Daily Windup: How Lou Piniella could decide NL playoff races
The road to the National League playoffs this year runs straight into Lou Piniella's firmly set and stubble-covered jaw and takes an immediate turn north, right into his churning frontal lobe. As we saw against the Mets this week, and as we'll find out this weekend against the Brewers, whatever tricked-up or tricked-down lineup that the Cubs' manager throws out there, whatever pitching rotation he settles on, whatever he decides to do with his bullpen will have a direct bearing on how the wild card, and maybe even the NL East race, shakes out.
It's a great place to be in if you're Piniella or a Cubs' fan. The NL Central title is locked up. The Cubs have the best record in the league. They have the home-field advantage that comes with it. Piniella can simply cruise now, try to set up his postseason rotation, give his untested a little more testing, rest his regulars, heal his sick, take an extra smoke break ... whatever. If you checked out any of the Cubs' lineups this week against the Mets, they've already done just about all of that.
But for the rest of the NL playoff contenders, this is an odd, uncomfortable spot, being at the mercy of Piniella. Will the sometimes Not-So-Sweet Lou finally pull out the real lineup and play his front-liners this weekend in Milwaukee? Or will he give the B team some more reps? If he goes Cubs Lite, will the Brewers have as hard of a time dealing with them as the Mets did?
And how much will all of that affect the whole wild card/NL East thing?
Yeah, it's a twisted little game that Piniella is running here. And he's playing it perfectly.
"If we were playing non-contending teams, nobody would be saying a word," Piniella told reporters in New York before Thursday's loss to the Mets. "What's the sense of trying to take care of everybody else? Take care of yourself ..."
Piniella turned in a lineup card on Thursday against the Mets without its regular third baseman, first baseman, left fielder, right fielder and catcher. He refused, for the second straight night, to call on setup man Carlos Marmol (though he certainly could have used him). Closer Kerry Wood faced all of four batters in the four-game series.
Instead on Thursday, the Mets saw catcher Koyie Hill (not Geovany Soto), first baseman Micah Hoffpauir (instead of Derrek Lee), third baseman Casey McGehee (while Aramis Ramirez sat), left fielder Felix Pie (no Alfonso Soriano) and right fielder Kosuke Fukudome (instead of, more likely, Mark DeRosa). And yet it still took a walkoff hit from Carlos Beltran in the bottom of the ninth -- off the glove of Hoffpauir, who had gone 5-for-5 in the game, with two home runs -- for the Mets to win, 7-6.
As it turned out, the Mets split the series, though they won two of three from the pseudo Cubs. (The real Cubs won the first game, clinching home-field advantage and putting Piniella's plan for the rest of the series into motion.) The Mets, in fact, probably could have finished up with wins in all three of the final games with even a smidgen of timely hitting in Wednesday's extra-inning loss.
Against the Brewers, the Cubs don't figure to be nearly as accommodating. Piniella rested his regular catcher, Soto, in the final three games of the Mets' series as he took care of a sore hand, but the skipper vowed to put the will-be Rookie of the Year winner behind the plate for at least two of the games against the Brewers. DeRosa tweaked a calf muscle in Wednesday's game and may get some more rest, but expect to see Lee and Soriano and Ramirez -- the big hitters -- back in the lineup for much, if not all, of the series in Milwaukee.
Carlos Zambrano will get to pitch some innings. Marmol probably will, too. The Brewers will see some of Wood, if the games call for it.
"We have two days off, Monday and Tuesday [before the NL Division Series begins], so we have to play our regulars," Piniella said. "I don't want them sitting for four or five days."
All of the maneuvering could have some very real implications as far as the playoffs go. The Mets and Brewers are tied for the wild card entering Friday's games. The Phillies are a game up on the Mets in the NL East.
The Mets host the Marlins, the Phillies welcome the Nationals. And the Brewers get the best team in the league, the Cubs, probably at nearly full strength. At face value, anyway, the Brewers get the raw end of this deal.
That's the way that Piniella has played it, though. That's the way he wants it. It's the way any good manager would have played it. Piniella will take his players into the postseason as healthy and as rested as he can possibly get them.
As for the rest of the NL contenders? As if Piniella or the Cubs really care.