Nothing this year comes easy for the Chicago Cubs, who entered the opener of their interleague home series against Detroit with a record of 20 wins and 40 losses, just a fraction ahead of San Diego in the dubious race for worst record in baseball. And Tuesday night's game was no exception.
The Cubs scratched out a 3-0 lead behind one of lefty Paul Maholm's better starts. But Maholm, tiring in the 7th, was pulled with runners on first and second and no out, and reliever Casey Coleman pitched a little batting practice, surrendering a run-scoring single to pinch-hitter Ramon Santiago and a two-run single to Detroit centerfielder Austin Jackson that tied the game at 3 before James Russell came out of the bullpen to put out the fire.
Yet, in a marked reversal of fortune in a season in which the Cubs have managed repeatedly to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, the North Siders scored a two-out run in the bottom of the 8th to pull out a 4-3 win, prompting a rare sighting of the "W" flag on the mast atop the centerfield scoreboard.
The Cubs' winning rally was about as small as "small ball" can get, and the winning run wouldn't have scored without help from the suddenly erratic throwing arm of Jhonny (yes, that is the correct spelling) Peralta, the Tigers' usually slick-fielding shortstop.
With one out in the 8th, Cubs' second baseman Darwin Barney -- whose two-run double in the 6th was the Cubs' biggest hit all game -- drew a walk from Tigers' lefty Phil Coke, who was in his second inning in relief of starter Max Scherzer. After third baseman Ian Stewart continued his season-long slump by striking out, pinch hitter Reed Johnson hit a dribbler up the third base line that went for an infield hit. Then the fun began. Tony Campana, the Cubs' center fielder, bounced a ball that should have gone for an easy inning-ending force play, but Peralta threw wide and pulled second baseman Santiago off the bag for an error.
That brought up Cubs' shortstop Starlin Castro, who is batting .302 on the season but had a terrible night at the plate that included three strikeouts. And truth be told, Castro didn't do much with the bases-loaded opportunity, tapping a ground ball (seen in the photo) that again looked like a rally-killer. But the ball bounced slowly to short, Castro hustled down the line, and Peralta's rushed throw pulled first baseman Prince Fielder off the base as Barney scampered across the plate.
And after Coleman's lead-squandering performance, the Cubs' bullpen was unusually efficient with Russell, Carlos Marmol and Shawn Camp retiring the final eight Tiger batters in a row. Marmol, who was removed from the team's closer role after some early-season meltdowns, got credit for the win, bringing his season record to 1-2. Camp picked up his first save of the season. Coke, now 1-3, took the loss for Detroit.
The problem for the Cubs Tuesday -- and in many of their losses this season -- is not that they don't get men on base. It's the frequency with which they leave them there. The Cubs had seven hits, drew seven walks and benefited from Peralta's back-to-back errors, but left 11 runners on, getting just one hit in 14 attempts with runners in scoring position (on second or third base). A big part of the reason is that the Tigers' pitchers recorded 12 strikeouts, with Castro and first baseman Bryan LaHair leading the way with three apiece.
(Tony Campana, the Cubs' speedy centerfielder, led off the 7th with a single and proceeded to steal second and third, but a strikeout by batter Bryan LaHair left him stranded. Campana, who also stole second in the 5th inning, now has 21 steals on the season, leading the majors.)
Still, Detroit's loss dropped the puzzling Tigers to a record of 28-33 and to six games behind the first-place Chicago White Sox (6-1 winners Tuesday over the St. Louis Cardinals) in the American League Central Division.
Detroit came off a 2011 season in which they won 95 games to run away with the Central, then knocked the New York Yankees out in the first round of the playoffs before losing the AL Championship Series to the Texas Rangers. Their off-season signing of slugging first baseman Prince Fielder, formerly of the Milwaukee Brewers, to a big free-agent contract had visions of the 2012 World Series dancing in Tigers' fans' heads. Fielder (.315 batting average, 10 homers, 40 RBI) and Miguel Cabrera, the team's other hitting star (.316, 13, 51) have held up their end of the bargain, but the Tigers' pitching has struggling mightily, with a team earned run average of 4.28, 24th of the 30 major league teams and just one place ahead of ... the Chicago Cubs.
The teams play game two of the three-game set Wednesday night, with an expected pitching matchup of Matt Garza (2-4, 3.99 ERA) for the Cubs and Rick Porcello (3-4, 5.03) for the Tigers.