8:55 PM CDT, June 15, 2012
You think Dale Sveum and the Cubs have problems?
Based on the level of angst mixed with the clubhouse oxygen, as well as the urgency to wring out every possible victory while improving with both the lineup and the starting rotation, the situation facing Sveum is child's play compared to what Bobby Valentine faces with the Red Sox.
Maybe that's why Sveum is in Chicago, not Boston.
While the Red Sox never quite committed to Sveum as their choice to replace Terry Francona, it's pretty clear the former Brewers coach could have had his choice of starting his managerial career with a win-at-all-costs organization coming off a horrific September collapse or a franchise that was bottoming out, with the immediate future bleak.
Sveum traveled from his home in Phoenix to Milwaukee last November at least half expecting to finalize a deal to manage the Red Sox. But the Cubs headed him off, and he jumped at the chance to work for Theo Epstein, whom he had gotten to know as the Red Sox's third-base coach.
Valentine, who told me he would "have walked to Chicago'' for a chance at the Cubs job, wound up instead taking an offer from Red Sox owner John Henry, President Larry Lucchino and Epstein's replacement, Ben Cherington.
There he was in the visiting manager's office at Wrigley Field on Friday — 10 players on the disabled list, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez in right field, a roster so confused that one of his most dangerous hitters, rookie Will Middlebrooks, was grounded without a designated hitter spot — left to explain a 3-0 loss to Ryan Dempster that dropped the Red Sox to 31-33.
"He was pretty good,'' Valentine said about Dempster, a trade candidate who may have pitched his last game for the Cubs. "Guys weren't picking up his ball well, and when we hit the ball they seemed to be right at their outfield. They have to drop a couple of times a game to put some runs on the board.''
Before the 40,073 fans could sing "Go, Cubs, Go,'' reclaiming Wrigley Field after a three-day occupation by Michiganders, Sveum's team had to survive Carlos Marmol's 29-pitch ninth inning.
The rookie manager went to the mound before Marmol faced Dustin Pedroia with the bases loaded, just as he had walked out there to challenge Dempster before he faced Pedroia two innings earlier. Both times the Cubs got the third out, with Pedroia lining out to right fielder David DeJesus to end Dempster's seven-inning stint and then rapping a rocket grounder right at third baseman Luis Valbuena for the final out of the game.
"It's frustrating,'' Pedroia said. "We're not trying to be (crappy). Everybody's trying. We're just not playing good. We scored zero runs. You can't win a game when you score zero runs.''
The Red Sox stumbled to a 4-10 start and have been playing catchup ever since. The crowd on the disabled list includes Jacoby Ellsbury, Carl Crawford, John Lackey, Andrew Bailey and Bobby Jenks and soon may welcome ace Josh Beckett, who was scratched from a Sunday start against the Cubs. He will have his shoulder examined in Boston.
Kevin Youkilis, a heart-and-soul guy for the teams that won the World Series in 2004 and '07, was out earlier this year and wasn't missed as much as you might think. Middlebrooks has been a force (.290, six homers, 22 RBIs in 124 at-bats), creating some awkwardness since Youkilis was activated.
Valentine is trying to buy some time using Gonzalez in right field so he can play Youkilis at first, but he wanted David Ortiz in the lineup Friday, so Middlebrooks grabbed a seat. He had a nice view when Gonzalez played Dempster's bloop into a triple in the second inning.
These are the sort of things that tend to happen when you try to force your best hitters into the lineup, and you get burned when those hitters don't hit. Gonzalez's 0-for-4, two-strikeout day dropped his average to .263, his OPS to .721.
Who would have thought Epstein's 2012 first baseman, Bryan LaHair, would be outhitting the guy he acquired for the Red Sox two years ago?
Epstein would take a team full of LaHairs, but don't be surprised if he trades him to the Pirates or someone else shortly after he executes the seemingly inevitable Dempster deal, which has taken on a feeling of any down now. With a 22-42 record, the Cubs are a long way away from having the chance to win that the Red Sox are trying not to let escape.
Epstein talked about the Cubs' "little bit of a talent deficit'' before Friday's game but insisted that losses still hurt, even if they come with a potential consolation prize — one of the top picks in the 2013 draft, maybe even the first selection.
"It's all about wins and losses,'' Epstein said. "That's what matters in this game. If you dig deep enough, you'll see a manager and a coaching staff that have set high expectations for players and players working very hard to live up to those expectations.''
No doubt that's right. But Epstein and Sveum are just trying to move the chains. The guys who need to throw long are the ones in the visitors' clubhouse.
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