Sunday, July 15, 2007

Piniella's changes lead Cubs to sweep

The main difference between Piniella and Baker? Lou shakes things up when things aren't working. Coming into Sunday's game with an 8-14 record against lefties and having lost the last three games to left handed pitching, Piniella decided to make a change.

The lineup saw Alfonso Soriano in the fifth slot for the first time in the year, with youngsters Ryan Theriot and Mike Fontenot at the top. Was that the difference? We'll never know, but we do know that it certainly didn't hurt. Battling back from a 5-0 decifit, the Cubs scored 7 runs in the second, third, and fourth innings chasing lefty Wandy Rodriguez from the game early.

The Astros did get a sixth run off of Marquis, but five shutout innings from the bullpen gave the Cubs a win and the sweep.

That wasn't the first time that Piniella has tried to shake things up. In May, when neither Lee nor Ramirez were hitting, Piniella decided to put Floyd in the clean-up spot to break apart the righties. When Ryan Theriot's been hot, he's gotten playing time. When Mike Fontenot's been hot, he's gotten playing time. Lou Piniella has even put guys like Cesar Izturis and Jacque Jones in situations recently that helped them contribute to the club.

These are all moves that Dusty Baker wouldn't have made. Whether or not these changes are smart, Piniella has realized when things aren't working and realized that trying new things probably won't hurt the club anymore than it's already hurting.

Another difference between Piniella and Baker? Lou knows how to light a fire under his team and he knows what to do to give his guys a chance to win. The Cubs are 25-12 after June 2, the game in which Piniella got ejected. That's not a coincidence.

If you remember, June 1 was when the Carlos Zambrano and Michael Barrett got into the dugout brawl and it was also the date of the fifth straight lost. On the verge of their sixth straight loss and hitting a new low the next day, Piniella had to do something different.

I'm not saying Piniella's tirade was the reason for the 25 wins since then. I'm not even saying that any single one of the wins can be directly attributed to the incident. What I am saying, though, is that Piniella's act (yes, it was an act) took the story line away from the Cubs' poor play and the dugout brawl. It would've been very easy for the team to completely unravel after the Zambrano incident, especially if that was the media's focus on the team. But Piniella stole the negative attention, thereby increasing the likelihood of winning the next game. With more wins came more confidence. With more confidence came better baseball.

Now, the Cubs have made up 4 games in just over a month and are within 3 1/2 games of the division lead!

Speaking of better baseball, the Cubs have looked like a completely new ballclub. They're playing defense now! Down 5-0, Ryan Theriot's defensive stop to end the top of the second inning kept the Cubs in the ballgame and allowed the comeback to happen.

Another diving stop by Aramis Ramirez in the fourth inning kept the Astros from breaking the door down again, while Mark DeRosa's over-the-shoulder catch in the seventh prevented another run from scoring. Catcher Geovany Soto even got in on the act, blocking several balls in the dirt with the bases loaded to preserve the tight 7-6 lead.

After the game, reliever Michael Wuertz had good things to say about Soto. Things that he probably wouldn't have been able to say about Michael Barrett. "He's great back there," said Wuertz. "All of our catchers are great blocking balls. It's fun knowing you can bury a slider and he'll be able to catch it."

Fun. Yup, that's the right word. It's fun watching the Cubs play. And they're playing with confidence.

"The amazing thing about this team right now is that we were down 5-0 and no one in that dugout doubted that we could put five runs up on the board," said Mark DeRosa.

I was doubting that they could get even three off of Rodriguez, let alone five. Looks like DeRosa proved me wrong...and I'm glad.

What a relief: Lou Piniella used the bullpen masterfully in the final game of the weekend series against Houston. You had a feeling that with Wandy Rodriguez out of the game, scoring runs would be harder. You had a feeling that preventing the Astros from scoring the tying- and go-ahead runs in the fifth inning was important. So did Lou. With runners on base and two outs, Lou Piniella used his ace reliever Carlos Marmol to hold the lead. With runners on base and two outs again in the seventh, Piniella went to Michael Wuertz just in the knick of time.

The taxed bullpen does mean one thing though. Because you're never sure whether or not Rich Hill can go deep into a ballgame, the Cubs made a roster move, recalling right-hander Billy Petrick. The corresponding roster move, designating Rob Bowen for assignment, kind of surprised me.

This makes me think that the Michael Barrett trade really was an attempt at addition by subtraction. We don't know what kind of a player Kyler Burke will turn out to be, but that's precisely my point. Bowen was the only Major Leaguer we got in the deal, and now he's exposed to the waiver wire. Koyie Hill could've been optioned back to Iowa and he would've been back by September 1, at the latest. That would've allowed the Cubs to keep both Hill and Bowen, instead Bowen must clear waivers before we send him down to Iowa.

With Bowen making just over the league minimum, there is no reason why 29 teams would pass on a defensive catcher like Bowen. If that is the case, Bowen will join the likes of Matt Lawton among the leaderboard for shortest stints with the Cubs.

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