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04/11/09 11:50 PM ET
Brewers on wrong end of comeback
Villanueva surrenders game-winning home run in ninth
By Adam McCalvy / MLB.com
MILWAUKEE -- The Brewers and Cubs are certainly giving the fans their early-season money's worth. One night after Ryan Braun delivered an RBI grounder in the bottom of the ninth inning to win the Brewers' home opener, it was the Cubs' turn to rally in the final frames. J.J. Hardy's two-run single in the seventh had given Milwaukee the lead, but Aramis Ramirez hit a solo home run in the eighth inning and Alfonso Soriano crushed a two-run shot in the ninth that sent the Brewers to a 6-5 loss in front of another sellout crowd at Miller Park. A questionable call that went Chicago's way loomed large considering the Cubs' one-run margin, but there was no doubt about the homers. That was particularly true for Soriano, who ambushed a first-pitch changeup from fill-in closer Carlos Villanueva (0-1) and sent it deep into the left-field bleachers. "I knew I wasn't going to be perfect every time out," said Villanueva, who fell to 1-for-2 in save chances while Trevor Hoffman mends a rib-cage injury. When reporters were let into the Brewers' clubhouse after the game, Villanueva was waiting for them at his locker. That's a move Hoffman is known for. "I have to leave it here when I walk out the door," Villanueva said. "Tomorrow is another day. You can't have any carryover from today to tomorrow, because tomorrow they might need me again. I'll be out there." Hoffman is making progress, but he is weeks away from a return. So how might the 24-year-old Villanueva rebound from his first blown save as a bona fide closer? "We're going to find that out," manager Ken Macha said. "That's the way it is with all closers. That's the test, to see how they do after they are unsuccessful on one." Said Saturday starter Dave Bush, a former collegiate closer: "He'll be OK. There aren't too many guys who go a whole season without a blown save. [The Phillies' Brad] Lidge last year is one of the few I remember, ever. The good ones come back the next day ready to go." Cubs reliever Aaron Heilman (1-0) picked up the win despite allowing Hardy's go-ahead hit. Carlos Marmol, not Cubs closer Kevin Gregg, worked the bottom of the ninth inning for the save, striking out Braun and Prince Fielder to close it out. The Cubs and Brewers will play the rubber match of their three-game series on Sunday night in a nationally televised contest on ESPN. It's tempting to wonder whether the neck-and-neck start to the season series portends the race in the National League Central. "I'll leave that comparison stuff to you guys," Fielder told reporters. "We just try to play our game, and when we play our game, good things happen. If we keep playing like this, we're going to be all right." The final score magnified a very close call that went the Cubs' way in the seventh inning, when Soriano hit a potential double-play grounder to Hardy at shortstop with the bases loaded and one out. Second baseman Rickie Weeks was a bit slow with a relay throw that one-hopped to first baseman Fielder, and though television replays showed that Soriano was out by a half-step, the call from first-base umpire Angel Hernandez was safe. Instead of the Brewers escaping with a 3-2 lead, the Cubs had tied the game at 3. "He looked out to me," said reliever Mark DiFelice, who had entered the game to face Soriano. "Macha came to me on the mound and said, 'Give me a ground ball here,' and I got a ground ball to J.J. Unfortunately, the umpire missed it. It's unfortunate." Macha was on the top step of the dugout after the play, but he did not run out to log a protest, nor did he watch a replay later. "I don't watch replays," he said. "Prince didn't really yell and scream that much. He came in and thought it was 'bang-bang.'" Fielder's view was simple. The umpire called the runner safe, so he was safe. "It's not my job to protest," Fielder said. "I just try to make the plays. Obviously, it was bang-bang. He beat it out, I guess." The run was charged to Bush, who was charged with three earned runs on six hits in 6 1/3 effective innings. He walked two and struck out five in his first start of the season. At the plate, Fielder hit a two-run homer, his first of the season, and Weeks chipped in an RBI single in front of 43,768 fans as the Brewers built leads of 2-0 and 3-2 against the Cubs and starter Carlos Zambrano, who allowed three runs on seven hits while walking three and striking out seven in six innings. The score was 3-2 entering the bottom of the seventh, when Corey Hart and Braun worked walks from right-handed reliever Angel Guzman and Fielder did the same against lefty Neal Cotts to load the bases with one out. Cubs manager Lou Piniella sent out his pitching coach, Larry Rothschild, to replace Cotts with Heilman before Hardy stepped to the plate. Heilman threw three straight sinkers, and Hardy poked a go-ahead single to center field that scored Hart and Braun for a 5-3 Brewers lead. The clutch hit snapped Hardy's 0-for-7 start to the season with runners in scoring position. He was 1-for-19 overall going into the at-bat. "I know [the numbers] aren't good," Hardy said. "All my numbers aren't good, so I can't imagine that they're any better with runners in scoring position. Just to get a hit [felt good]. Any time you're 1-for-20, a hit feels pretty good." But back came the Cubs. Ramirez hit his home run in the eighth inning off DiFelice to make it 5-4 entering the ninth. Villanueva retired the first hitter he faced on a weak flyout to left field, but pinch-hitter Reed Johnson followed with a single before Soriano went deep. "I wanted to throw him a changeup that had more 'depth' on it," Villanueva said. "It was a little straight." "They clawed their way back into it, and we couldn't get it closed out in that ninth inning," Macha said.
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.