Spin Forward: Cubs can't allow walks

Spin Forward: Cubs can't allow walks

CHICAGO -- It's not just the walks.

OK, it's primarily the walks. But free passes weren't the only mistakes that hurt Cubs pitchers in a 7-2 loss to the Dodgers on Wednesday night in Game 1 of the National League Division Series. And it's not the only problem they need to correct on Thursday.

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The Cubs, and specifically starter Ryan Dempster, did in fact allow far too many bases on balls in Game 1. However, they also couldn't convert on the rare occasions when they did get ahead in the counts -- and that's just as grave a pitching sin. Chicago hurlers will have to do a better job of getting ahead and of putting hitters away if the Cubs don't want to head to Dodger Stadium in a two-game hole on Thursday night.

"We talked about the importance of throwing strikes before the ballgame today," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "I thought that would be a big key. And their guys threw strikes and ours didn't. It hurts."

Chicago pitchers handed out eight walks to a team that came into the series looking to work the count. They threw 184 pitches in nine innings, just 100 of them (54 percent) for strikes. Sure, the Dodgers took good at-bats. But a showing like that is as much an indictment of the pitchers as it is a credit to the hitters.

This Dodgers team is a different club from the one the Cubs saw in the first half. They have enough dangerous hitters to make a team regret putting free runners on base. If Carlos Zambrano doesn't throw strikes on Thursday, Los Angeles hitters will be happy to let him walk them.

"That's basically what we do," said Dodgers manager Joe Torre. "And it wasn't particularly against Dempster, it was just, well, we need to make the pitcher work and show our patience, because I think a lot of times teams took advantage of our overaggressiveness early on in the season."

Manny Ramirez walked after falling behind Dempster, 0-2, in the fifth inning. James Loney's grand slam, two batters later, also followed an 0-2 count. Ramirez's solo homer in the seventh came on an 0-2 pitch. Casey Blake's RBI single in the eighth occurred after he was behind Jeff Samardzija, 1-2.

It was an uneven paradox for the NL Central champs. When they wanted, or needed, to throw a strike, they couldn't. When they wanted to expand the zone, to get a swinging strike on a pitch out of the zone, they came over the plate.

That has to change, and unfortunately for the Cubs, there's no guarantee it will. A day after Dempster couldn't stay in the zone, they turn to a man who has twice issued the most walks in the NL. Zambrano improved his control this year, but it flagged quite a bit in the final several weeks of the season.

Zambrano issued seven walks in his last two starts of the year. And even with his Sept. 14 no-hitter -- a one-walk performance vs. the Astros -- he's handed out 24 free passes in his past 37 2/3 innings.

He knows what the plan needs to be, though.

"Strike, first pitch, strike, and challenge the hitters," Zambrano said. "Sinker. If my sinker is working, everything will be different."

The Cubs may also need to adjust their approach against Ramirez, unquestionably one of the game's most dangerous hitters. After Dempster got ahead of Ramirez in the fifth, he scarcely even came near the strike zone for the rest of the at-bat.

It's one thing to try to get a hitter to chase an 0-2 pitch or even in a 1-2 count. But, at some point, you have to throw strikes -- and not just strikes, but quality strikes. The Cubs threw too few strikes, and too few quality strikes -- to Ramirez and to everyone else. It has to change, and soon.

"We were trying to make good pitches on him," Piniella said. "But we were behind in the count to too many hitters. I don't know, how many did we walk today? Seven, eight? I mean, that's not a formula to win, believe me. And we didn't win."

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.