6:33 PM CDT, April 1, 2013
PITTSBURGH — Damn you, Dan Haren. You and your mysterious MRIs.
That's what Cubs President Theo Epstein had to be thinking when Carlos Marmol started to fall apart in the ninth inning on Monday, threatening to turn opening day from a delightful day into Nightmare at PNC Park.
Luckily for Epstein, he didn't have long to fret, however. His next thought?
Manager Dale Sveum was stepping onto the dirt from the first-base dugout, heading to the mound only four pitches after coach Chris Bosio had been there. Marmol was out of the game, if not yet his role as the Cubs' closer, and order would be quickly restored.
"He's still the closer,'' Sveum said of Marmol after James Russell and Kyuji Fujikawa had gotten the last two outs in the Cubs' 3-1 victory over the Pirates. We're not making any changes, anything like this. He just didn't have it today.''
No, Marmol didn't have it. He lost command of the strike zone somewhere in Arizona, couldn't harness it over the weekend in Houston and was missing it at a huge time in western Pennsylvania. Jeff Samardzija cruised through eight innings, but suddenly Sveum was reminded of his first game as Cubs manager last April.
A 1-0 lead over the Nationals behind Ryan Dempster turned into a 2-1 loss when Sveum summoned Kerry Wood and Marmol out of the bullpen. But that was 2012, when Sveum was wearing a different number (33) and showing more patience.
He has changed to No. 4 for 2013, and it's clear he also has changed his approach with Marmol. While saying Marmol's the closer, he said he will try to line up some other relievers behind him — say Fujikawa, Russell and Shawn Camp — and won't hesitate to pull Marmol if he's wild, which has been his recurring problem since hitters realized it's easier to let him beat himself than to hit him.
Had a phantom hip injury not turned up on Haren's medical reports, Marmol would be the Angels' problem. Epstein was poised to make that trade last November before doctors declined to sign off on it, and other teams haven't been rushing to take on Marmol since then. He's earning $9.8 million this season, the last on a three-year deal that was put together when Jim Hendry was the general manager.
Epstein and his GM, Jed Hoyer, don't have any ties to Marmol. They know their fans are as tired of Marmol as they are of the disputes with Ald. Tom Tunney on improvements to Wrigley Field, and they aren't going to let Marmol sink the pitching staff they are rebuilding.
A midseason release is at least as likely as a trade, although it's possible Marmol could get himself turned around and pitch well. He converted 12 of 13 saves after the All-Star break last year, compiling a 1.52 ERA. But even then, when he was pitching well, the smoking gun wasn't far away. He struck out 39 in 292/3 innings but still walked 17 — a highly unacceptable rate of 5.2 walks per nine innings for a baseball staff that demands pitchers who are strike throwers.
To Marmol's credit, he looked past his own situation to applaud Samardzija, Russell and the Japanese newcomer, Fujikawa, for the victory.
"They picked me up,'' he said. "You know, my teammates.''
Marmol said his situation "is what it is,'' and that is rarely a sign of great things about to happen. He knows that Fujikawa was a solid closer for the Hanshin Tigers, piling up 202 saves in six seasons. Fujikawa had a ratio of 2.3 walks per nine innings in Japan, and that control was on display when he came in after Marmol's 19-pitch adventure (9 strikes, 10 balls, including one that nicked Andrew McCutchen's jersey).
Fujikawa, like Russell, came in with the tying run on first. He threw Russell Martin an 89-mph fastball at the knees for strike one, then got him to a pop to center fielder David DeJesus with the next pitch.
Sveum said he didn't consider letting Samardzija chase his shutout into the ninth, and it was the right decision. He had thrown 110 pitches, plenty for opening day. A three-run, one-inning outing should be candy for a closer.
Marmol created his own trouble. After striking out Garrett Jones, he hit McCutchen and, after a single by Pedro Alvarez, walked Gaby Sanchez. Sveum pulled the plug before it was too late.
It won't be the last time this year he will need to do that. The question is, how many times will he let the other guys do the heavy lifting before Marmol is history?
Probably not long. Marmol has been part of the problem and clearly won't be around to be part of the solution.
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