It NEVER gets old!
Maybe fans in Atlanta got blasé about playoff appearances after a long time -- and they shouldn't have, because they are always precious and special -- but I can tell you that I haven't, and I'm sure you haven't, and clinching the NL Central title this afternoon with a 5-4 win over the Cardinals would have been a special moment regardless... but it becomes even more special because now you, and I, and Cub fans everywhere have experienced something that no Cubs fan has in one hundred years:
Back-to-back postseason appearances.
Should we celebrate that century of failure? Heck, no. What I say by mentioning this event that hasn't happened since my grandfather was 18 years old and still living in London, England, is that maybe, just maybe, the team that we have lived and died with (mostly died) over the course of our collective lives as baseball fans, has turned the corner from failure to future success, and that we'll be celebrating many, many more of these postseasons in years to come.
We have been here before, as recently as last year, and some of us in the season ticket bleacher line were trying to remember some details about last year's lone home playoff game and, as you know, it was so bad that we had all blocked it out of our memories. As have most of you, presumably.
One year later, we, and the Cubs, get a fresh chance to put eleven more wins on the board and remain, as I have written before, "the last ones standing".
If I had told you in March that the last out of the Cubs' playoff-clinching win in September would be caught by a blue-pinstripe wearing Jim Edmonds, you'd have had me put away. And yet, didn't that feel exactly right, against his old team, no less? And who more appropriate to be on the mound than Kerry Wood, who has been through so much in his ten seasons as a Cub, nailing down his 32nd save after Carlos Marmol had an easy 8th inning, and Ted Lilly had thrown seven strong innings, making only one mistake (grooving one that Troy Glaus hit about six rows right in front of us for a three-run homer, making a close game into a 5-4 nailbiter). Edmonds also hit a double that started the Cubs' three-run rally in the second inning.
That's the way Lou and the staff and all the rest of us envision it happening, isn't it? And that, to me, would be the key to success in the postseason -- to have the starting staff of Z, Ryan Dempster, Rich Harden and Lilly (and yes, I would do it in precisely that order) go deep into games and have Marmol and Wood finish it off, with the rest of the pen in reserve in case the starters get into trouble. To me, the only weak spots right now involve right field, where Kosuke Fukudome got a start today, presumably to try to get him back on track, and though he did walk and score once, he also struck out and looked bad doing it in the sixth inning, and must have missed a hit-and-run sign, because Geovany Soto was a dead duck at second base -- and Geo doesn't steal; that was his first career SB attempt. Now that the Cubs have clinched, I'd play Dome every day to see if he can start hitting again.
Conversely, I'd sit Ryan Theriot. Like last year, when Theriot hit .202/.257/.263 after September 1, Ryan has hit the wall in this year's final month. Coming into today's game he was hitting even worse, .196/.250/.250 in September, and although I know he very badly wants to finish with an over-.300 BA (he's now at .298), he also very badly needs some rest. Start Ronny Cedeno, to give him some AB's that will be very valuable to him for the postseason, and rest Theriot. And no, I don't want this to start another firestorm of Theriot discussion as we have had on this site a zillion times -- just stating what seems obvious.
Tomorrow, I'm guessing Lou will start the regulars -- only because it's the last home game and maybe the last chance for many to see the Cubs play at home -- give them one AB each and then clear the bench. As of now Ryan Dempster is scheduled to pitch and I wouldn't change the rotation, as it's set up to start the postseason -- but I'm guessing that all the starters will be on either an inning or pitch count, or both, until October 1. That includes Z, whose head clearly wasn't in the game yesterday. And despite rumors that Z had returned to Venezuela, he was in the outfield during BP, wearing a glove on his right hand and flinging balls around the field lefthanded (he's got a pretty good arm lefty, incidentally).
It was a festive day -- people stayed in the ballpark long after the last out of the quick (two hours, twenty-one minutes) game, the first time the Cubs have clinched a playoff spot in my lifetime at home in a true day game (the 2003 clincher, in the second game of a doubleheader, was technically a "day" game, but by the time the game was over, it was after sunset and pretty dark). The rest of the clinchers since 1984 have all been at night. Even so, right after the game ended the lights went on, obviously in anticipation of the festivities on the field. And even Dave, who rarely shows outward emotion in watching games in the bleachers, stood and applauded the Cubs for their terrific season's performance.
But the players, and we, know there is still much work to be done, beginning a week from Wednesday. There are some goals remaining for the regular season: the Cubs can still win 100 games if they go 7-1 (presuming the one makeup game vs. Houston isn't played, and that looks unlikely at this point); even if they don't do that, going 5-3 would make 98 wins, matching the 1945 team for the most wins since the 100-win 1935 team. 4-4 would make 97, the most since that '45 club. If Carlos Zambrano can win one more game, that'd make three fifteen-game winners for the first time since 1989. The Cubs set a season attendance record today, with the paid crowd of 41,597 making the season total 3,259,649, and if they draw 40,351 or more tomorrow (which seems likely) that'd make 3.3 million for the first time in Chicago baseball history. I have added two more boxes to the sidebar: most wins at home in a season (the Cubs can get to 55 wins at home tomorrow, which would be second-most in Wrigley Field history -- the only higher total was the 58 wins at home at West Side Grounds in 1910). The other addition is "most wins, two consecutive seasons, since 1945" -- three more and the 2007-08 Cubs will break the mark of 180 set in 1945-46.
That's a lot of numbers. There are two more significant ones: two, which would clinch home field throughout the first two rounds, and eleven.
Eleven. That's the number of wins the Cubs need for the championship we have all dreamed of. Today, they took the first step there. We await, with hope and excitement, the next step, to begin at Wrigley Field on October 1.