CINCINNATI—On Opening Day at Great American Ballpark, President Bush walked into the Cubs' clubhouse and extended his right hand to Dusty Baker.
"This is the year, right?" Bush said as he and Baker shook hands.
As it turned out, this was not the year for the Cubs. And it wasn't the year for Baker, or closer Ryan Dempster, for that matter.
That much was evident Sunday when Dempster blew his fourth straight save opportunity and ninth of the year in a 3-2 loss to Cincinnati.
Called on to protect a 2-1 lead in the ninth inning, Dempster gave up a leadoff double to Todd Hollandsworth, threw two wild pitches to allow the tying run to score and was finally pulled with the bases loaded and one out.
Royce Clayton ended the game with a pinch single past a diving Ronny Cedeno in a 12-pitch at-bat against Scott Eyre, leaving the Cubs at 63-93 for the season.
"It's been tough," Dempster said. "I've been [terrible]. It just stinks, and today is even worse. Today ticked me off the most because I putt Scottie in a bad situation. He has to come in and basically strike [Clayton] out for us to win the game.
"That's on me, and I've got to do better. I tried to go right after guys, and they hit me."
Since converting his first six save opportunities in April, Dempster is 1-9 with a 5.80 earned-run average and nine blown saves in 27 chances. His overall saves percentage of .727 (24 of 33) is the second worst among National League closers, ahead of only San Francisco's Armando Benitez, who has a .680 saves percentage (17 of 25).
In what may be his final week as Cubs manager, Baker continued to show faith in a player who is partly responsible for his downfall, sending Dempster out to the mound after a scoreless eighth inning from Bob Howry.
Once again, Baker was burned.
Baker said he wasn't sure if he'd put Dempster back in a save situation, citing lost confidence. How can he convince Cubs fans that 2007 will be any different with Dempster as the closer?
"I don't know, man," he said. "I'm not trying to convince them. Just got to go out to the drawing board, that's all."
Dempster said his confidence is fine, his arm feels fine and there are no excuses for his prolonged slump.
Asked if he'd be surprised if the Cubs looked for another closer, Dempster replied: "They've got to do whatever they've got to do to try and win here. I feel like I can do the job. It's not like I've done the job for a week. I've sat there and reeled off save after save on more than one occasion.
"For whatever reason right now I don't know. Maybe I cheated the baseball God out of cards or something. He's got my number right now. Just got to keep fighting. I've never given up."