It's no curse: Walks haunt Cubs
Dempster's seven free passes a striking blow in Game 1
CHICAGO -- You do not have to believe in curses, hexes or 100-year droughts to see why the Chicago Cubs started out this October on the short end.
If your starting pitcher walks seven people in 4 2/3 innings, you aren't beating anyone who has been playing baseball for longer than five minutes.
This is what happened to the Cubs and Ryan Dempster at the outset of this National League Division Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. It had all been so bright and promising, the Cubs heavily favored to win this series, especially with the home-field advantage, especially in Game 1 with Dempster going. He was 14-3 at home this year, semi-unbeatable in the Friendly Confines.
"Their guys threw strikes and ours didn't," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said of the 7-2 loss. "It hurts."
Things had looked oh-so bright in the second inning, when Mark DeRosa hit a two-run homer. All things were possible. Life was good.
But then it wasn't. The omens weren't favorable when Dempster walked Dodgers starter Derek Lowe in the third. This is exactly the kind of thing that always comes back to haunt you, but Dempster remained unhaunted for the moment, getting out of a bases-loaded jam with a strikeout of Andre Ethier.
In a strange way, this episode, which should have been troubling, seemed initially to suggest that this might be a Cubs October, after all. If they could walk the opposing pitcher and not suffer for it, maybe history could be changed.
But Dempster kept walking people, defying destiny and all good sense. In the fifth, he got Lowe on a grounder, but then he walked three other hitters. Dempster was not yet out of the fifth inning and already his pitched count had swelled into triple figures.
With two out and the bases loaded, Dempster actually got out in front of Dodgers first baseman James Loney, 1-2. At this point, an offspeed pitch, instead of missing the plate, got too much of the plate. Wind or not, autumn by Lake Michigan or not, Loney's drive cleared the wall in center and handily.
A two-run lead became a two-run deficit. The game had changed. Maybe the entire series had changed. Perhaps all of October in Chicago had changed. The history of the expanded playoff system is admittedly brief, but in NL Division Series play, the winner of Game 1 is 23-3 in those Series.
Dodgers manager Joe Torre praised the patience of his hitters, saying that this was one element of the Dodgers' offense that had improved markedly over the course of the season.
But for Piniella, it was exasperation time. "We walked their pitcher twice," he noted. "I can't remember us doing that all summer."
Because these are the Cubs and because it has been 100 years since they won a World Series championship, this sort of event will be endlessly reviewed in search of its cosmic significance.
This is the cosmic significance: You can't beat anybody of substance walking seven guys in 4 2/3 innings, particularly somebody who was good enough to get into the postseason. This sort of thing is particularly galling when these walks are occurring while you are holding the lead.
It is too bad about Dempster, a fine fellow by all accounts, a pitcher who moved from starting earlier in his career to being a reputable closer and then this year moved back into the rotation. This last was a remarkable transformation, and Dempster was so successful in this move that here he was, in the ace's spot, getting a Game 1 start in a postseason series.
This performance obviously did not reflect his body of work this season. Seven walks? That's how many walks Ryan Dempster issued in all of September.
But the thing about playing for the Chicago Cubs, given so much history on the wrong side of the ledger, is that players, even good players, get defined by how they came up short. At this moment, Dempster is not primarily the man who went 14-3 at home when he made the difficult transition from closer to starter. He is the guy who walked seven in 4 2/3 innings in the first game of the postseason.
The preliminary verdict on Dempster's lack of command was, Piniella indicated, that he was overthrowing. Should Piniella have lifted Dempster before Loney's grand slam? The manager's explanation for not doing that was reasonable.
"He hadn't given up a run," Piniella said. "He pitched himself out of trouble an inning or two before. We were concerned about his pitch count, but no, we were going to let him get himself out of trouble. Invariably, when you keep putting people on, they're going to score at time. They scored there quickly with that grand slam."
The Cubs were the best team in the National League this season, by a large margin. Dempster was obviously one of the best starters in the league. But those first 162 games were played for the right to get to this position.
The 97 victories got the Cubs here, with the home-field advantage. The 14-3 record at Wrigley got Dempster here, with the Game 1 start in the Friendly Confines. Those accomplishments cannot be erased, but they count for nothing in October when the Game 1 starter walks seven in 4 2/3 innings.
The Dodgers were the winners, but they were also beneficiaries. This is an improving Los Angeles club, with the best team ERA in the league, Manny Ramirez on their side and talented young hitters growing in their work. But there are 28 other Major League teams that can beat you when your starter walks seven in 4 2/3 innings.
This October, widely believed to be the time when the dreams of a century could come true, began for the Cubs in nightmare fashion -- seven walks in 4 2/3 innings from their starting pitcher.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.