Jon Lieber of the Chicago Cubs pitches for the team during the 1999 season. (Ezra O. Shaw /Allsport)
Today's random recap takes us back to the very beginning of a season which we entered as fans with quite a bit of hope. The Cubs had come off an unlikely playoff appearance as the 1998 NL Wild Card; even though they had lost the division series in three straight to the Braves, fans were pretty happy with that year. It was understood that the Cubs gave pretty much everything they had in just getting into the postseason and the Braves that year might have been the best team of their long playoff run, winning 106 games (though it didn't help them either in the postseason, as they lost the NLCS to the Padres).
The Cubs added starter Jon Lieber to what was expected to be a playoff contender. Coincidentally, Lieber happened to be the starting pitcher for this random recap game.
The 1999 season did not end well, as you know. But on April 8, optimism still prevailed...
Is this payback?
In a serendipitous turn, the schedule-makers -- Harry and Holly Henderson, college professors who lay MLB's schedule out on their kitchen table -- had the Cubs begin the 1999 regular season where they ended it in 1998, in Houston's Astrodome.
Last September, the Cubs lost a tough one in Game 162, but thanks to Colorado's Neifi Perez, they were granted a wild-card playoff game against the Giants. You all know what happened there, and after that.
Will this year be as kind? If the results of the opening series in Houston are any indication, perhaps it will. The Cubs, after losing the season opener to the Astros, won the final two games of the series, including tonight's 2-1 win over Houston behind Jon Lieber, who was making his Cubs debut.
Lieber did not disappoint after the Cubs sent Brant Brown to Pittsburgh for him last December 14. His reputation coming in was as a pitcher who worked quickly and threw strikes. Tonight was no exception; he threw eight solid innings, with 72 strikes in 95 pitches; no walks and six strikeouts resulted, and Houston managed just one run off him, a manufactured run. Ricky Gutierrez led off the third inning with a double, was bunted to third by pitcher Jose Lima, and scored on an infield grounder by Craig Biggio.
This came after the Cubs hit a pair of solo home runs, one by Henry Rodriguez and one by Jose Hernandez, to take a 2-0 lead in the second inning. After that, the Astrodome's reputation as one of the best, if not the best, pitcher's parks in baseball took over. The teams combined for 12 hits, and apart from the two homers and Gutierrez's double, all were singles except for two more two-baggers, one from Hernandez and one from Carl Everett.
Rod Beck had a bit of a shaky time posting his first 1999 save, but it wasn't all his fault; Gary Gaetti made an error allowing Jeff Bagwell to reach, and then Everett's double put the tying run on third with two out, but the Shooter got Richard Hidalgo to ground out to end it.
The Cubs head to Pittsburgh for a weekend series before the home opener on Monday against the Reds. Scott Sanders, who had a decent year as a reliever for the NL champion Padres last year, will make his Cubs debut as a starter. Could this team be the first Cubs team to have back-to-back postseason appearances in over 90 years? It's early, but so far so good.