MILWAUKEE—The dysfunctional Cubs family gets it first real test Wednesday afternoon when Carlos Zambrano returns to the mound for the biggest game of the season.
The importance of Zambrano's first outing since his brawl Friday with teammate Michael Barrett was magnified Tuesday after Milwaukee edged the Cubs 7-5 to even the series at a game apiece.
A loss Wednesday would leave the Cubs 8½ games behind the first-place Brewers, sending them to their fifth consecutive series loss.
Will Zambrano come back refocused and energized after his momentary lapse of reason, or will he continue to struggle in what has turned into his most puzzling season to date?
The Cubs fell behind early in Tuesday's game, thanks to another subpar performance from starter Ted Lilly, who served up three home runs for the second straight time after giving up only four in his first 10 starts.
Lilly allowed six runs on eight hits over five innings, watching his earned-run average rise to a season-high 3.99. Over his last three outings, Lilly has given up 21 hits in 16 1/3 innings, with an 8.82 ERA.
While there may be plenty of time remaining to recover from their difficult start, the Cubs would appear to need to make a statement after a week of embarrassing stories, including the Zambrano-Barrett fight, the ejection and four-game suspension of manager Lou Piniella and reports Piniella's players are chafing under his leadership.
Piniella, who served the third game of his suspension in a Miller Park suite, said he directly asked Derrek Lee on Monday night if the players-only meeting last Thursday had turned into a gripe session about his managerial style.
"He said 'Absolutely not,' " Piniella said. "The only thing that was said regarding me was that a couple of players said they needed to play every day, they felt, to hit. Unfortunately, I can empathize with everybody, but I only have eight spots.
"You notice [Ryan] Theriot swung the bat real well and he got a lot of playing time. Today we have [Cliff] Floyd in right field and Theriot at second base. We'll start giving people a little breather, but we're going to stay very constant in the lineup."
Piniella said he doesn't plan on talking to the players who complained about playing time at the meeting.
"I don't even know who they were," he said. "It's not uncommon [for players to want more playing time]. One thing I've done here is I've gone out of my way to play everybody. I take that into consideration every time I come to the ballpark—probably more so than other managers.
"I can empathize, but at the same time, what can I do? I have six outfielders. That makes it a little rough for me. If somebody gets hot and swings the bat, believe me, they stay in."
Floyd, who had a home run and two RBIs in Tuesday's loss, figures to get more time in right field now that Felix Pie is ensconced in center. Jacque Jones, whom the Cubs still are looking to move, appears to be the odd-man out if Piniella sticks with a set lineup.
Tony Graffanino and Corey Hart had solo homers to help Milwaukee build a 3-0 lead in the second, and Kevin Mench and Damian Miller had run-scoring hits to make it 5-0 in the third.
The Cubs came back against starter Claudio Vargas, pulling to within three in the sixth before pinch-hitter Jones grounded out against reliever Carlos Villanueva to end the rally with Theriot on second.
Milwaukee led 7-3 in the eighth when Mark DeRosa's two-out, two-run, bases-loaded single off Derrick Turnbow pulled the Cubs to within two runs. But Brewers closer Francisco Cordero replaced Turnbow and struck out Alfonso Soriano, making Piniella squirm in his seat.
"It looks easy up there," Piniella said. "It looks a lot easier than it does when you're on the field."