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No time to panic on North Side

No time to panic on North Side

ST. LOUIS -- This is no time to panic. It might be time to be seriously concerned, but no, panic would still not be appropriate.

On Tuesday night, the Chicago Cubs dropped their eighth game out of the past nine, 4-3, to the St. Louis Cardinals. It was a most disheartening defeat, with a three-run lead vanishing and with numerous scoring chances wasted.

This loss, and the losses that had preceded it, moved manager Lou Piniella to make some strong and pointed post-game comments. This was not a session of ranting and raving. This was a manager frustrated by a team sinking well below its usual level of play, forcefully objecting to the current circumstances.

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"We're playing like we're waiting to get beat," Piniella said. "You don't have a big enough of a lead in September to play ball like that. Teams that play baseball like that invariably get caught, no matter how big the lead.

"You've got to stay aggressive, you've got to do the things you've done all year. We're not executing, we're making mistakes and we're getting beat. I'm getting tired of watching it, to be quite honest with you.

"That's not the way we played all year, to get to where we are now. And I know we're trying. But truthfully, trying isn't good enough. If we had played ball like this all year, we wouldn't be here, playing for a championship."

Piniella concluded with this final, indisputable directive: "We can talk about having fun, we can talk about relaxing, but you've got to get your [darn] shirts rolled up and go out and kick somebody's [butt]. That's what you've got to do, period. Period. That's all I got to say."

The best thing that you can say about this stretch of inadequate play is that it has not been a catastrophic event for the Cubs in the standings. While the Cubs were stumbling, their nearest National League Central pursuers, the Milwaukee Brewers, put together a 2-6 start to their current home stand.

The problem for Cubs fans, if not for the Cubs themselves, is that this sort of thing in September triggers a flood, a deluge, an avalanche of negative historical associations.

But this does not have to be 1969. A collapse of epic proportions actually requires two teams: one to do the collapsing, the other to take advantage. The 1969 finish wasn't just about the Cubs. It was also about the Mets being terrific down the stretch. The Milwaukee club isn't exactly reaching that level, and for all the perseverance the Cardinals have shown, they are still eight games behind the Cubs.

The recent slide has at least some plausible excuses. Starters Carlos Zambrano and Rich Harden have been temporarily unavailable. And as Piniella had pointed out, the Cubs were also down two middle relievers, with Chad Gaudin out with back problems and Sean Marshall forced into the rotation.

"If we get the two starting pitchers back in the rotation, it'll help stabilize things," Piniella reasoned. And that is the current plan: Harden to pitch in St. Louis on Thursday night, Zambrano to pitch Saturday night in Houston.

There is no question that the road ahead is not without potential pitfalls for the Cubs. The Cardinals are still alive, particularly in the NL Wild Card race. The Cubs must play them five more times. The Brewers are second in the Central and leading the NL Wild Card race. The Cubs have six games left against them.

The Astros have been on a tear lately, and the Cubs have a three-game series against them in Houston. And there are the four games in New York against the Mets, who have put together an impressive second half and lead the NL East.

That's not a schedule with a lot of forgiveness in it -- 18 games, every one of them against a team that currently has a winning record. But the standings say that the Cubs are still in the driver's seat, and so does the manager.

"We put ourselves in good position, but we've got to close the deal," Piniella said. "The teams that we need to beat are right in front of us. We can do it ourselves. We don't need any help.

"We're going to be playing teams that are all trying to accomplish the same thing. For us, the objective is to win baseball games and not worry about anybody else."

That sort of thing is always in the easier-said-than-done category, but there are reasons to believe that the Cubs are capable. Objectively, they are the best team in the NL. You don't get to this point in the season, leading the league in runs scored and being third in team earned run average, as the result of some kind of fluke.

This does not have to be 1969 or any other season in which soaring hopes turned to dust on the North Side. The current Cubs weren't in uniform at the time and bear no historical blame, even if they end up inheriting all the questions about why this sort of thing happens.

This has been a better club than the teams chasing it for the vast majority of this season. And if the Cubs have a tough finishing schedule, this also means that matters are squarely in their own hands.

So for a variety of good and valid reasons, this is no time to panic. But deep and fervent concern would not be misplaced.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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