"We just don't put the ball in play," Piniella said after the Cubs loaded the bases three times in the game and managed just one run out of those situations in a 6-2 loss to the Mets before a crowd of 37,953 at Citi Field.
"The strikeouts," Piniella said quietly with the realization that his team's Wild Card chances are beginning to evaporate. "Strikeouts. A ground ball somewhere, a little fly ball somewhere, you get some action."
The Cubs got what they needed from starter Carlos Zambrano, who had been 0-2 since coming off the disabled list on Aug. 25. The veteran right-hander gave up just three hits over six innings, but one was a two-out solo home run by outfielder Cory Sullivan, who hadn't homered in the Major Leagues since Sept. 12, 2007.
But Mets starter Bobby Parnell, who was ripped for eight runs on nine hits in just 4 1/3 innings at Wrigley Field on Saturday, one-upped Zambrano. Parnell pitched seven shutout innings of five-hit ball.
"He got good wood on it, he spinned it off his bat," Zambrano said of the home run. "Otherwise, it was a good game. But it's like, sometimes we pitch good and we can't hit, and other days we hit good and the pitching is down. It's a pity. We've been down through this year, but what can I say?"
While the Cubs didn't hit much Friday, their normally stalwart bullpen also struggled. Relievers Kevin Gregg and John Grabow combined to give up five runs on six hits and one error in the bottom of the eighth after Chicago tied the game, 1-1, in the top of the same inning.
"We had some opportunities late in the game and we didn't get it done on the mound," said Grabow, who, like the losing pitcher Gregg (5-6), didn't record an out. "We need to start figuring things out quick. I don't know if we start panicking now, or take it day-by-day and win series and try to stay close in these games."
The Cubs lifted their own hopes by tying the game in strange fashion in the eighth inning off reliever and winner Brian Stokes (2-4). Milton Bradley led off the inning with what appeared to be a routine fly ball to center. Center fielder Angel Pagan broke late on the ball and Bradley cruised into second with a double. Two outs later, Bradley scored on a hard single to right by Jeff Baker.
But this night, the Cubs, who took the field No. 4 in the National League in strikeouts, were to be denied.
Zambrano struck out swinging to end the second with the bases loaded. Chicago loaded the bases with no one out in the seventh and pinch-hitter Mike Fontenot and Kosuke Fukudome struck out before Ryan Theriot bounced out weakly to the mound to end the inning. The Cubs loaded the bases with one out in the ninth, and Aramis Ramirez popped out softly to second before pinch-hitter Jake Fox struck out to end the game.
In all, the Cubs struck out nine times and left 12 runners on base.
Piniella broke into a laugh when he was asked if he thought about not pinch hitting Fontenot for Zambrano in the seventh.
"We thought about it and I came to the conclusion that if I have to let pitchers hit, what the hell do I need pinch-hitters for?" the manager said. "It's the honest truth. You hate to be harsh, but it's pure reality."
And then there was Piniella's take on Theriot, whose slow play on a grounder to short by Luis Castillo, New York's leadoff batter in the fateful eighth inning, led to a hit that ignited the big rally.
"I think he had a little trouble getting it out of his glove," Piniella said.
Could Theriot be tired, Piniella was asked?
"I don't think so," Piniella said. "I mean, truthfully, it's the first week in September. It's a long season. You've got to get through these things. We gave him a rest the other day at home.
"It's gotten beyond the point of frustration," the manager concluded. "I don't know what to do."
Kit Stier is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.