A week ago last Wednesday at Wrigley Field, the wind blew straight in off the lake out of the northeast. Wispy, sparse, low-flying clouds passed overhead, growing larger as they seemed to scrape the top of the grandstand and then diminishing as they continued on to the southwest. Shawon Dunston looked up between turns in the batting cage and said, "Don't it look like the sky is falling?" Andre Dawson stepped out and Dunston stepped in, kicking at the dirt in the batter's box, muttering, "The sky is falling."
Dunston can be permitted the Chicken Little imitation, because through last week's home stand the Cubs were involved in a losing streak that dropped them from first place and then refused to let up until they were solidly in third. The three losses to the Montreal Expos are easily explained: the Expos are just now proving they are the team to beat in the National League's East Division. They were at the time putting together a winning streak that went on against the New York Mets after they left Chicago. They threw good pitchers at the Cubs, and the pitchers--especially Mark Langston and Dennis Martinez-- shut the Cubs down with barely a murmur. These pitchers left the Cubs' hitters in such a state that when the Pirates arrived in town--with one junk-ball starter and two converted relievers slated to pitch--they were unable to get their bats on anything solid, and the streak went on. By the end of the game on Wednesday, the Cubs had gone winless in a home stand of six games or more for the first time since divisional play was instituted in 1969. And any Cubs' record for ignominy that goes back beyond 1969 has got to be a doozy.
The Cubs' lack of hitting was at the core of their problems, and it had predictable effects on the pitching. Paul Kilgus and Scott Sanderson lost back-to-back games two weekends ago when both caved in under the pressure of scoreless games: Kilgus in the fifth inning, Sanderson the next day in the seventh. Steve Stone reported that the heart of the Cubs' lineup--the three, four, and five hitters--were 4 for 45 against the Expos. Once the Pirates came to town, Mark Grace started hitting in the five spot, but the slumps went on for Ryne Sandberg and Andre Dawson, who were 0 for 20 and 2 for 21 for the home stand. Sandberg particularly hit in tough luck. By the time of Tuesday's game against the Pirates, he was resorting to chopping the ball high to the left side of the infield, trying to beat out a hit, but the Pirates kept making the plays on him. When he finally got ahold of one, he hit it directly to Andy Van Slyke in center field. The following day, Sandberg was a beaten man, mired in the slump, and he failed to get the ball out of the infield. Which left a fan wondering, why was he still hitting third?
Manager Don Zimmer made changes once the team went back on the road--where the Cubs lost a seventh straight game before the skid ended--but he let the batting slump go too long untreated. By the time the Pirates came to town, even he was skittish; his judgment was untrustworthy. Greg Maddux had a bad first inning in the Monday-night game, then settled down, but the Cubs could do nothing against junk-baller Doug Drabek. In the ninth, Mark Grace led off with a hit, and everyone was thinking quick comeback, but Zimmer sent Grace on a hit-and-run on the first pitch (trying to stay out of the double play with Damon Berryhill at the plate, but what's the fear of that? if Berryhill hits a grounder instead of a line-drive single, the rally is pretty much dead anyway, whether the Pirates get one or two out), and the Pirates had the anxious Zimmer read all the way. Berryhill waved meekly at a pitchout, and the Pirates nailed Grace trying to get back to first base. End of threat. So if Zimmer was so skittish, why didn't he resort to one of the manager's simplest tricks-- juggling the lineup?
Because, just as we feared, when Zimmer got all his hitters healthy and back in the lineup he stuck with them where they were, trusting them to find their own chemistry, when in fact what had been winning games for the Cubs was Zimmer's situational managing while his big hitters--Dawson, Grace, Berryhill--were on the bench with injuries. Once all three returned, it was as if Zimmer had never heard of Lloyd McClendon, Domingo Ramos, or Curtis Wilkerson. Zimmer is an extremely knowledgeable baseball man. In choosing when to hit-and-run or when to bunt, and in various other game situations, he normally takes things into account--the surface of the field, whether the pitcher is a ground-ball pitcher or a fly-ball pitcher--that the average fan doesn't begin to consider. He has certain blind spots, however--specifically, his preference for a set lineup and his dislike for platooning--that are consistent and hardheaded, and he refuses to adapt. His one move was to alter the person taking the lineup card to the umpires before the game. Coach Joe Altobelli did it Tuesday; Zimmer was back Wednesday. Neither change worked.
We were playing manager that Wednesday morning, and we came to the ballpark with this lineup: Jerome Walton cf (one of the consistent bright spots), Dunston ss (it's been our belief for years that he must get involved in the offense for the Cubs to become contenders; he'll get more fastballs hitting second, and besides, he had been one of the few guys hitting the ball), Dwight Smith lf, Dawson rf, Grace 1b, Berryhill c, Sandberg 2b (had shown signs of snapping out of it day before, but drop him in lineup to reduce pressure), Wilkerson 3b, Mike Bielecki p. Zimmer, however, stuck with the same lineup, and what happened? Sandberg failed to get the ball out of the infield. Dawson left a man on third with one out in the first and went 0 for 4. Vance Law had a cheap blooper hit that produced nothing. And the Cubs did not score an earned run.
The game was a nightmarish education in how a slump goes on: an impression fueled by the continuing passage of low clouds overhead. Wavy, dappled cloud shadows flowed persistently out of the bleachers and straight across the field to home plate, giving the events the otherworldly quality of something perceived in a dream. In the distance, the shadows rippled along the sides of the high rises like water passing down a precipice.
Mike Bielecki is an unlikely stopper, but that's the role he was cast in when the Cubs' true stopper, Rick Sutcliffe, gave up four runs in the first inning the previous day on the way to losing. Going back through the several years Baseball America has chosen a minor-league player of the year, Bielecki is the one and only one chosen not to have made his mark in the majors by now--up to this year, that is. He had an amazing year for the Pirates' AAA Hawaii farm team in 1984, going 19-3 in 28 starts. That's the year he took Baseball America's top honor. Yet he never failed to disappoint the Pirates year after year following that season. He has a difficult, tortuous pitching motion, in which he lunges forward with his back as if to add extra umph to his pitches. He later explained that back injuries destroyed his motion completely during his later years with the Pirates, but that he wouldn't tell the team he was ailing out of fear that it would hurt his chances of making the majors. The Pirates gave up on him a year ago last spring and traded him to the Cubs, and he's shown tremendous progress since. This year, he has probably been the team's most consistent starting pitcher.
On this afternoon, Bielecki was sharp, as sharp as he'd been all year, and he avoided the first-inning troubles that had plagued Maddux and Sutcliffe the previous two games of the series. He stumbled in the first but recovered with some cautious pitching. After getting an out, he gave up a bleeder single in the infield to Jose Lind. Lind advanced on a hit-and-run groundout. Bielecki then opted to walk Bobby Bonilla intentionally in the first inning. He got Glenn Wilson out, ending the threat. The Pirates would not get another hit until the seventh.
Bielecki does not have overpowering stuff, but this year he has found consistency by throwing low strikes. He went right at the Pirates all day long--up to a point. After his minor first-inning troubles, he went through the Pirates' order the second time throwing strikes on the first pitch to seven of the nine hitters; the third time through he started six of the nine with strikes, surrendering only one meager hit. This stretch put him into the eighth inning with two outs and no men on base, with the top of the order coming up. The Cubs, meanwhile, had pulled ahead when Mark Grace scored from third on a passed ball in the previous inning. Here, in the top of the eighth, with four outs to go, Bielecki abandoned everything that had worked for him all day long. He pitched overly fine to Barry Bonds, threw him three straight balls, a strike, then walked him. Mitch Williams got up in the bull pen. Bielecki started Lind with a ball too, then threw two straight strikes before Lind chopped a grounder to the left side of the infield. Third baseman Law cut across to intercept the ball in front of Dunston, then, staggering, went to second base--where he had no play--instead of going across the infield to try to get Lind. Here, Zimmer came to the mound to get Williams--no argument there; it's the call to be made. The Pirates had Van Slyke, a lefty, and Bonilla, a switch-hitter who bats better from the left side, coming up. Williams didn't want to mess with Bonilla, and he got out in front of Van Slyke 0 and 2. Two balls followed, however, as he tried to sucker Van Slyke, and a foul ball later the count went full. Van Slyke then chipped a single into center field to tie the game, and Bonilla followed with a much more assertive triple to the wall, past a diving Walton, clearing the bases, sending Williams to the showers, and extending the Cubs' skid.