Whoa!

Well, the Cubs aren’t going to win many 9-8 ballgames, NLCS or not. It didn’t feel like a terrible loss because of the way the Cubs came back repeatedly, but now they have to win four of the next six games to advance to the World Series.

It helps that four of those starts will be made by Prior and Wood, but it also puts a lot of pressure on them. The worst part of this loss was that a win would have redeemed another bad outing by Zambrano. It would have meant the Cubs could much better afford to lose one of the Prior-Wood starts and still take the pennant home.

Now they must win all four of the Prior-Wood starts or at least one of the two starts by a still gimpy Clement and suddenly unreliable Zambrano. Zambrano is a great young pitcher, and he will win many for a lot of years with the Chicago Cubs, but right now he’s a giant question mark. I defy any Cubs fan to feel confident about a win in game five, Zambrano’s next scheduled start.

I don’t think his arm is tired or his back is a problem. I just think he’s forgotten how to pitch his game. And in crucial moments, such as last night’s third inning, he doesn’t seem to think at all.

There are several of Dusty Baker’s moves that will be second-guessed. The first would be the decision to leave Zambrano in the game in the sixth inning, when he allowed his sixth run. But the same folks complaining about the move to bring in Guthrie in the 11th also complain about leaving in Zambrano, when the reason Baker stuck with Big Z was to stay away from the bullpen, which is very shaky outside the Remlinger-Farnsworth-Borowski nexus.

As for the Guthrie move, specifically, here’s what Phil Rogers had to say:

Baker’s most costly error was putting lefty Mark Guthrie in to start the 11th inning. Pinch-hitter Mike Lowell’s leadoff homer turned Sammy Sosa’s game-tying homer in the ninth into a footnote, giving Florida a 9-8 victory.

Oddly, Baker seemed more worried about having Lenny Harris come off the bench to face Antonio Alfonseca, Dave Veres or Juan Cruz than getting the matchup between Lowell and Guthrie, who when last seen was serving up a two-run homer to Chipper Jones.

“I anticipated they would bring in Lowell,” Baker said. “At that point, I was down to three pitchers. Lenny Harris hits Veres good, hits Alf good. I took my shot with Lowell. … Guthrie hung a pitch and [Lowell] didn’t miss it.”

I agree that Lowell is much more dangerous off the bench than Lenny Harris, who made a specialty of not hitting a fly during his half-season stay in Chicago, though I doubt if Veres or Alfonseca would have kept Lowell on the bench. Guthrie gave up a home run to Chipper Jones in game four and has been generally crappy recently, and one thing to be said in favor of Alfonseca in that situation is that he’s a sinkerballer and less susceptible to the home run.

Of course, when Alfonseca came in he promptly loaded the bases and was lucky to get out of the inning on a hard-hit line drive double play. So it wasn’t as though Baker had a lot of options. Which brings me to what I think was Baker’s biggest mistake in last night’s game.

He rightfully doesn’t really trust anybody in the pen except Remlinger, Farnsworth and Borowski. Yet with a tie game in the seventh inning, Baker took out Remlinger with one out and one on. Farnsworth came in and struck out two men to end the inning and then pitched a perfect eighth. But why take out Remlinger in that situation in a tie game when you know your short in the pen? All year, Baker has made the mistake of thinking Remlinger is only good against lefties, when in fact he’s stronger against righthanders. He should have left Remlinger in there to finish the seventh and perhaps start the eighth.

Farnsworth could have gone two innings and Borowski could have gone another two. Farnsworth and Remlinger were both well rested and with Mark Prior going tomorrow and then an off day Baker had to have in the back of his mind the notion that these guys might not see action again until Thursday. Why not ride your horses in this situation? Why put the game in the hands of guys you don’t really trust?

Picking between Veres, Cruz, Alfonseca and Guthrie in the 11th inning is like choosing whether to jump off a cliff or be pushed off. It’s not much of a choice at all. Baker’s move in the seventh necessitated that choice.

But it’s over now. Hopefully Prior can again be the stopper he’s been all year long and get the Cubs a win they absolutely must have. A Wood win in game three is also an absolute must. Then the Cubs would be up 2-1 and know that no matter what happens they’ll come back to Wrigley, and can just hope that Clement or Zambrano will pitch well enough to clinch the series in Miami.

After all, game one was great. I was offered a ticket to the game but couldn’t go because I had to drive down to Springfield on business. It was a tense drive, but nice, because nobody was around to complain about my yelling like a maniac in the first, third and sixth innings. I was in my hotel room by the time Sammy hit his two-run shot to tie it, and I hope nobody was in the next room trying to get some sleep, because I was bouncing off the walls.

I wish I was at that game. Beautiful night. Exciting game. My dad got to go instead, and though he usually prefers 2-1 pitching duels, I have a feeling he won’t have any complaints about that one. It doesn’t matter when and where or how I see these games. I could be sitting in the first row behind home plate and I still couldn’t be any closer to real action, which is the unusual palpitations in my heart generated by an odd little thing called hope.

Still there, and stronger than ever.