D'backs scored twice against reliever Carlos Marmol in the seventh and defeated the Cubs 3-1 at Chase Field.

"Listen, this was only the first game of the series. There's a lot of baseball left to play here," Piniella bristled after the game. "Let's not gloom-and-doom this thing."

Piniella's made no shortage of great calls this year, but he came up short Wednesday night when he pulled starter Carlos Zambrano after 6 innings and 85 pitches, undoubtedly with visions of saving Zambrano's arm for Sunday's Game 4, when he wants to bring his ace back early on three days rest.

But with an eye on a long series, Piniella lost sight of the short finish, and with the game tied at 1-1 in the bottom of the seventh, Marmol fell behind 2-1 on third baseman Mark Reynolds with two off-speed pitches that missed badly.

Facing a good, high-fastball hitter, Marmol -- who's been unhittable most of the season -- left a 95-mph heater up in the zone and Reynolds crushed it to deep left center for a 2-1 Arizona lead.

"Marmol couldn't get his breaking ball over today," Piniella said. "But the reason we lost this game was (we got) 1 run on 4 hits. You're not gonna win much (hitting) like that."

Marmol gave up another run and the D'backs' bullpen -- Brandon Lyon and Jose Valverde -- finished it up for the spectacular Brandon Webb, who got the victory while going toe to toe with Zambrano, who was equally brilliant.

This game followed the script almost to perfection, with the two aces squaring off, the D'backs frustrating the Cubs with great defense, and the Arizona bullpen shutting off the Cubs' offense in a low-scoring affair.

And continuing his horrific postseason career, Alfonso Soriano went 0-for-5, left two runners in scoring position and struck out once, looking absolutely helpless against Webb, who threw slower and slower with each mighty swing from Soriano.

Soriano is now a lifetime .225 hitter in the postseason with 46 strikeouts in 151 at-bats (39 games), and at the plate as the tying run in the ninth, facing Valverde -- who led the majors with 47 saves in 2007 -- the Cubs' $136-million man grounded weakly to short for a force that ended the game.

Meanwhile, the heart of the Cubs order was 1-for-12 with 6 strikeouts, swinging mostly for the fences and coming up mostly with air, which is what slugging teams often do against talented postseason pitching staffs.

"We talked coming into this series about how we needed to be able to hit their pitchers," Piniella said. "Today, we didn't. Tomorrow, hopefully we will."

As discouraging as were the Cubs' hitters, and Marmol's first playoff appearance, Zambrano's performance was very good news.

Despite a few childish outbursts, he was able to control his temper and the Arizona lineup, as the Cubs encountered a truly hostile environment for the first time in years.

"This was only the first game," Piniella repeated. "Let's see how this turns out."

It's true that it's just one game and the only thing this loss means is that the series is destined to go long. The D'backs were supposed to win this one at home -- actually had to win this one at home -- with a Cy Young winner on the hill.

So this defeat doesn't have anything to do with the team's wretched history, and Piniella has already dismissed it and moved on to another game.

"We have a chance to win the World Series and that's what we're all here for," Piniella said. "We're here to win it now. We can't do anything about all those other years, and we can't do anything about a game that's already over."