FINAL VERSION of Mike Nadel's Cubs column

If only Lou Piniella had started Carlos Zambrano again instead of pitching that useless bum, Ted Lilly.


If only the Cubs manager had told his hitters to bunt every time. (Could they have done much worse?)


If only Piniella had told GM Jim Hendry to acquire run-producing machine Augie Ojeda instead of slacker Alfonso Soriano. (Word is, Augie was available.)


If only Sweet Lou had switched earlier from Rex Grossman to Brian Griese. (Or even to Kyle Orton.)


Yes, just as Wednesday's Game 1 loss was all Piniella's fault because the silly skipper replaced Zambrano with Carlos Marmol, the Cubs are on the brink of being swept out of the National League playoffs because Lou couldn't force his players to do better in Thursday night's 8-4 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks.


Are TBS and MLB honchos apoplectic at the prospect of a Diamondbacks-Rockies NL Championship Series? Well, they can blame Lou, too.


They'll have to stand in line.


To most observers, the Cubs' inability to hit Arizona pitching in Game 1 was beside the point. Piniella's decision to remove Zambrano from a 1-1 game after six innings and 85 pitches in favor of Marmol was the reason Chicago lost 3-1. When Marmol gave up two quick runs, Piniella opened himself up for some serious second-guessing.


The general theme: Lou was looking ahead to Sunday's Game 4, when he hopes to pitch Zambrano on short rest. (The way things are going, there won't be a Game 4.)


Pretty much every Chicago-based columnist -- except the one you're reading right now, the one who regularly gets called a "negative" Cubbie-hater -- ripped Piniella. So did numerous national pundits.


The story didn't end with Thursday's newspaper headlines, either. Less than two hours before the night's first pitch, Sweet Lou sat in the Cubs' dugout explaining himself as only he could have.


"We planned for him to go six innings," said Piniella, who before Wednesday's game had mentioned 100 to 110 pitches but hadn't suggested a six-inning limit for Zambrano.


"He pitched outstanding. I'm gonna ask this young man to pitch on Sunday on three days' rest. I want him leaving very positive, feeling good about himself, OK? I've got a bullpen here that's pitched extremely well all summer.


"How many people have wanted me to close with Marmol? I bring in Marmol, it's like the goat left his grave, right? Like Leo Durocher turned in his grave. I mean, for God's sake, it's only Game 1!"


Now Lou's done it. After repeatedly refusing to acknowledge the many ghosts (and goats) from the Cubs' horrific past, he brought up the curse of all curses -- not to mention Leo the Lip, the manager who oversaw the choke of all chokes.


Oh, and saying "It's only Game 1" to Cubbieland is like saying, "It's only Jesus" to the pope and his cardinals.


The Cubs apparently needed divine intervention in Game 2.


Lilly didn't have it -- it being command, control, poise, you name it. A 15-game winner during the season, he pitched as if the strike zone was a foreign concept.


After he gave up Chris Young's three-run homer in the second, he wheeled and threw his glove to the ground. Moments later, Piniella was jawing with fans behind the dugout.


Lou had fire in his belly (along with about 50 pounds of linguine), but he didn't have a winning pitcher on the mound; Lilly allowed six runs in 3 1/3 innings.


Although he mostly paced and watched helplessly, Piniella did score big on two decisions: Rookie catcher Geovany Soto, chosen to start over Jason Kendall, homered for an early 2-0 lead; and pinch-hitter Daryle Ward had a two-run double in the sixth.


Obviously, the previous night's big decision didn't turn out as well.


Had Zambrano been left in the game and served up a seventh-inning homer, would some have ripped Piniella for staying with a "tired" pitcher and NOT going to Marmol, who had been an almost unhittable stud? Absolutely.


Second-guessing is as old as baseball itself. We all do it. It's fun for fans. I make a living second-guessing managers -- including, quite often, Piniella. (Just not this time, because his move made perfect sense to me.)


"Look, what do writers usually do when a manager's team loses? They second-guess," Piniella said. "If we had won in nine innings, and now I had a rested pitcher for Sunday with only 85 pitches ... 'Boy, what a smart manager that guy is.' 


"Come on. We all know the game. I do what I think is best for this club, OK? It didn't work (Wednesday).


"You manage a ballgame for 2 1/2 hours ... and it takes you almost that long to explain what the hell you do. That's the way it is. I understand it. I don't get upset about it. But it doesn't mean that I'm gonna change what I do."


Nobody expects Lou to change what he does -- unless, of course, his moves don't work.


Then we all know what he should have done, right?


Why, oh why, did he have to pitch Ted Lilly?


Mike Nadel (mikenadel@sbcglobal.net) is the Chicago sports columnist for GateHouse News Service. Read his blog, The Baldest Truth, at www.thebaldesttruth.com.