When Todd Hollandsworth stole a home run from Joe Crede with a leaping catch at the left-field fence of White Sox Park, he seemed to snatch back nothing less than the Cubs' entire season. The Sox had clobbered the Cubs 12-2 the day before in the opening game of the three-game city-series rematch, as if to assert once and for all that they not only had the best record in baseball but were clearly the class of the town. Sox starter Jose Contreras put his team in a hole in the second game by surrendering a grand slam to Aramis Ramirez in the first inning, but the Sox were mounting a comeback against Greg Maddux with back-to-back homers by Carl Everett and Jermaine Dye. That's when Hollandsworth made his catch. A.J. Pierzynski was on base on an error, so a Crede homer would have tied the game at four. As it was, Maddux settled down and allowed only two more base runners before turning the game over to the bullpen, and the Cubs wound up with a 6-2 victory.
The next day Mark Prior returned from a broken arm to outduel Jon Garland in the sort of game that delights baseball purists no matter which side of town they cheer for. Relying on his fastball, Prior mixed in just enough curves to keep the Sox honest--two of them thrown for strikes on 3-1 counts to Frank Thomas and Paul Konerko as both fanned his second time through the Sox lineup--and allowed only Pablo Ozuna's single over shortstop through six innings. Garland matched his shutout into the sixth, baffling the Cubs' left-handers with a darting changeup as elusive as a backyard mole, but then Corey Patterson yanked a curve down the right-field line for a homer that put the Cubs up 1-0. The Cubs added another with the help of a Konerko error in the seventh, and their bullpen survived a couple of leadoff walks to hold on for the 2-0 victory that wrapped up the Chicago rivals' season series at three wins apiece.
Only a month before, Prior had writhed on the field after being hit in the right arm by a vicious line drive off the bat of the Colorado Rockies' Brad Hawpe. Yet here he was, back in action (the break had turned out to be a relatively fortunate compression fracture), and when Kerry Wood made an almost equally dominant and triumphant return from a sore shoulder three days later at Wrigley Field (he was deprived of a victory against the Milwaukee Brewers when reliever Glendon Rusch served up a game-tying homer to the first batter he faced, but the Cubs went on to win 3-2), the Cubs' pitching staff finally seemed at full strength and on a roll. At one point it put together 28 consecutive scoreless innings on the way to four straight wins.
In fact, the whole team seemed invigorated. The game between Prior's and Wood's was perhaps the Cubs' crispest and most stirring win of the season. They gave starter Carlos Zambrano a 2-0 lead with the help of Derrek Lee's 23rd homer, and he took it into the eighth inning, where of all things the defense--perhaps the team's weakest element--saved him. Zambrano allowed a leadoff walk and a single to put two on, but then got pinch hitter Trent Durrington to bunt to the charging Lee, who speared the ball, pirouetted, and fired to Ramirez at third to get the lead runner. The danger wasn't over. Leadoff man Brady Clark hit a sinking liner into short right-center. Patterson came on at a sprint, and one could almost see him consider that if he pulled up one run would score, but if he dived and missed the game would surely be tied. At that moment Patterson committed himself with a last stride and a leap, and caught the ball just off the turf, sliding on his belly. He hopped up in time to double the runner off second and end the inning. The 39,574 fans were ecstatic, the loudest and most thrilled I'd heard them all season.
Yet the promise of this four-game winning streak turned out to be a mirage. This year, much like last, the Cubs' lack of fundamentals--their defensive lapses and a general failure to get on base and advance runners--has made them inconsistent even when they string together fine pitching performances, and when the pitching isn't there they have little hope at all. Maddux was shelled as they lost the final game of the Brewers series 10-6 to end the streak. Prior got knocked around in five innings the following day as the Cubs lost to the Washington Nationals 4-3. Then newcomer Jerome Williams pitched decently but lost 4-2, as the slumping Patterson hamstrung the offense at the top of the order. The Nats, meanwhile, were in the process of establishing themselves as the White Sox of the National League, winning on pitching, defense, and "little ball," as they went for the sweep and their 50th victory of the season in the finale Sunday.
Zambrano wasn't sharp for the last game of the home stand, but he toughed it out and held the Nats to two runs through seven innings. The Cubs, however, could do nothing with journeyman right-hander Ryan Drese, and though Jerry Hairston Jr. replaced Patterson at the top of the order and got on twice, the Cubs couldn't move him around. Even so, the fans chanted "Let's go Cubbies!" to open the ninth, but the Cubs responded with two quick outs. Jeromy Burnitz, however, fisted a two-strike bloop single into center, bringing Ramirez to the plate as the Cubs' last hope. He hit a 2-1 pitch into the left-field bleachers, and like that the game was tied and organist Gary Pressy was playing "Right Back Where We Started From" to open the tenth inning. "It's games like this that turn seasons around," said a woman sitting in front of me.
The tenth was scoreless, but the Cubs surrendered two more runs in the 11th when second baseman Todd Walker threw an apparent double-play ball into left field. Fans booed manager Dusty Baker as he made a pitching change. Yet Hairston led off the bottom half with a homer to keep the fans in their seats, and the Cubs nudged the tying run home--again with two outs and two strikes--when Hollandsworth's bat exploded on a weak liner that landed just beyond the second baseman in short right field. Washington catcher Brian Schneider, however, homered off Sergio Mitre with two out in the 12th, and this time the Cubs had no answer. They went calmly in the bottom half, the loss evening their record at 40-40 midway through the season and leaving them ten and a half games behind the Saint Louis Cardinals.
"Let's go home and cry," said a freshly repotted Cubs fan with a southern accent who was sitting behind me.
"I'm sick of the Cubs," his buddy drawled.
"It's heartbreaking," he replied. "It's so heartbreaking."
He wasn't the only one who thought so. Baker had to compose himself before his postgame media conference. He was sitting head down, disconsolate, in the hallway when I came by, having finally squeezed through the departing crowd. Sharon Pannozzo, the Cubs' media relations director, let him sit there a good minute--an eternity in that context, with reporters packed into the hot, tiny interview room under the grandstand--before saying, "All right, come on, Dusty." He was led in, and although he wasn't teary as he placed his sunglasses on the table, he looked a beaten man.
"It's a tough one to swallow," he said. "You just gotta keep fighting. That's life. You don't like it, how it's dealt to you sometimes, but you gotta figure out how to to keep fighting and get on top." He didn't look as if he had any answers.