ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — For a few minutes there, one might have wondered if the real Lou Piniella had been abducted by aliens.
Who was this empty vessel making nice with his inquisitors and brushing aside every chance to rip into the Cubs players who had just botched a one-run loss to the Rays? Yes, the same Rays for whom Piniella spent three maddening years in the dugout.
"Good game, exciting game," Piniella offers after his Cubs leave the tying run at third to end a frustrating night at Tropicana Field. "Place was packed for a Tuesday night. Good to see."
What about starter Ryan Dempster needing 107 pitches just to get through five innings?
"Pitch one-run ball for five innings, you've got to be pleased," Piniella says.
Any problem with Reed Johnson making the last out of the seventh trying to steal third?
"No problem with it," the kindly skipper says. "He just got a bad jump."
How about Johnson's odd decision to bunt on his own, only to see the Rays' Evan Longoria make a barehanded play to end the game?
"I didn't call the bunt," Piniella says with a weary smirk. "He probably thought he could get the third baseman napping a little bit."
And then it hits you: Even with this narrow loss, these Cubs still have the best record in baseball, not to mention a solid lead in the National League Central.
Sure, Piniella has mellowed considerably at age 64, but even the fiercest volcanoes must pick their spots. And this was no time to rip into a team that has been giving its manager everything he could ask for and had just stopped off in rainy Cooperstown on its way here from Toronto.
As the rest of the baseball world marks the Cubs' title-free centennial, those inside the clubhouse haven't wasted much time worrying about it. They've been too busy winning.
They haven't lost a series since Memorial Day, haven't lost more than two straight games all year.
Check the stats: The Cubs lead the league in runs and batting average, on-base percentage and ERA.
"Their pitching numbers are ridiculous," Rays manager Joe Maddon says. "They do a lot of things right."
In catcher Geovany Soto, they have a top candidate for Rookie of the Year.
In Dempster and Carlos Zambrano, they have a potent 1-2 punch atop the rotation. In Jason Marquis, Ted Lilly and Sean Gallagher (St. Thomas Aquinas), they have starting depth.
In closer convert Kerry Wood, they have a dominating presence at the end of games. In Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez, they have boppers at the corner infield spots.
"We've got some real nice pieces here," Piniella says almost halfway through Year 2 with the Cubs.
And for once in Wrigleyville, those pieces seem to fit.
"We've got chemistry," Piniella says. "The team is playing with confidence."
Alfonso Soriano will miss a few more weeks with that broken left hand, but nobody seems to be panicking. This, too, seems very un-Cub-like.
"We've got enough people here that can get the job done," Piniella says. "I'm comfortable. It's just a question of how we use them."
There has been adversity, Piniella notes, but each time General Manager Jim Hendry has gone out and gotten him another piece. When Felix Pie failed to hit — again — the Cubs signed fading veteran Jim Edmonds.
That won't be the last big-name addition, not with a century's worth of pain driving this train, not with Hendry's cell phone permanently attached to his ear.
Already, the Web sites are burning up with Cubs-related rumors.
So far they have been linked to A.J. Burnett, Greg Maddux, Gil Meche, Erik Bedard and Randy Wolf ... and those are just the starters.
So as John Canning and Mark Cuban and a handful of others queue up to buy one of the most popular brands in sports, Piniella lets a few close losses roll off his back, all the while keeping a watchful eye on the big prize.
The one that has eluded him every year since his Reds shocked the A's in 1990. The one that has eluded Cubs fans for the past century. The one that could vault Piniella from cult-hero status to sporting immortality.
"Just play," he says. "We get after it every day, and we do the best that we can. Lose a ballgame, come back out there the next day and do your darndest to win it. That's all you can do. That's all I can expect."
Did we mention the Cubs have the best record in baseball?