Cubs' star power trumps storyline
Venue issue fades as Zambrano, Lilly steal show vs. Astros
MILWAUKEE -- It didn't matter where the Chicago Cubs played the past two games. The way Carlos Zambrano and Ted Lilly were pitching, the Cubs were winning -- anywhere, against anybody, any time, every time.
And so, it is not the fault of the Cubs that Miller Park has become Major League Baseball's favorite fallback facility. There was a backdrop of controversy to the selection of Miller Park as the relocation site for two games with the Houston Astros. But there was no controversy about the way Zambrano and Lilly shut down the Houston Astros, with a no-hitter and a near no-hitter.
"I've never seen a no-hitter followed by a one-hitter," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said on Monday. "Our pitching was spectacular in this series. Our pitching just shut them down."
After Zambrano pitched the first neutral-site no-hitter in baseball history on Sunday night, it was an understatement to say that Lilly had a tough act to follow. But he nearly made more history, no-hitting Houston for six innings, before Mark Loretta singled in the seventh. Lilly left after the seventh, but the Astros got no more hits, and the Cubs won, 6-1.
"It was fun," Lilly said with a small smile. "There were a couple of guys who let me know before the game that I had a lot of work to do to follow 'Z.' "
The Cubs and the Astros found themselves at Miller Park because the effects of Hurricane Ike would not allow their three-game series to be played in Houston as scheduled.
The Astros were, to put it mildly, unhappy about the choice of venue. They were being told to play what were two home games in what would be a pro-Cubs venue.
"We're here and that's what we've got to deal with," Astros manager Cecil Cooper said. "Are we happy? No.
"It's like a Cub home game. When I see the Commissioner [Bud Selig], I'll tell him that. I'm not happy. I understand, but I'm not happy. The Cubs are playing at home. It's a little bit of an advantage for them."
On Sunday night, a crowd of 23,441 showed up, on short notice, and of course it was almost unanimously a pro-Cubs gathering. With the retractable roof closed, and with enthusiasm building as Zambrano's gem continued, the pro-Cubs decibel level sounded like it came from a crowd of 53,441.
On Monday, the crowd was 15,158 and the roof was open, so the noise level was considerably less. But once again, it was a fully enthusiastic, pro-Cubs audience.
The Astros' objections to Miller Park and its proximity to Chicago were understandable. But the performance of the two Cubs starters took the element of crowd favoritism right out of the equation. And, there were logical reasons behind the choice of this ballpark for these two games.
There had been considerable discussion about finding a way to play this series in Houston. But in the post-hurricane circumstances, Major League Baseball had one primary obligation to the Houston area: to get out of the way while recovery efforts proceeded.
"The important thing is the area recovers and recovers quickly," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "These ballgames are secondary in nature."
And, with pervasive bad weather forecast over much of the Eastern U.S., Miller Park, with its roof, became not only one option, but the option.
"The last thing we wanted to have happen was to mobilize both teams and then be rained out," Ed Wade, Astros general manager said.
The Astros had won six straight and 14 of 15 before this series. They had the best record in baseball since the All-Star break, and their performance had put them squarely back in the race for the National League Wild Card berth. Their concerns were genuine. But the use of Miller Park for two games was not some pro-Cubs, anti-Astros plot.
This is not the first time Miller Park has served as a refuge for teams tormented by weather. Last April, the Cleveland Indians had already lost one series to persistent snow and were on the verge of losing another. But the Indians' three-game series against the Angels was shifted to Milwaukee. Both clubs went on to win their divisions. Tickets were sold for $10 each, and, basically within minutes, 20,000 Milwaukeeans showed up for the first game of that series.
The idea behind this retractable-roof facility was that a new ballpark was desperately needed to preserve baseball in Milwaukee. The retractable roof was needed because the climate here is very iffy both early and late in the season. Ninety-nine inches of snow fell on Milwaukee last winter. Most of it melted by Memorial Day.
So the necessity for this facility and this specific type of facility was clear. But the taxpayers of the metropolitan area had no idea that they were paying for -- and are still paying for -- not only a new ballpark, but the chance to be Good Samaritans to both the American and National Leagues.
Carlos Zambrano was fully appreciative. He liked the Miller Park mound. He liked the spacious, comfortable clubhouses at Miller Park.
"I wish we could have your ballpark," he said. "A clubhouse like that -- I'm impressed."
Then again, Zambrano had excellent reasons to be content. The Astros, with their own retractable roof home, and with one hit over two games, were not as likely to find the creature comforts of Miller Park quite as compelling.
Had the Astros and the Cubs not found a suitable relocation site, the logistical problems of making up the postponed games would have been immense. As it is, they would play the third postponed game on Sept. 29, after the end of the regular season, if the game still has a bearing on the standings.
The irony is that if the Cubs and the Astros are being helped by being able to play these games somewhere, then the usual Milwaukee home team is being hurt in the race for the postseason. However, since the Brewers have lost 11 of their past 14, and things have become so bad that they dismissed their manager, Ned Yost, on Monday after 150 games, it seems that most of their damage has been self-inflicted. The irony, while still present, seems less like the lead actor in this drama.
In fact, the stars of this relocated drama were Zambrano and Lilly. The circumstances were difficult: a series moved by a hurricane. The site was different -- the Astros, the home team in Milwaukee, playing against the Cubs, the visiting team with all the fan support.
But the work of Zambrano and Lilly transcended all of that. They spoke the international language, the one in which great pitching beats everything.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.