(Henry Blacno and Adam Laroche duck for cover as Kerry Wood throws his first deadly pitch in Pittsburgh)

Pity the fan who has to depend on the listing Dodgers to beat the Cardinals so the Cubs, who lost again to the Pirates, 6-5 this afternoon, can maintain a half-game lead over St. Louis. Given the suspense I was in, you wonder if a half-game lead is worth it in late May anyway, but this was my Sunday. Fortunately, the Dodgers did win it in 10, 4-3. Since the Cubs couldn’t win it to maintain their own lead, my hat’s off to the Phillies for the 15-6 drubbing of the Astros, too. All I actually caught of the Cardinals and Dodgers was the last few innings, so Saito striking out Pujols has to be the Dodgers’ finest moment of the series (ok, Ethier’s extra innings clutch hit, too). Respect is due to the Bucs in this regard “ despite the gist of The Sun-Times’ Gordon Wittenmeyer‘s coverage, this was a matter of the Pirates beating the Cubs, not the Cubs losing it. Since the Cubs swept the Pirates twice this year, the Pirates, not to mention Astros and Cardinals, are all playing better. The NL Central is tightening up. The silver lining to ending this road trip? Tomorrow the Cubs host the Dodgers.

As to Saturday’s loss, the name Kerry Wood does tend to come up among reasonable people. After beaning a third lead-off batter in a save situation this year, Wood told The Sun-Times’ Gordon Wittenmeyer, ”The bottom line is you’ve got to get the job done, so learning curve or not, it’s game on,” he said. ”And you’ve got to win these games, especially the way the offense came back and gave us the lead. And the guys before me and after me in the bullpen threw the ball great.”

Isn’t it great when Kerry Wood sucks it up and takes full responsibility? Take notes, it’s called Character. And he does it three or four times a season. In Bull Durham, Nuke LaLoosh defends an out of control fastball as “announcing myself with authority.” When Kerry Wood does it, by beaning a hitter who turns into the Pirates’ winning run, it took less than a day for the Cubs’ site to put up a story of Piniella defending Wood’s job as the closer. Says Piniella, “The only thing that Woody has to do is, he’s hit the first hitter three times in the ninth inning, and it’s tough enough doing the closer’s job without putting yourself in trouble,” Piniella said. “We have to figure out how to help him not do that.”

Mmm, show him a rule book? Then again, what choice has Piniella got? Wood as middle-relief looks like a disaster that can’t last more an inning. Despite Cub hatin’ Bleacher Report’s long response to the Don’t-Blame-Wood brand of Stockholm Syndrome in Chicago, we’re stuck with the guy:

(Wood, his job is safe, but no one else is)

But Jim Hendry, who generally manages the lovable losers, decided that closing is easy. Heck, anyone can do it.

So, in preparing his championship buffet, he conveniently forgot to include a closer as part of the recipe. And that has left our stomachs aching, kneeling to the bobblehead gods as we look elsewhere to satisfy our hunger.

This should come as no surprise to Cubs fans. After all, Hendry was the architect of the Dempster-as-closer era in Chicago.

Closers are a different breed. They may put on their pants like everyone else, but that’s about where the similarities end. They have a certain panache, a kind of confident swagger and the critical ability to not only stare defeat in the face and laugh uproariously, but also to have a shot and a beer and forget about it ’til next time.

You will notice there was nothing about 95-mph fastballs or trick pitches in that job description. Oh yeah, those help, but they are clearly not enough …

Hendry looked at his pitching staff and noticed that he had three guys with the “stuff” to do the job. But nowhere did he factor in that none of them had ever done the job before. Nope, not even Howry, who had the most experience of the three, yet still not what you’d call any kind of demonstrated competency or expertise.