CINCINNATI -- Ryan Dempster returned to Chicago on Thursday night to celebrate his 35th birthday with his parents, while Carlos Marmol returned to Wrigley Field unsure about his status.
Dempster was in line for the win after throwing eight scoreless innings against the Reds in his first start back from the disabled list. He had a 3-0 lead thanks to solo homers from Starlin Castro, Bryan LaHair and Geovany Soto.
But Marmol, the Cubs' erratic closer, gave up three runs in the ninth, and Cincinnati won, 4-3, in the 10th on Scott Rolen's walk-off sacrifice fly off rookie Rafael Dolis.
"I'm frustrated," Marmol said. "When you're not throwing strikes, you're frustrated."
Before the game, Cubs manager Dale Sveum talked about how important it was for Marmol to throw strikes, as he had Wednesday, when the right-hander cruised in a 1-2-3 ninth. But on Thursday, Marmol walked the first two batters he faced, prompting a visit from pitching coach Chris Bosio.
Brandon Phillips then hit a potential double-play ball to third baseman Ian Stewart, but it took a weird hop into shallow left and a run scored on the error. Jay Bruce singled to load the bases, and Marmol walked Ryan Ludwick to force in a run and close the gap to 3-2.
What happened on Phillips' ground ball?
"I thought the best chance for me to throw the ball was to try to get an angle on it and charge it, and it didn't happen," Stewart said. "He hit a topspin hopper to me, and I just missed it, plain and simple."
Marmol was pulled in favor of Dolis, who got Devin Mesoraco to hit into a double play, with another run scoring to tie the game.
Zack Cozart singled to open the 10th and reached third on a throwing error by Dolis, who fielded Chris Heisey's sacrifice bunt and hit the runner in the back with his throw. Rolen then flew out to right for the game-winning RBI. Instead of Dempster celebrating his first win since last Aug. 11 (he's now winless in his last 13 starts), he did not get a decision.
"According to our reports, he could be 3-0 and 4-0 now," Reds manager Dusty Baker said of Dempster. "His ERA is [0.95]. You can't pitch much better than that. He was mixing it up with fastballs in, fastballs away, cut fastballs, sliders, changeups. Like last night, we weren't sad to see him go."
"It was domination again from one of our starters," Sveum said. "It's too bad he didn't get a 'W' out of that thing, because it was pretty impressive."
It also was an historic day. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, this was the first time in Major League Baseball history that two starting pitchers faced each other on their birthday. The Reds' Homer Bailey turned 26 Thursday. Could Sveum recall a game in which the two starting pitchers were both birthday boys?
"I've only been doing this a month," Sveum said, "so probably not."
Castro gave Dempster a gift in the first with his first home run of the year, launching an 0-2 pitch from Bailey to straightaway center. LaHair belted his second in as many games leading off the fourth, an opposite-field shot. He finished the six-game road trip 10-for-23 with three homers and five RBIs. Soto opened the fifth with his second home run, marking the Cubs' first three-homer game of the year.
Sveum's bigger problem is what to do with the bullpen. Kerry Wood returned from the disabled list, but he is not able to go on an everyday basis. Scott Maine, who was closing games at Triple-A Iowa, had to go down to make room on the roster. Besides Dolis, Sveum said he could pick lefty James Russell, who is in his second season in the big leagues, to close.
"You've got to throw strikes and you have to throw strikes with your fastball," Sveum said of Marmol. "It's the same story again. Throwing 3-0 sliders when you have three-run leads is just not acceptable. We have to somehow make an adjustment there. We've got to throw fastballs in these situations."
It's not as if the Cubs haven't talked to Marmol about this. The right-hander was one of the most dominant setup pitchers in 2008. Why can't he do it now?
"To tell you the truth, I don't know," Sveum said. "Just the confidence factor or something. We've talked about it, and he gets out on the mound and things change."
Marmol didn't blame home-plate umpire Kerwin Danley for any of his calls.
"It was me -- I don't make excuses," Marmol said.
What about possibly losing his job as closer?
"He's the manager," Marmol said. "He can do whatever he wants to do. I agree with that. I'll take the ball whenever he asks me to take the ball."
Marmol still wants to be the closer.
"Oh yeah, man," he said. "I worked hard to be at my position, the closer role."
Dempster can relate. He was the Cubs' closer from 2005-07.
"I know he's struggling to find the strike zone and find where he needs to be," Dempster said. "You've got one of two ways to go -- you can either back down and be afraid of the challenge or take the challenge head on. I hope he does [the latter]."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter@CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.