Cubs hitters snakebitten in desert

Cubs hitters snakebitten in desert

PHOENIX -- Alfonso Soriano made the first and last outs of the Cubs' 3-1 loss to Arizona in Wednesday's National League Division Series opener at Chase Field, and after the last one he walked through the tunnel into the visitors' clubhouse and made a beeline for a computer screen on one side of the room.

Soriano sat down with Corey Miller, one of the Cubs' bullpen catchers, who played the video of each of those three pitches that Diamondbacks closer and 2007 Major League saves leader Jose Valverde had just thrown. Soriano watched what he had just done, two strikes and a goodbye groundout to short, and his gaze was transfixed curiously like the Soviets 50 years ago today watching Sputnik.

"I'd never faced him, so I have to see it," Soriano said after getting up from the table and showering. "I had to take the first pitch, especially when he's someone new to me. I have to feel more comfortable and look at one. It was a perfect pitch. The last two pitches were good to hit, too, and I just hit the last one to the shortstop.

"We hit the ball very good. I felt very good today. That's all you can take from tonight. You have to give credit to Brandon Webb and their bullpen. We didn't have the big hit. You leave nine on, score only one run ... you can't win like that. But we hit. I think tomorrow we'll come back and do a good job."

That final out meant the ninth and final Cubs player left on base on this night, stranding pinch-runner Ronny Cedeno at first. It meant Soriano was 0-for-5 at the top of the order. It meant the Cubs' top five hitters would finish a collective 1-for-20, their only hit that leadoff single by Derrek Lee to start the sixth-inning rally.

This was the same Cubs team that had just slugged a franchise-record 45 homers in September. They could have used one or two of those here.

"We hit others hard," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said when asked about two balls Aramis Ramirez (0-for-4) hit to the track. "[Carlos] Zambrano lined out to center. Soriano lined out to short. [Jacque] Jones -- their first baseman made a nice play on the ball he hit in the hole. What are you going to do?"

If Piniella is saying the same thing after Thursday night's Game 2, the Cubs will be in big trouble. Here is the quick snapshot of each inning, to see exactly what went wrong for the NL Central champs in the postseason opener:

First inning: Jones walks with one out, but Lee strikes out and Ramirez grounds out to second.

Second inning: With Mark DeRosa on first and one out, Geovany Soto grounded out to third and advanced the runner. "He broke my bat with that one," Soto said of Webb, the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner. "He had a very good sinker, backdoor, down and in to the right-hander." Up stepped Ryan Theriot, and a groundout to short to end it.

Third inning: Looking back, this was maybe the dagger. Zambrano helped himself with a leadoff double, but Webb then struck out the side. Lee was the last to go. "His ball just disappears," Lee said in front of his locker. "He really had great movement, and he was throwing a changeup off that sinker. It was really hard to pick up. You just don't see many right-handed pitchers throwing that to right-handed hitters. You think it's a sinker, but [it's a changeup and] it never gets here."

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Fourth inning: DeRosa was on first after being hit by a pitch, but Soto, a .389 hitter in 54 regular-season at-bats, grounded out to short. At least his bat didn't break.

Fifth inning: Theriot led off by reaching first on a throwing error, advancing to second. Then came Zambrano's liner to Stephen Drew at short. Soriano got a 2-0 pitch over the middle of the plate at the knees, and he skied it to center. Jones swung at the first pitch, a big breaking ball (10-inch break), and was a 3-1 putout. It was becoming a bad habit. Cubs fans, who probably numbered four out of every 10 fans, were becoming nervous.

"We need to score some ... runs," Cubs fan Scotty Dietz, a Las Vegas resident formerly from Joliet, Ill., said when interviewed after the fifth. "You can delete whatever word is necessary there, but that's how we feel right now."

Sixth inning: As if he heard them, Lee led off with that single to left. Ramirez struck out swinging, but strike three was a wild pitch and Lee was on second. Cliff Floyd -- who went 0-for-4 to start the postseason after his woebegone October 2006 for the Mets -- lined out to right. DeRosa walked. So did Soto. Bases loaded. Crowd goes wild. Coaching visit to mound. Crowd grows louder. Theriot hits a chopper that goes over the head of third baseman Mark Reynolds, and Drew can't reach it in the hole. It was a tie game, and then Zambrano struck out on three pitches.

"Basically my offspeed pitches were as good as I've had them probably this year," Webb said. "A lot of good changeups and curveballs, some of the big hitters just trying to execute pitches and get ahead of them and I was able to do that. That's where the big outs came from, especially after the leadoff double from Zambrano. I struck out the side and used a lot of offspeed pitches to get the strikeouts."

Piniella, asked if he considered pinch-hitting for Zambrano there, said, "He had a double to left-center field. He lined out to short. Listen, you guys, this is only the first game. There's a lot of baseball to be played in this series, OK? It's not gloom and doom, this thing. Let's just keep positive."

Seventh inning: Cubs fans were trying to stay positive. They are, after all, Cubs fans. Lee said that after it was tied at 1, "we felt there would be momentum." But it stopped. Now even reaching base would grow impossible. Webb recorded his first 1-2-3 inning. Lee was the last to go, two fouls and a swinging strike on an 80-mph sinker-change. Webb, who said he kept Lee "guessing," was done for the night.

Eighth inning: One Brandon (Lyon) replaced another, and there were similar results. Ramirez got five consecutive 93-mph fastballs, and the last one was a deep fly to right. Floyd lined to right as well. Then DeRosa grounded out to third. There were precious few "holes" in the Diamondbacks defense for the Cubs.

"We were hitting some balls hard and didn't get through," Theriot said. "If we can repeat the way we swung, we'll find holes."

Ninth inning: Valverde saved 47 games this year, more than anyone else, making the All-Star Game. He got a quick two outs, and then pinch-hitter Daryle Ward worked him for a walk -- one of the Cubs' best at-bats of the night. Cedeno ran for him, but didn't get anywhere. That's because Soriano, representing power vs. power, looked at a perfect strike one down the pipe, then fouled off a 97-mph heater, and then grounded the 87-mph slider to short for the game-ending force at second.

Soriano then did what any professional superstar would do. He immediately went to watch the video. He looked at each of those three pitches, over and over. Now, he says, he will be ready when and if they meet again. Maybe it will be in this series.

"Just give a lot of credit to them," Soriano said. "We gotta win three. We'll be fine. We can't get down."

Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.