It was a picture perfect day for President Theo Epstein to assume his curse-breaking role at Wrigley. However, not even a lively crowd of 41,176 or the blooming Ivy could save the Cubs new regime from the inevitable.
On the first day, skepticism and doubt were created instead of building upon the refulgence of hope and optimism a busy offseason brought.
Newly resurrected voices of confidence turned into mutters deflated in disbelief that echoed around the chilled air of Wrigley Field on Thursday after a hair-pulling, 2-1 opening day loss to the Nationals.
By now, everyone has heard of Dempster’s day one valiance.
The tenured Cubs’ opening day starter left with a 1-0 lead and two outs remaining in the eighth. Dempster, who gave up only two singles and retired 15 straight batters at one point, became the Cubs first starter since Rick Sutcliffe to hold an opening day opponent scoreless through seven innings. Not even a history book worthy start could save the Cubs from the accustomed.
After striking out Danny Espinosa to ensure the second out of the eighth, Dempster’s pitch count reached 108, making his removal an easy decision for first year manager Dale Sveum - especially with the late inning duo of Kerry Wood and Carlos Marmol waiting in the wings.
Wood limped his way through the last out in the eighth, taking 25 pitches and three walks to record the final out. Marmol would prove to be just as ineffective with both pitchers giving up the tying and go-ahead runs in the eighth and ninth innings, respectively, blowing a Cubs opening day lead and a Dempster gem.
The long holding perception that the organization is forever intertwined with failure remained true on Thursday as new faces in the front office – Sveum, Jed Hoyer and Epstein – got their first taste of Cubs losing fashion.
While the fans have grown accustomed to such losses, this year’s game one dud comes with extra heartbreak as new direction and management came out flat in its first test at Wrigley.
In the shadow of Epstein’s ‘savior’ label, Sveum’s avowed aggressive base running only contributed to the loss. The first year manager gave ninth inning pinch-runner Joe Mather the instruction to go from third to home on contact. Accordingly, the National’s drew their infielders in and easily threw out Mather at the plate following a liner to third.
The costly late inning base running blunder sticks out, but the Cubs attempted to be aggressive earlier as well, when Alfonso Soriano was thrown out while trying to steal third. Later that same inning, Ian Stewart scored on a Marlon Byrd single, had Soriano been on base the inning could have gone for more.
Sveum does not deserve all the criticism a late inning, fall-apart loss often brings. Yes, even Epstein takes some of the blame.
The two ‘proven’ players in the Cubs’ bullpen sealed the teams fate on Thursday. Wood’s eighth inning of struggle could have been a good spot to bring in a guy like Sean Marshall, who Epstein dealt to the Reds this offseason. Leaving a more bitter taste, the Dusty Baker headed Reds named Marshall their closer, perhaps an indication of misjudgment by the praised tandem of Epstein and Hoyer.
Of course, the fans expected the worst. But this loss was more sickening than those past as an offseason of promise swelled on the corner of Clack and Addison. Yes, it is just game one, but fans did not expect Epstein and Hoyer to become accustomed to the well-versed losing ways at Wrigley this quickly.