The Cubs were the only team in the Majors to not lose more than two in a row this season -- until now. They had not been swept this year. This wasn't the homecoming manager Lou Piniella anticipated.
"We've had trouble scoring runs this whole road trip," Piniella said, then went off on an unprompted tangent about the Cubs' leadoff situation. "I don't want to hear any more when I get back to Chicago when we get [Alfonso] Soriano back about leadoff or anything else. I really don't. I'm not going to put up with it any more. I think we know what we're doing here.
"It's just been a struggle," Piniella continued. "We have to piece it together and keep our heads up and keep going. We haven't been in a bad spell all year, and we're in one right now. Hopefully, when we get home, we'll cure it, and go forward."
Soriano isn't expected back for a while, sidelined for at least six weeks because of a broken bone in his left hand. Kosuke Fukudome has led off the last two games, with Reed Johnson in the No. 1 spot on Tuesday. But that's a story for another day.
On Thursday, Sean Gallagher was in line for the win after the Cubs took a 3-1 lead in the seventh. Micah Hoffpauir doubled to lead off the inning, and Mark DeRosa walked. Henry Blanco tried to bunt, but popped up to Rays starter James Shields. Mike Fontenot then hit a ground-rule double to tie the game, and chase Shields. Fukudome blooped a single off Trever Miller to shallow left to score DeRosa. Miller exited, and Theriot hit a bouncing single off Grant Balfour to drive in Fontenot and make it 3-1.
But Carlos Marmol, who was limiting hitters to a .126 average, walked the first two batters he faced in the Rays' seventh, then hit Gabe Gross. Marmol then plunked Akinori Iwamura to force in a run, and was pulled. Crawford connected on a 1-0 pitch off Scott Eyre for his fifth homer.
"He's been extremely reliable," Piniella said of Marmol. "This came out of nowhere. What are you going to do?"
"It's going to happen," Eyre said. "It happens to everybody. Carlos is human. He's not going to be the amazing Marmol every night. It's hard, because he's usually automatic. I came in and kept it going."
The matchup between Crawford and Eyre was the right call. Wrong result.
"It was supposed to be down-and-away, and I missed up-and-in, and he still hit it," Eyre said of the pitch. "Sometimes you throw a bad pitch, and they hit it good, and it's a bad pitch in a good spot. If I was going to miss, I'd actually miss there again."
The Cubs bullpen came into the game with a 3.22 ERA, and had been one of the stronger parts of the team.
"You're not going to get everybody out every outing," Eyre said. "As good as Carlos has thrown -- and I felt I've thrown pretty well until tonight -- tonight wasn't a whole lot of fun for anybody. What [stinks] the most is they battled back. That's the worst part, as a reliever. They battled back and scored runs to take the lead, and that just [ticks] you off more than anything."
The Rays have swept the Red Sox and the Angels -- who currently sit atop the AL East and AL West, respectively -- this season. They're for real.
"They're a good baseball team," Eyre said. "We have to go home and play a tough series against the [White] Sox. We have to brush this off and go tomorrow and start all over. We've been solid at home, and we have to figure out how to win on the road next."
The Cubs, playing with a 21-man roster, dropped to 16-20 on the road. Chicago was shorthanded, because Johnson and Jim Edmonds were hurt, and Carlos Zambrano and Ted Lilly had both flown back to Chicago. Zambrano was to have his shoulder examined, and Lilly was starting Friday. They also could be a little travel-weary, having been to Toronto, followed by the tough trip to Cooperstown on Monday for the Hall of Fame Game, which ended up being lunch with the Padres.
"I found some things out in this series that I think will pay some dividends down the road, and we'll leave it at that," Piniella said.
That's for another day, too.
"It's only one loss," Piniella said. "It's the first time we've lost three in a row, and we go home and try to regroup; that's all we can do."
Wrigley Field will be a welcome sight after six straight games in domed stadiums, even if the team does arrive early in the morning with a day game on tap against the crosstown White Sox. Piniella was eager to get back to a normal schedule after trying to accommodate all the family, friends, and media requests he had in the three days in his hometown.
"I need a three-day vacation from Tampa-St. Petersburg," Piniella said.