Thinking positive as his counselor no doubt advised him, Carlos Zambrano no doubt looked at the start of the seventh inning Thursday as a new day in his quarrelsome Cubs career.
Big Z had allowed just one run despite walking six in the same number of innings. He was in line for his first Wrigley Field win since coming back from a long time-out due to anger-management therapy after his June 25 dugout tirade at U.S. Cellular Field. Crack lefty reliever Sean Marshall was coming in to protect his 2-1 lead, and Carlos Marmol could follow him for the save.
But soon he'd witness something goofier than his typical on-field historioncs or dugout/clubhouse rumbles with Michael Barrett. A season that has spiraled out of control also has gotten entertainingly bad.
We old timers would call it the Keystone Kops Cubs. 21st Century youth, uneducated in silent-movie history, would brand it Comedy Central. Whatever you call it, it's the only way to get through the sorry end of a season in which empty bleacher benches, not human flesh, are getting sun-drenched in large numbers.
No doubt showing the effects of his heavy workload, Marshall allowed three runs via four hits and a walk before the fun began. As the Pads dashed about the bases, Chase Headley ended up on third and Will Venable at first. Chris Denorfia then grounded to third baseman Aramis Ramirez, who threw home to catcher Koyie Hill. He ran Headley back to third and tagged both him and Venable, who had raced around from first and parked himself on the base. Headley was ruled out, as the lead runner usually is.
Hill started walking away from third toward the mound with the ball in his glove while making a modest gesture with his arm. But he did not call time with a gesture noticeable to home plate ump D.J. Reyburn or third-base ump Fieldin Culbreth.
The alert Venable then dashed toward home. Surprised, Hill at first double-clutched, but finally got off a throw. Venable slid in under first baseman Xavier Nady’s tag at home for the fourth run of the inning. Pitcher Justin Berg had hung back toward third near Hill, also assuming time had been called.
Manager Lou Piniella said Hill should have held up both arms to emphatically indicate he was calling time. Hill agreed, taking the blame for the goof-up.
“I felt like I gestured time out, like I always gesture time out,” he said. “In that situation, I need to be a little bit more emphatic about it, just to make sure, because you got guys scattered all over the field. I thought we had the play taken care of.”
The Padres were more alert than the Cubs.
“You never assume that anyone is going to call timeout and right away I noticed there wasn’t anyone [covering home],” Venable said. “I wasn’t too confident about going and then Hoffy [third-base coach Glenn Hoffman] mentioned nonchalantly that timeout hadn’t been called, so I just broke for home and was able to squeak in there.
“It was a lot closer than I thought it would be. I wasn’t really checking out where Nady was. I knew the pitcher and the catcher were out of the play. I was fortunate that I was able to sneak in there. Nady made a great play.”
The old-timers in the pressbox immediately remembered a rundown-gone-bad that resulted in the only run of the game in a 1-0 Cardinals win on May 24, 1974 at Wrigley Field. Ted Simmons got caught in a ninth-inning rundown with third baseman Matt Alexander chasing him plateward. The catch was neither pitcher Rick Reuschel nor catcher Tom Lundstedt covered home plate. The speedy Alexander was gaining quickly on the dreadnaught Simmons, who simply crossed the plate before he could be overtaken.
Only with the Cubs. Only in a lost season.
And only Zambrano, in keeping with the zaniness of the afternoon, could profess not to be worried about his excess of walks.
"I've been saying since the beginning of my career that walks don't bother me," he said.
Did Big Z ask his right shoulder, which has aged prematurely from the huge number of extra pitches? But that has been fodder for other columns. Let's stay on the lighter side in these dog days of a dog year.
When on base against the Cubs, leave caution to the winds and move speedily forward. You'll be rewarded handsomely.