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Pitching flubs drub Cubs


Jonathan Winters is a comedian, not a Cub, but last week in the visitors' dressing room at Dodger Stadium he was acting like one. While the real Cubs looked on in amusement, Winters stuck a Chicago cap on his head and, complete with sound effects and gestures, went through the motions of a pitcher. He looked in, he wound up, he delivered. It was very realistic, and it seemed even truer to life when Winters' imaginary batter hit a home run. Every one of the Cubs laughed—even the pitchers, who knew the feeling all too well.

Chicago pitchers, particularly the club's starters, have been a laughing matter all season. They are the softest and most frequent touches in the major leagues, allowing more runs, more hits and more homers, and compiling fewer complete games than any other staff. They have lost games by scores of 18-16 (to Philadelphia after leading 13-2) and 14-12 (to Los Angeles). When they somehow ran off three consecutive shutouts just before the All-Star break, one of them said, "It was more a relief than something to celebrate." Since the hitters (.250) and the fielders (74 errors) are only slightly better than the pitchers, the Cubs are in fifth place in the National League East, 15 games under .500 and 22½ behind the Phillies.

Pitching is said to be 75% of the game; with Chicago it's probably 90% of the problem. Certainly it has taken 100% of the blame. "Yeah, we've been criticized," says Rick Reuschel, who with brother Paul forms a sibling combination that will never rival Dizzy and Paul Dean. "We've had to stick together and encourage each other a lot."

The Cubs' 11-man staff is the largest in the majors, but there is not a blue-chipper in the lot. In fact, there is only one pitcher with a career record above .500. Rick Reuschel has been the most consistent starter this year, even though his record dropped to 8-7 and his ERA increased to 4.43 after losing to the Dodgers last week. Ray Burris has plunged from 15-10 last season to 4-10. Bill Bonham's ERA is 4.98, and he has not gotten past the fifth inning in his last four starts. Steve Stone might be effective, but shoulder trouble has limited him to 21 innings so far. The fifth starter is Steve Renko, who was let go by the Expos, the only team in the division worse than the Cubs.

"With the amount of pitching experience most of us have, we should be showing more," says the underconfident Bonham of a staff that is not particularly young. "No one has been able to carry the load. We need someone to go crazy and win 10 in a row. It would pick us up. But it takes a special person to be a winner on a losing team. Right now it couldn't be me. I have fears between starts. I just can't imagine myself going 20-10."

Bonham admires what Steve Carlton did for Philadelphia in 1972, when he won 27 games for a last-place team, and Randy Jones did last season, when he went 20-12 for fourth-place San Diego. None of the 16 men who have taken the mound for Chicago this season have given a hint they might do the same. Manager Jim Marshall has called on 12 of the 16 to step into the rotation on various occasions, including two relievers who had never started before. Marshall has been forced to use as many as six pitchers in games; 16 times he has needed to deploy three of them in a single inning. "All I expect from a starter is seven strong innings," says Marshall, who usually gets less.

There are good reasons for Chicago's pitching problems, the most obvious being a lack of talent, though none of the staff members is ready to accept that explanation. "Bonham, Rick Reuschel and Burris are all potential 20-game winners," says Pitching Coach Marv Grissom. Reliever Darold Knowles, the former Oakland World Series hero, says, "We don't have a Catfish Hunter, but we have guys who can become a Catfish. The criticism is grossly overdone."

No less exaggerated is the team ERA of 4.63, which, if it does not improve, will be the worst in the National League in 14 seasons. Steve Stone insists that earned run averages are an "invalid measurement of performance. With those short fences and the wind blowing out, anyone's ERA would be high in Wrigley Field."

Another pitcher says it is no coincidence that the Cubs have had only eight winning teams in the 31 years since their last pennant. "It's those Wrigley day games," he says. "We need supermen to win with all that summer heat, humidity and constant adjustment from night games on the road to day games at home. Chicago didn't blow the pennant in 1969—it wore out."

As long as Philip K. Wrigley is alive there will never be lights above the ivy-covered walls of his park, but Marshall thinks he has found a way to take some strain off his pitchers by changing from a four-man to a five-man rotation. "It's going to be good for me," says Burris. "I lose 15 pounds on a hot day. The extra rest will help me get my strength back. I'll be better."

Better. Things are always going to get better. But they never really do. In the off-season the Cubs got Mike Garman from St. Louis to bolster the bullpen; Garman is 2-4 with a 5.37 ERA. Early this year Joe Coleman was obtained on waivers from Detroit to aid the starters, but now he is in the bullpen. One of his few starts was cataclysmic: 11 runs and 10 hits in 2‚Öî innings. Amazingly, none of Chicago's deals has fulfilled the most obvious need facing the Cubs: a lefthander. Knowles is the only one on the staff.

The Dodgers did not have any trouble last week against an array of Cub righthanders. Rick Reuschel began the second half of the season by hitting the first two batters he faced and allowing four opening-inning runs as Chicago lost 5-2. The next night Renko pitched well enough, but found another way to lose; his fielding error allowed the go-ahead run to score. When Stone's turn to start came the following evening, he allowed five runs in 3‚Öì innings, and Chicago went down to a 5-4 defeat.

That was not all the bad news. In one of those games, 23-year-old rookie Reliever Bruce Sutter, whose 1.75 ERA had made him a healthy exception to the staff malaise, finally succumbed. He allowed a homer, a walk and a triple in two-thirds of an inning. "Tonight was a lesson," he said. "You get a little cocky, and they knock you out. It reminds you that you're a rookie." And a Cub.