Piniella learns losing, Cubbie style

His hands jammed into his back pockets, his blue cap pulled tightly over graying hair, Lou Piniella prowls and paces the dugout daily, intently studying the game in front of him. So far, he’s been watching a rerun.

Yes, it’s early. And it’s also so familiar.

The Chicago Cubs are in last place.

The swagger Piniella envisioned with a team that was overhauled in the offseason – with $300 million committed to contracts present and future – has yet to surface.

“We broke spring training really thinking we have a championship ballclub,” said Mark DeRosa, one of the offseason acquisitions. “If you went around and still asked the same question, to a man we think we do.”

But there have been baserunning mistakes, letdowns from the bullpen, an ace with just one win, a star outfielder with no homers and one RBI, an offense that has been erratic, some bizarre plays and several devastating losses.

Hoping to get off to a quick start, especially with a favorable home schedule in April, the Cubs dropped to 3-9 at Wrigley Field after a 4-1 loss to Milwaukee on Tuesday night. They are 7-13, last in the NL Central.

Piniella didn’t even show up for his postgame news conference after Monday’s 5-4, 12-inning loss, a rarity for a man who often is blunt, entertaining and humorous during exchanges with reporters. And his hitting coach, Gerald Perry, could be heard having an angry exchange with the umpires in the tunnel leading to the dugout – Piniella had a similar incident with umps last week.

Monday’s loss was the second straight in extra innings – the Cubs are now 0-3 in extra innings this season – and dropped them to 0-5 in one-run games.

So far, a team that’s gone almost a century since its last World Series title in 1908 is getting much the same results it experienced last season under Dusty Baker.

And there’s another common thread – often-injured pitchers Mark Prior and Kerry Wood are out of action with injuries. Prior underwent exploratory arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder Tuesday and Wood has tendinitis and has been unable to pitch since late in spring training.

The Cubs have tried to move on, but the slow start has frustrations mounting.

“Look,” Piniella said earlier during the recent homestand, using one of his favorite introductions.

“We’ve been in every game we’ve played. Our pitching for the most part has been pretty darn good. Defensively we’ve actually played really good baseball. We just need to start scoring some runs and that should come,” he said. “So what’s happened here in the past I really don’t care about. What I care about is what happens here now presently.”

No. 1 starter Carlos Zambrano, 0-for-April a year ago, has one win. After he and reliever Will Ohman let a 5-0 lead slip away in a loss to the Reds, an agitated Piniella showed flashes of his famous temper when questioned about what wasn’t working.

“What the hell do you think isn’t working? You see the damn game,” he snapped during a news conference.

That outburst has been his biggest meltdown publicly, although he and umpires exchanged some loud “pleasantries” in the runway between the clubhouse and dugout after a 2-1 loss to the Cardinals last Friday

In that game, Chicago’s Ronny Cedeno ran from first on a 3-2 pitch as teammate Jacque Jones drew a walk. But in what would be called a typical Cubs play, Cedeno overslid the second base bag and was tagged out, a call that was made after the umpires conferred. And a right one, according to Piniella.

Piniella has been tinkering with different lineups throughout the first month, looking for the right combination to get the offense going. Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez, Nos. 3 and 4 in the batting order, have been consistent.

Alfonso Soriano, who signed a $136 million, eight-year deal in the offseason, hurt his hamstring while playing center field and was switched back to left when he returned to the starting lineup Monday. The move was made to take some of the strain off Soriano’s leg, but it could also been a way to get his bat going.

Soriano has no homers, one RBI and one steal in his first 14 games, and seemed satisfied with the position switch.

Rich Hill and newcomers Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis have pitched well in the starting rotation, but Zambrano has not. He and the team had hoped to work out a multiyear contract extension when the season opened three weeks ago, but then the Tribune Co. announced the Cubs would be put up for sale after the season.

Since then, a new deal for Zambrano appears to have been put on hold, and it’s not clear whether that has distracted the big right-hander, who’s been known for his temperamental antics on the mound.

The offseason was a busy one. Ramirez re-signed for five years and $75 million; Lilly got $40 million for four years; Marquis $21 million for three years; DeRosa $13 million for three years; and outfielder Cliff Floyd $3 million for one. Zambrano got a $12.4 million, one-year deal just before a scheduled arbitration hearing.

Making Piniella’s new adventure even more intriguing so far has been his experience at Wrigley Field, the second oldest ballpark in the majors. The 63-year-old manager said it was “neat” to watch people sitting on the rooftops across the street taking in the game. But playing the elements can be difficult.

The dimensions of the park, with its ivy-covered walls, narrow foul lines and fickle winds that blow in one day and out the next, are all factors for a manager to consider when he puts his team on the field.

“It makes you play baseball. It really does. The better your team is put together to play baseball, the more games you’re gonna win,” Piniella said. “You need balance here. … You’ve got to make the plays defensively. It’s baseball. It really is baseball here. … It puts a premium on how your roster’s set up.”

All of this is part of Piniella’s introduction to Cubs baseball. So far – as he acknowledged earlier – he can see what’s made winning so elusive for so many years. He’s vowed to fix that. Whether he can is still to be determined.

“Whatever our record is, it could be above by a lot,” he said.