Soriano rescues Cubs' bullpen in win
Chicago Cubs manager Lou Piniella is still getting to know his team's rebuilt bullpen. So far, all he knows is his relievers are issuing too many walks.
The Cubs' shaky bullpen was bailed out Saturday night by Alfonso Soriano, whose two-run homer in the ninth inning made up for another poor performance by Chicago's relievers and gave the Cubs a 6-5 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers.
Soriano's big drive came one night after Milwaukee pulled off a ninth-inning comeback of its own, providing a rousing start to the 2009 edition of one of the NL Central's top rivalries. They'll play the series finale Sunday night.
"It was very important for us to come back tonight and win this game," Soriano said. "They did it yesterday and we were able to do the same thing today."
The Cubs entered the ninth trailing by a run, and Carlos Villanueva (1-1) - who is serving as the Brewers' closer while Trevor Hoffman recovers from a strained oblique muscle - opened the inning by getting Koyie Hill to fly out.
But pinch-hitter Reed Johnson singled to bring up Soriano, who clubbed Villanueva's next pitch into the second deck in left field.
Villanueva threw Soriano a changeup, but left it a little higher in the strike zone than he intended to. And while Villanueva might not be a full-time closer, he has a grip on the mentality needed for the job.
"I have to leave it here when I walk out the door," Villanueva said. "Tomorrow's another day, and we can't have any carry-overs from today to tomorrow. Tomorrow, they might need me again."
Brewers starter Dave Bush, who was a closer in his college days at Wake Forest, expressed confidence in Villanueva's ability to bounce back.
"It's a (lousy) feeling, no doubt about it," Bush said. "But he's in that role because he can handle it."
Carlos Marmol pitched the ninth for Chicago instead of designated closer Kevin Gregg, who blew the save Friday night. Marmol got Rickie Weeks to ground out before giving up a single to Corey Hart, but recovered to strike out Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder to earn his first save.
Piniella said Gregg remains his closer, but he didn't want to warm both Gregg and Marmol up for the ninth in case the game went into extra innings.
"He came in and did a heck of a job," Piniella said. "I said when the season started that there would be opportunities for both of them. Tomorrow if we get in a similar situation, Gregg will be in there."
Aaron Heilman (1-0) struck out three in 1 2-3 scoreless innings to get the win.
Until Soriano's homer, it appeared as if the Brewers would get the best of the Cubs' bullpen for the second night in a row.
One day after watching his bullpen walk five in the final three innings of a 4-3 loss, Piniella saw reliever Angel Guzman issue back-to-back walks with one out in the seventh. Piniella brought in Neal Cotts to face Fielder, and Cotts promptly loaded the bases with another walk.
Piniella sent pitching coach Larry Rothschild to the mound to remove Cotts instead of doing it himself, saying he wanted to "change the karma."
"For two nights I had been going out there and we have been walking people," Piniella said. "He's the pitching coach. Maybe he's got something different to say to them because whatever I was doing wasn't working."
Heilman then gave up a two-run single to J.J. Hardy, giving the Brewers a 5-3 lead. But Aramis Ramirez answered with a solo homer in the eighth for Chicago.
"They clawed their way back into it, and we couldn't get her closed out (in) that ninth inning," Brewers manager Ken Macha said.
Fielder hit his first homer of the season for Milwaukee. He also had a double and threw out a runner at home plate.
Bush was solid through the first six innings but ran into trouble in the seventh. With the Brewers leading 3-2, he loaded the bases with nobody out before striking out pinch-hitter Micah Hoffpauir. Mark DiFelice took over and induced a potential double-play grounder from Soriano. But Soriano was ruled safe at first and a run scored, tying it at 3.
It was a close play, but Macha said he hadn't seen a replay and didn't make an issue of the call afterward.
It was a labor-intensive night for Cubs starter Carlos Zambrano, who returned to the mound at Miller Park for the first time since Sept. 14 - the day he threw a no-hitter against the Houston Astros, in a series that was relocated to Milwaukee in the wake of Hurricane Ike.
The Brewers made Zambrano throw 118 pitches in six innings, taking a 2-0 lead when Fielder hit a two-out, two-run homer in the third - more runs than the Brewers scored off Zambrano in three outings last season.
"I really had to battle tonight, but I just wanted to give us a chance to win the ballgame," Zambrano said.
Piniella said C Geovany Soto's sore right shoulder is improving. But with the Cubs carrying only one catcher - Hill, who is playing with a sore toe - Soto could go to the disabled list if he isn't ready for backup duty by Monday. ... Piniella used a late-inning defensive replacement for Kosuke Fukudome in center field Friday, but doesn't plan to do so again. "We'll just let him play," he said.