Shortstop Shawon Dunston of the Chicago Cubs swings at the ball at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. Credit: Jonathan Daniel /Allsport
The 1995 season started late, due to the lateness of the settlement after the 1994 labor stoppage. MLB set a 144-game schedule, the shortest in the expansion era.
The Cubs, who had been pretty bad in 1994, were a little better in 1995. After a good start had them in first place in early June at 22-13, they went 16-30 and were five games under .500 at what would be the midpoint of a normal season, 38-43. A 23-16 run put them back over the .500 mark in early September at 61-59, but that didn't seem as if it would be enough...
... until the last week of the season, when they started winning. And winning. And winning. They won seven in a row and needed some help, but went into the season's final weekend with a shot at the first-ever wild card. The fourth win in the streak was this game against the Cardinals that was a near no-hitter by Frank Castillo, broken up with two out in the ninth by a triple by Bernard Gilkey.
And then they went for that eighth straight win.
Could this band of misfits and reclamation projects actually do it?
It's late September and usually, by this time we've said our goodbyes to both summer and the Cubs' season.
But with today's incredible come-from-behind, 4-3, 10-inning win over the Astros, their eighth win in a row, the Cubs actually do have a chance to win that newfangled NL wild card, the first of its kind. (It would have started last year except for... well, you know.)
The Cubs will need help. Here's how it looks after today's action:
So... if the Cubs can finish the series sweep over the Astros, and the Giants can beat Don Baylor's Rockies twice, that would force a tie for the wild card between the Cubs and Rockies at 75-69, and we'd have a tiebreaker game at Wrigley Field on Monday.
Improbable? Sure. But after the last eight games? Who among you would call it impossible?
Today, as summer hung on with a 76-degree day, the Astros looked like they had the game well in hand. Mike Hampton gave up just three hits and four walks in eight-plus innings, but when he ran into trouble in the ninth with a 3-0 lead, Houston closer Mike Henneman came in. He was awful. And that's what the Astros got him from the Tigers last month for -- to put out fires like this. With a runner on first, Henneman gave up consecutive singles to Sammy Sosa and Shawon Dunston; that scored a run, the only one charged to Hampton. Another single loaded the bases, and then Scott Servais hit into a force play that scored Sosa, making it 3-2. Henneman walked Howard Johnson (his third walk of the day), loading the bases.
With the crowd of 28,297 (well, that's what was announced; maybe 15,000 were in the house) making enough noise to make everyone think there was a sold-out house, Hartgraves walked Bullett on four pitches, tying the game.
Brian McRae had a chance to win it, but he struck out on a 3-2 pitch.
So it was on to extra innings for the second straight day. This time, Randy Myers was safely on the bench, out of reach of any wayward fans trying to tackle him, unlike last night. (The guy who tried to get to Myers after he gave up the homer to James Mouton was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct and assault.)
Mike Perez threw the 10th; he hit Milt Thompson, but then he and Servais caught Thompson stealing, setting up the decisive last of the 10th. A walk and a single put runners on first and third; Sosa was intentionally passed to set up a force at every base. Dunston's weak grounder to second forced Jose Hernandez at the plate, but Luis Gonzalez bailed him, and the team, out with a single to right that scored Mark Grace and gave the Cubs their eighth win in a row, their longest streak since May of last year.
Could they really do it? Stranger things have happened in baseball, but not many. This Cubs team took all year to look this good, and even if they don't pull off the miracle, they have given us an amazing week of baseball. It's going to be hard to get baseball back to what it was before the strike. But if we keep seeing play like this, fans will come back.