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Umpires have been giving the Cubs headaches in the last few weeks, but an umpire's headache Sunday may have been a factor in a 1-0 loss to Cincinnati.
A 13-minute delay in the ninth caused by plate umpire Steve Rippley's headache preceded the only run of the game off Cubs right-hander Carlos Zambrano, who had been cruising with a three-hit shutout before being forced to take an unexpected break.
Zambrano didn't hang around to talk about the game, but Cubs manager Dusty Baker said the delay couldn't have come at a worse time.
"That's something that couldn't be helped," Baker said. Rippley "was hurting. They told me he had a concussion last year. That hurt big-time, that delay. There's not a whole bunch anyone could've done about it."
The loss dropped the Cubs two games behind division-leading Houston, which swept St. Louis to knock the Cardinals 51/2 back with two weeks left in the regular season.
Rippley was excused for a headache he incurred after taking a foul ball off the chin during the top of the sixth. He was examined and then taken to a hospital. Second-base umpire Jerry Meals changed into new gear and replaced Rippley behind the plate.
After the delay Zambrano began to experience control problems, issuing his first walk of the afternoon to leadoff hitter Ray Olmedo. After a sacrifice advanced Olmedo, Zambrano threw a wild pitch to advance Olmedo to third base and went 3-0 on D'Angelo Jimenez before inducing a groundout to second with a pulled-in infield.
He then went 3-1 on the .228-hitting Russell Branyan before jamming him with a pitch Branyan muscled over the infield, scoring Olmedo to put the Reds on top.
Kenny Lofton said Zambrano was hurt by the delay.
"It messed his groove up," the Cubs' center fielder said. "That's too much for a pitcher to get warmed up and then have to stop and then go back and warm up again in that type of situation."
Baker confirmed Zambrano "wasn't as sharp" after warming up a couple of times.
"But we should've won that game three or four times earlier in the game, because we had quite a few scoring opportunities out there, facing a guy we didn't know," Baker said. "The nod always goes to the young guy, especially in September. That's why you don't like these September call-ups when you face them, because you don't know 'em. He's had two days to scout us and see us personally to determine what he's going to do to us."
The guy the Cubs didn't know was right-hander Josh Hall, who scattered seven hits in seven shutout innings in his third career start. He loaded the bases with two outs in the sixth before Alex Gonzalez grounded into a force, and he struck out Sammy Sosa with two men on to end the seventh.
Zambrano threw 129 pitches in another superb outing, but he had nothing but a loss to show for it.
Catcher Paul Bako said people looking to blame the delay on Rippley's injury were "nit-picking."
"It definitely stinks that [Rippley] went down," Bako said. "He was calling a great game, but that's part of it. [Zambrano] came out and made good pitches after that. The bottom line is we didn't score."
The Cubs, now 10-4 in September, play host to the New York Mets for the next three days. Houston begins a three-game series at Colorado on Tuesday night.