Cubs manager Lou Piniella won the 1990 World Series for the National League as the manager of the Cincinnati Reds, but you would never have known it from the Cubs' 3-1 loss at the hands of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Pretty much everyone assumed that a matchup between Brandon Webb and Carlos Zambrano would produce a low-scoring game. So in the top of the 5th, down one run with no outs and the pitcher at bat, one would expect a bunt. Piniella instead elected to have his pitcher swing away into a weak line out.
Yes, Carlos Zambrano hit .247 with 2 homers and 5 RBI this year. Yes, he has been a good hitter throughout his career. And yes, he did lace a double off Brandon Webb in his first at bat of the game.
But even though he is a good hitting pitcher, Big Z has whiffed 151 times in 411 regular season at bats, producing a career .580 OPS. Star hitters around the league did not fare well against the Diamondbacks' ace, yet Piniella gambled that a pretty good hitting pitcher could do what Alfonso Soriano, Derrek Lee, and Aramis Ramirez could not do.
Soriano's deep flyout in the next at bat would have tied the game at that point. Only a manager who had spent his past 13 seasons in the National League would not have played small ball in a 1-0 game against one of the best pitchers in baseball.
But Piniella's National League ignorance did not end there. The very next inning, the Cubs collected two singles and two walks against a suddenly struggling Brandon Webb. Zambrano came to the plate again, this time with the bases juiced and two men out. As well as Zambrano was pitching, a strong case could be made to leave the ace in to hit. That case cannot be made, however, if the plan was to let Zambrano pitch just one more inning and 85 pitches total, anyway.
"I'm bringing back the pitcher on three days' rest on Sunday, and I took a shot with my bullpen," Piniella said. "It didn't work today. They've done it all year. I've got confidence in them. Period. End of the story."
Which is fine, but then why not let one of the Cubs' bench players with a history of success against Brandon Webb - Daryle Ward, Ronny Cedeno, or Mike Fontenot - take that bases loaded at bat in the sixth? Sweet Lou had only enough confidence for the bullpen to go three innings, not four?
In the opposite dugout, Arizona manager Bob Melvin seemed to push all the right buttons. He stuck with his ace in that troublesome 6th inning, even though he had dependable reliever Tony Pena ready in the bullpen. Webb went on to retire the top of the Cubs' order 1-2-3 in the 7th before departing. He departed in the bottom of the inning, when Conor Jackson smacked a pinch-hit sacrifice fly to drive in an insurance run.
Basically, Bob Melvin knew when to pinch hit for his pitcher and Piniella did not. Piniella also showed a surprising aversion to small ball against the likely runner up for the NL Cy Young Award. This was Lou's fourth season as a National League manager, but that was not evident from the way he went about Game 1. With two evenly matched teams that are likely to play low-scoring games, managerial moves become so much more important.
If the Cubs want to hang in this series, Lou Piniella is going to need to start behaving like the veteran manager, and Bob Melvin is going to have to start acting like Piniella's old protégé. Perhaps, as so often s the case, the student has surpassed the master, and Bob Melvin is ready to lead his young club into the promised land.
Postseason games do not count for Manager of the Year Award voting, but if they did, Bob Melvin would have just strengthened his credentials.
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