NEW YORK – The combination of Carlos Marmol and save situations has tested the patience of Cubs fans like little else this season.
Filling in because Kevin Gregg had been used four days in a row, the erstwhile Cubs closer allowed a three-run homer to Kirk Nieuwenhuis that capped a four-run rally in the bottom of the ninth inning and let the New York Mets salvage what had been shaping up as another sorry afternoon, startling the Cubs, 4-3, on Sunday.
"It's tough," Marmol said. "It's tough for anybody. When you blow a save, you lost the game."
Marmol has mostly pitched well in a setup role this season. But manager Dale Sveum turned to Marmol because he wanted someone with experience as a closer to hold a three-run lead in the ninth.
"The other guys never have had to get those last three outs, besides maybe (Shawn) Camp, but he hasn't gotten a big league game yet in a while," Sveum said. "You've got some leeway with him walking guys or whatever. You don't expect the home runs."
Left-hander James Russell pitched a scoreless eighth inning. Camp recently rejoined the Cubs from the disabled list, and right-handers Carlos Villanueva, Blake Parker, Hector Rondon and Henry Rodriguez were in the bullpen, too.
Rodriguez did a brief stint closing games for the Nationals, Villanueva began the season as a starter, but has been effective in the bullpen, and Parker has eight strikeouts in 7 2/3 innings this season.
"I mean, like I said, it's only certain people that can get them last three outs sometimes," Sveum said. "It's still something is going on in the other innings that's not going on in that last inning."
Sveum has seen Marmol, who is two for four in save chances this season, be effective in the eighth inning and earlier, even though he has kept his reputation as a target of testy fans' ire.
"Well, that's no fun for anybody. And we know the reactions he gets," Sveum said. "We've come to find out right now that obviously he has trouble with the last three outs. Somebody has to pitch the other innings and he's done a pretty good job in that role."
Matt Garza pitched seven scoreless innings, and the Cubs scored twice on a madcap play that featured three bad throws by Mets infielders, giving them a 3-0 lead.
"It happens, you know," Garza said. "I think it's tough for anybody. But the guy it's toughest on is Marmol. He tries really hard and he wants it really bad. It just happens."
Marmol (2-4) allowed a long leadoff homer to Marlon Byrd before walking Lucas Duda. After a visit from Sveum, he pitched John Buck low and away, eventually yielding an opposite-field single. Omar Quintanilla sacrificed the runners ahead, and Marmol peered into the Cubs dugout.
Marmol remained in the game, however, and Nieuwenhuis took him deep off the facing of the second deck in right field. Nieuwenhuis recently was promoted to the majors after slumping earlier this season and getting demoted to Triple-A.
Bobby Parnell (5-3) pitched the top of the ninth.
Garza gave up three hits and struck out five, and was all set up for his second win in five starts this season. He bounced back nicely from his last time out, when he allowed nine earned runs and 11 hits.
"I felt pretty good about it. My location wasn't really there all the time," Garza said. "Felt comfortable and felt like I had a little bit of rhythm."
He got some help when the Mets ping-ponged the ball around the infield in the fifth inning.
Alfonso Soriano came to the plate with two outs and the Cubs up 1-0 after Starlin Castro singled and Nate Schierholtz walked. Third baseman David Wright made a diving stop to his left to grab Soriano's hard grounder, then sailed his throw over the head of first baseman Daniel Murphy.
The ball bounced off the wall back to Murphy and he picked it up and fired off-balance home, trying to stop Castro from scoring. Murphy's throw went past Buck at the plate, bonked off a wall and caromed toward third.
Quintanilla was there, having come over from shortstop to back up the original play, and he sprinted in and flipped the ball toward the plate. That throw skittered wide, too, prompting the third groan in a row from the crowd, each one louder than the last.
The Cubs seemed well on their way to a sweep and a four-game winning streak. Then, just like that, it had all fallen apart and they were left to contemplate a long flight before a homestand against the Cardinals.
NOTES: Garza walked two and hit a batter. ... The Mets head to Atlanta for a five-game series with the Braves that will include a doubleheader on Tuesday. On Monday, RHP Dillon Gee (5-6) is expected to start for New York against Tim Hudson (4-6). The Cubs will be at St. Louis, where Travis Wood (5-5) is set to face Shelby Miller (7-4) of the Cardinals. ... A fan caught a foul ball backhanded in the second inning, pumped his fist and got a big cheer from the crowd.