What a heartbreaker.
Looking back at Opening Day 2008, it would be easy for fans to question how Piniella handled the pitching staff, especially towards the end of the game. But, there really wasn't much Lou could've done with the situation; he pushed all of the right buttons and unfortunately for us, the players just couldn't execute on the field.
I know people will call for Kerry Wood's head. I know people will want Carlos Marmol to be the closer, but the fact that Marmol was even in consideration for the closing job was outrageous. Marmol is nothing more than an unproven journeyman who had one career year last year. To hand him the reins of the closing duties for the defending NL Central Champions is a ridiculous thought. Personally, I would've preferred Howry (actually, everyone knows that I would've left Dempster right where he is), but Wood was an equally acceptable choice. Let's not jump down the their throats; they'll be incredibly valuable pieces of the puzzle down the road.
But, there were many other things that could've changed the outcome of today's game, and it's clear that the Cubs are either still trying to shake off of the rust from Spring Training or have picked up right where they left off in 2007 as far as athletic effort.
With Fukudome on 3rd base in the second inning, Felix Pie struck out on a Sheets breaking ball in the dirt to end the inning, but didn't get a quick start out of the box. Even after the late break, Pie barely jogged down the first base line only to have an errant Kendall throw pull the first baseman off of the bag. Fielder calmly stepped off the bag, received the throw, and kicked the cushion a full step ahead of Pie. Now, what if Pie was running at full speed right away? Does he beat the throw? Does Kendall throw it away? Who knows?
Geovany Soto also showed that he had a long way to go. With two men on and just one out, Soto stepped up the plate in the 7th inning to try to break what was then a scoreless tie. Kendall blocks a pitch in the dirt and the ball caroms off of Soto in the box. Meanwhile, Fukudome reads a wild pitch and starts to break for third, only to be trapped in no man's land when the ball lands in front of Kendall's feet. Now what's my point? Veteran ballplayers are usually good at motioning to the baserunners whether to stay or go on a pitch in the dirt, but Soto stood there motionless. Again, I'm not saying that Fukudome wouldn't have been picked off had Soto told him to stay put; in fact, Fukudome got such a great jump, he was probably forty feet off the bag by the time the ball hit Soto. But, the least Soto could do is inform his teammates as to the location of the baseball.
Also, in the tenth inning, Soto took a roundabout route to a Braun pop fly with two men out in the inning. Again, the play didn't seem to hurt us directly, as Braun was later fouled out to Fukudome (who, by the way, never gave up on the ball because he knew which way the wind was blowing), but Soto again showed that he definitely could use some improvement on the more subtle aspects of the game. Everyone in the ballpark (and most of us at home) knew that the ball was going to land down the third base line. Everyone but Soto.
After all, in the bottom half of the same inning, veteran catcher Jason Kendall quickly accounted for the wind on a Soriano foul out and was positioned perfectly by the time the ball reached ground level again.
The team also needs to work on infield communication. On a play to begin the seventh inning, a pop up near the mound caused a collision between Lee and Zambrano, which eventually led the early exit of our pitcher. Granted, I'm not saying this changes the outcome of the game either. Had Zambrano tossed eight scoreless innings, I still turn the ball over to Wood in the ninth and Howry in the tenth. But what is clear is that something went wrong. We certainly don't want our all-star first baseman clipping our ace pitcher every time a pop fly is hit on the infield.
So maybe Piniella can be blamed for the out-of-game ways he handled his team. Certainly, it's his responsibility to make sure that the players have all these things sorted out before they break camp. (Or at the very least, his responsibility to make sure someone else gets it sorted out.) But, Piniella made all of the right in-game decisions.
Now only if we could've gotten Fukudome up to the plate in the tenth...