By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
CHICAGO, Aug. 25 -- Though he's been gone for a solid decade now, Jim Riggleman knows how it sounds -- that communal sigh of sadness and acceptance that falls heavy upon Wrigley Field every year. Maybe it comes in August. Maybe, in the rarest seasons, it comes in October. But there is always a moment when Cubs fans realize the present year is not The Year; you hear booing, then organ music, then talk of next year. Riggleman managed here for five seasons. He does not believe in curses, but his 0-3 postseason record convinced few Chicagoans to agree.
Tuesday, Riggleman returned to Wrigley, and he sat in the opposite dugout, a fresh perspective on those familiar sounds. The booing. The organ hymnals. A critical Cubbies loss in another deflating season.
But no, the Cubs are not cursed, and Riggleman's rationale -- he says the same thing now that he said then -- felt particularly cogent following the Washington Nationals' 15-6 bashing of Chicago in front of 37,297. "Sometimes," Riggleman said, "people forget the other team is trying to win, too."
The takeaway story line for all those ticketholders plays to the Cubs' inability: Their volatile ace, Carlos Zambrano (4 1/3 innings, eight runs), got shelled in his return from the disabled list. The home team fell to 62-61, lights dimming on the postseason hopes.
Riggleman sees a different context. The Nationals dictated the outcome with relentless hitting, the best of their season. The only variable was the method. Josh Willingham burned away all traces of a brief slump with an incendiary night -- a 4for4, five-run, six-RBI performance that included two home runs, including one that landed on Waveland Avenue. Elijah Dukes formally ended all drama in the fifth with a two-out grand slam that wrapped up a six-run frame and gave Washington a 9-1 lead. Throw in three Wil Nieves RBI and a 3-for-5 game from Ronnie Belliard, and Washington finished with its new season-high total for runs scored.
"You get me down in the seven hole and [the runs] just come so quick," Dukes said. "Hit after hit after hit."
This was supposed to be Zambrano's night, but triumphant returns don't always go as scheduled at Wrigley. Because of muscle spasms in his back, the right-hander hadn't pitched since August 1, excluding last five scoreless innings last Thursday with Class A Peoria. The Cubs, losers in 12 of 17, needed Zambrano. Or rather, they needed Zambrano at his best.
His return only advanced the freefall, perhaps even finalizing it. He was okay until the fifth, having surrendered only three runs, but with his pitch count rising, Zambrano hit the wall. The final five batters he faced all reached base. Willie Harris was hit by a pitch, and Cristián Guzman and Ryan Zimmerman followed with singles. Then, Zambrano walked two in a row -- first Adam Dunn, then Willingham -- with the bases loaded.
All of which elicited boos and sighs from the Wrigley crowd.
Manager Lou Piniella walked to the mound and plucked the ball from Zambrano, who before reaching the dugout removed his cap, as if entering a church. Even with his work done, of course, Zambrano's night was only to get worse. That's because Piniella handed the ball to reliever Aaron Heilman, who promptly allowed all three inherited runners to score on the Dukes grand slam -- a knockout punch to deep left-center.
Chicago, third time through the lineup, managed a little damage against Washington starter Garrett Mock (5 2/3 innings, seven hits, four earned runs), but the Nationals still managed to turn this game from a blowout into a bludgeoning. They scored three runs in a four-hit seventh, and then in the eighth, Willingham cranked his second homer of the game -- a three-run shot -- against lefty Tom Gorzelanny.
"I was getting some good pitches to hit," Willingham said, "and wasn't missing."
By the ninth, Wrigley was quiet, with the flags flapping in center and only a few thousand peppering the seats. Riggleman's seen that before, too. When he managed Chicago from 1995 to 1999, he lived downtown, and often took the L-Train to Wrigley. Nobody recognized him. Ever. On teams with mega-personalities -- Mark Grace and Sammy Sosa and Kerry Wood -- Riggleman was the inconspicuous skipper, 5-foot-11, polite, almost anonymous.
"Back in those days when I was here we had a team or two that was like that when we were going good," Riggleman said, asked about the offensive explosion. "But we had some other years where we had a hard time doing anything unless it was Sammy or Mark. So you know, this lineup here with Washington is a little deeper than what I had in those days."