The Cubs ended their mild two game swoon against the soon to be former World Champions with yet another one-run victory, giving them a 14-16 record in that bit of baseball whimsy. The game was harmless enough, Zambrano picked up his NL leading thirteenth win, lowered his ERA to 3.65 and took 117 pitches to not even make it through seven innings. I think we've seen that movie before. It did mark Derrek Lee's triumphant return to the lineup and he was kind enough to plate a particularly useful insurance run in the 9th. An insurance run that was very much needed with the return of the Ryan Dempster Experience
back in the closer role.
Handed a two-run lead, Dempster quickly hung a meatball to Yadier Molina to leadoff the inning, immediately putting the tying run up to the plate. A couple outs later, he gets Ryan Ludwick into an 0-2 hole before meatball number two is lined into left field, scoring a run after a Soriano bobble and bringing up Mr. All-World Albert Pujols. And any strategy that involves having to pitch with Albert Pujols representing the winning run isn't a good one. Then of course the Cubs had been dancing with this devil a few times already.
In the fifth, after a Skip Shumaker triple gave the Cardinals the lead, Pujols came up with one out and first base open. That would be the Pujols hitting 429/545/1602 going into the game ever since the All-Star Break. That seemed like the no-brainer of no-brainers in terms of an intentional walk. But after a pow-wow on the mound with Lou, Z went all in and Pujols popped out on the very first pitch. A Chris Duncan strikeout later and the Cubs escaped further damage. Impressive.
The seventh inning proved to be even more harrowing. Z started the inning but would not finish and two relievers later his namesake of the Marmol variety had Skip Shumaker set-up to end the inning. But the re-re-re-return of Ronny Cedeno seemed vaguely similar to last five times we went through this and he booted the inning ending groundball that brought up Mr. Pujols once again with an opportunity to make life miserable for us Cubs fans. The intentional walk seemed a little less obvious this time since it would have put the winning run in scoring position. On the other hand, play enough hands of Texas Hold 'Em against Johnny Chan
and you're bound to lose a few. Yet once again the Cubs chose to attack Pujols and yet once again they escaped the inning without further damage. Most impressive.
By the time the ninth rolled around, Pujols was hopefully going to be a non-factor as he was due up fifth in the inning. But as described earlier, Dempster wasn't going to allow this one to be boring.
Sidenote to all current and potential Cubs closer: I prefer my ninth innings to be boring once you're put in the game.
With Ludwick representing the tying run, an intentional walk putting him on second wouldn't have been the best idea. On the other hand, thinking you'll get Albert Pujols three straight times in crucial situations isn't a good idea either. But Dempster prevailed as Pujols once again went meekly into the night. As Harry use to say - Cubs Win! Cubs Win!
The moral of this story though is to applaud Lou and the pitchers for not backing down to Pujols (which would be the complete opposite of what I was doing in my head when he came up to bat). One of the many things that bugged me to no end during Bonds' incredible run in the early 2000's was that managers and pitchers were afraid to challenge him. And I think the managers were driving the fraidy cat train about 90% of the time. It's far easier after the game for a manager to not have to answer why he let Bonds beat him, then to challenge his pitchers and Bonds. Not to mention it seemed like a terrible message and a real confidence killer to your pitchers by telling them to walk or pitch around Bonds just about every single time. Letting your pitchers know you don't think they can get guys out, doesn't seem like a real solid long-term strategy or much of a character builder. So I'm glad Lou showed the confidence in his pitchers to go after Pujols, certainly a lot more confidence in them than I had last night. ¡¡¡Huevos grandes indeed!!!