Cubs' goose nearly cooked

CHICAGO -- Jim Hendry did his best Don King impression before Tuesday's game.

When someone asked the Cubs general manager if the team might play a little looser after hitting rock bottom on the West Coast, he said, "It's not time to be loose. It's time to produce."

After watching a 15-6 debacle of a loss to the Washington Nationals, I'd like to change Hendry's quote to: "We're not loose, we're not going to produce and you know what's cooked? Our goose."

Hallelujah! Only in Chicago!

The Cubs looked less like prizefighters and more like punching bags Tuesday night, as they let the Nationals slap them around all night. So much for a good start to the homestand.

Guest seventh-inning-stretch conductor Eddie Vedder, possibly the most earnest Cubs fan this side of Ernie Banks, wrote a short poem in the TV booth to describe his optimism on the season. Milton Bradley, who went 4-for-4 with his 10th homer of the year, phrased it much better afterward.

"We got a Rodney King beatdown tonight," he told reporters in the clubhouse.

You can't make this stuff up.

It's a pretty bad sign when the Cubs couldn't handle a team that is now a whopping 18-42 on the road. The Cubs haven't given up this many runs since losing to Colorado 15-2 on Aug. 11, 2007.

Before the game, the 2007 Colorado Rockies were invoked as exhibit A for the "It ain't over till it's over" defense.

"I mean, in 2007, did anybody think that Colorado could get into the playoffs?" Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "It's amazing what a nice winning streak will do for you to make up ground in a hurry. Unfortunately for us, we haven't had a good winning streak in a long, long time. We'll see what happens, but that's what I cling to. Hopefully that's what will happen."

Let's cut the BS. Those fluky Rockies went 27-12 in September and won 21 of 22 to make the World Series. Colorado coined the phrase "Rocktober," but these somnolent Cubs are more likely to have another "Sleeptember." This team looks more ready for a run to the travel agent to book that Caribbean vacation.

But hey, let's look at this positively. Bears season is almost here. Pretty soon, the Cubs will be easy to ignore. They're doing you a favor, Cubs faithful, by dropping out of the race so soon.

"It's just one game," Piniella said after the game. "We've had a rough August so far. What can I say?"

Not much. Piniella's postgame lasted less than two minutes. There's nothing left to ask, except a variation of "How bad is this team?"

What a way to kick off a make-or-break, 10-game homestand against the Nationals, New York Mets and Houston Astros.

This was supposed to be the time for the Cubs to make up ground against losing teams, but really it could just be the beginning of the end. Like the Sunday paper dropping on my doorstep, the Tribune Company's tenure as owners will go out with a thud.

The Cubs are now nine games behind St. Louis in the NL Central and 8½ behind those pesky Rockies in the wild card. Don't the Rockies, left for dead earlier in the season, know that the 2009 Cubs are supposed to be the 2007 Rockies' successors?

Another few games like this one and beat writers will be penning obituaries and spending the remainder of the season guessing whom new owner Tom Ricketts is going to hire or fire. He's going to keep team chairman Crane Kenney, and Hendry, the architect of this team, but I'm guessing he doesn't make a push to keep the Strugglin' Aarons, Heilman and Miles. Just a hunch.

Carlos Zambrano got rocked in his first start since Aug. 1. Shelved with back problems, Zambrano showed up with a thin goatee and got himself into some hairy situations after three decent innings. He was charged with eight earned runs on seven hits and three walks in 4 1/3 innings. Heilman gave up a grand slam immediately after replacing Zambrano in the fifth.

"Zambrano wasn't very sharp," Piniella said. "Hopefully he'll pitch better the next time out. … He pitched five innings in Peoria, got his regular rest and should have a fresh arm."

With Alfonso Soriano a late scratch with left knee soreness (he's getting an MRI on Wednesday), the Cubs' offense was as tight as ever, scoring one run in the first five innings. By the time the bats heated up, coincidentally when the pressure was off, it was too late.

"Well, I mean, it's just one game," Bradley said. "That's the good thing. It's more like a Skins-Bears score out there tonight than baseball."

Three weeks ago, the Cubs were tied for first place in the National League Central. After returning home from a 2-5 road trip in Southern California, the Cubs were clinging to faint hopes of contention.

"It's time to put up or shut up," injured outfielder Reed Johnson said before the game.

Hendry seemed nonplussed by the nosedive his team has taken in the past few weeks.

"We really put ourselves in a bad spot," Hendry said before the game. "Sixteen, 17 games ago we were in first place and now we're eight back. We had a terrible two weeks and we need a great homestand to get back into it."

A great homestand is seeming less likely after watching this game, but Hendry's job is almost surely safe, after it was confirmed that Kenney will stick in his role for the foreseeable future.

The only good thing about Tuesday's game was that the Pearl Jam frontman showed up after performing two shows at the United Center. If Vedder ever loses hope, maybe he'll rework his sappy Cubs song "All the Way" to just "One Day the Cubs Will Go Away."

As omens go, this loss was similar to the concrete falling at Wrigley Field preceding the collapse of 2004 or getting Aaron Miles and trading Mark DeRosa on New Year's Eve. But then again, who said Zambrano's return would cure the ills of this team?

It's tough to ferret out any one player more important than another right now, because the team is in such dire straits. They need MVP performances from pretty much everyone, though Mike Fontenot didn't exactly endear himself to that cause Tuesday when he spiked a relay throw a foot in front of him in the fourth, allowing Elijah Dukes to reach third.

The Cubs play 24 out of their final 40 at Wrigley Field, including Tuesday's loss. The Cubs (35-23 at Wrigley) are a much better team at home, third-best in the NL coming in, as one could expect, which gives the faithful just enough hope and the Cubs just enough rope for a familiar ending for Chicago baseball fans.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.