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When Winning Reminds You of Losing

The Cubs' path to the playoffs cuts through the graveyard of broken dreams.

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There was no way for the Cubs to enjoy good fortune this month without stirring up memories of past disasters. I went apple picking in Michigan two Sundays ago and remembered seeing, on a TV at the same orchard, LaTroy Hawkins blow a three-run lead in New York as the Cubs began their 2004 collapse. This time I emerged to hear the Cubs on the car radio beating the Cardinals 4-2 in Saint Louis to stay a game ahead of the Milwaukee Brewers. Yet now they'd be coming home to face the Cincinnati Reds, the team that sealed their downfall three years ago in a final-week series at Wrigley Field.

The Cubs took this year's series from the Reds with two dramatic victories, but then Pittsburgh came to town for the Cubs' final home series of the regular season. That should have produced only positive vibes--the Cubs clinched the NL Central Division crown against the Pirates on the last weekend of the 2003 season. But the Pirates had lined up three straight lefty starters, and the Cubs were a humble 16-22 for the season against southpaws.

The Cubs whipped all three of them. They moved three and a half games ahead of the Brewers heading into the last week of the season. The fans grew ever more manic at the Friendly Confines, making everything that much more agonizing. If the Cubs make the playoffs, and fans start gathering along Waveland and Sheffield to chant "Let's go Cubbies" the way they did during the playoff series with the Florida Marlins four years ago, I don't think I'll be the only one vulnerable to post-traumatic stress disorder. Put it this way: any guy walking down the street in a Cubs cap, glasses, and Walkman headphones just now is putting his life in jeopardy.

Yet even the most fearful fans were turning into believers, and it was the way the Cubs won that did it. The first game of the Reds series was pivotal. For six innings the Cubs played like also-rans. Starter Rich Hill hit a wall in the fifth and blew a 3-1 lead. The Cubs missed cutoff men, failed to complete double plays, and committed baserunning blunders as the Reds went ahead 6-4. Even the elegant first baseman, Derrek Lee, committed an error. But scrappy Ryan Theriot led off the bottom of the ninth by fouling off David Weathers's two-strike pitches until he coaxed out a walk. Lee slapped a single to right. Then Aramis Ramirez drilled a triple past diving Cincinnati center fielder Norris Hopper to tie the game. Weathers walked pinch hitter Daryle Ward but played the percentages and pitched to Mark DeRosa as manager Pete Mackanin called in Hopper as a fifth infielder. Somehow DeRosa got an infield hit anyway, a shot off Weathers's glove that scored pinch runner Sam Fuld and won the game. Players and fans went wild. "This wasn't luck," Piniella said. "It wasn't one of our better games, executionwise, but we won the thing because we stayed after it for 27 outs, and that's exactly what you have to do."

DeRosa followed Piniella at the postgame media conference. "I'm sure Lou said it. We didn't play fundamentally sound baseball tonight," he said. "But all in all we never stopped fighting."

The next night Piniella rushed ace Carlos Zambrano back to the mound on three days' rest, and Zambrano looked flat and fatigued as he got beat 5-2. But Ted Lilly was also working on short rest when he started the next game, and he pitched much better. Alfonso Soriano gunned down the potential go-ahead run at home plate in the top of the eighth, and in the bottom of the inning Theriot, the Cubs' spark plug, took advantage of a Ken Griffey Jr. error to reach second on a single. Then Lee singled, and Theriot came home on Matt Murton's groundout to give the Cubs the lead, the game, and a one-game lead on the Brewers, who would lose the next day while the Cubs vacationed.

The Pittsburgh series opened on a hazy late-summer Friday afternoon, the wind blowing out--"a Wrigley Field game that I've heard so much about," Piniella said when it was over. The Cubs scored four runs in the first on homers by Soriano and Ramirez; starter Jason Marquis allowed five runs in the third. Then the game settled into a battle of the bullpens. Pittsburgh's Franquelis Orsoria weakened his second time through the Cubs' lineup and in the sixth gave up Ramirez's second three-run homer of the game. The Cubs coasted to a 13-8 victory.

Somewhere along the way Cubs fans have picked up a new habit, staying in their seats to sing along with Steve Goodman's "Go Cubs Go" on the PA after the final out. (Press-box beat writers love this, as it means they don't have to fight through such dense crowds getting down from the upper deck to the interview room behind the Cubs dugout.) A half hour after the game ended, groups of fans were still milling around their seats talking the game over--a trend that only increased as the weekend and the winning went on.

Hill returned on Saturday and weathered one bad inning to beat the Bucs and changeup artist Zach Duke, a persistent Cubs nemesis, 9-5. And on Sunday the Cubs pounded lumps on the last Pittsburgh lefty, ace Tom Gorzelanny, and won 6-0. Zambrano looked great pitching on full rest, and after he left with forearm cramps Kerry Wood and Michael Wuertz preserved the shutout. When the scoreboard operator posted four seventh-inning runs for the Atlanta Braves, giving them the lead over the Brewers, the fans went wild. Milwaukee wound up losing 7-4 and falling three and a half games behind the Cubs.

The sellout crowd pushed the season attendance to a team record 3.25 million. This time thousands of fans stayed in the stands after the game and sang "Go Cubs Go." It was as if they were holding their seats for the playoffs.

The Cubs remained calm--or at least composed. There was no victory lap, something the '84 Cubs did after the home finale, and there was none of the pageantry that surrounded the 2003 team when it clinched on the next-to-last day of the season. More to the point, there was no attempt by Piniella to address the issue of Cubs curses. Dusty Baker's familiar refrain in the closing days of 2003 was that his Cubs were out to smash history, not remember it. But in the end those Cubs left the curse that much stronger. After a few pointed remarks early in the season about regaining "Cubbie swagger" and changing the culture of losing, Piniella ignored the issue entirely. He made it clear he just wanted to win games and series and get into the playoffs.

"I'll be more excited if and when we clinch," he said after Sunday's win. "It's been a special year. Let's finish it off the right way." I couldn't recall another playoff-bound Cubs manager acting so matter-of-fact. It boded well for, yes, the playoffs next week.

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