This is going to read a lot like the 1984 post in this series. The seasons were similar, both featuring Cubs teams that had lost 90+ games the year before and weren't expected to go anywhere, suddenly contending for a division title. This one might have been even more unlikely than the '84 team -- rookies starting in center field and part-time in left field and behind the plate. But all produced, and the starting pitching, behind Greg Maddux, a resurgent Rick Sutcliffe, and a completely unexpected year from Mike Bielecki, led the way. Mitch Williams, acquired by trade, made us nervous but saved 36 games.
I could have chosen a number of games for this post, but this one was among those that I think finally gave most of us the idea: "Hey, maybe this is for real."
The Cubs had taken a redeye flight back from a July 19 win in Los Angeles, arriving in Chicago around 5:30 a.m. Luckily, the Thursday, July 20 game against the Giants at Wrigley wasn't scheduled until 7:05, so perhaps the Cubs could be somewhat rested...
At least for the first eight innings, it didn't look that way, on an unseasonably chilly, damp and windy evening. Giants starter Mike LaCoss and closer Steve Bedrosian held them to just four hits through eight, and the Cubs looked on their way to a 3-0 loss. In the ninth, though, they rallied, as described by Andrew Bagnato in the Tribune:
With one out and Steve Bedrosian bringing fire, Mark Grace scratched out an infield single and took second on Damon Berryhill's wind-blown base hit, which center fielder Brett Butler misjudged. Then Lloyd McClendon popped up. It looked like it was over. "I can't remember going into the ninth and coming back to win like this," manager Don Zimer said. "We come into the ninth down 3-O on a pitcher's night..." ... And suddenly start hitting. First Dwight Smith, hitting .345, drilled a single to score Grace, and Candy Maldonado's throw bounced over catcher Kirt Manwaring's glove, putting runners at second and third. Then Curtis Wilkerson, hitting 1OO points lower than Smith, lined a shot to left. Third-base coach Chuck Cottier waved Smith on, and the man who sat the last three days with a strained calf just beat the throw.
The game moved on into the 10th and 11th innings, with neither team scoring, and then Zimmer made one of his inscrutable decisions that seemed completely illogical, yet it worked. In the bottom of the 11th, McClendon led off with a single, then was erased on a double play grounder by Smith. Curtis Wilkerson singled, and pitcher Les Lancaster was the next due hitter.
Why didn't Zimmer bat for Lancaster? The pitcher was 5-for-70 lifetime coming into that game, with 32 strikeouts and one extra-base hit. The Cubs had one bench player left, backup catcher Joe Girardi. (McClendon, already in the game, could have caught, too.) Zimmer left Girardi on the bench and let Lancaster bat.
Giants reliever Randy McCament got a 1-2 count on Lancaster and Les then smashed a grounder out of the reach of a diving Ken Oberkfell into the left-field corner for a double; Maldonado's throw was too late to get Wilkerson, who scored the winning run.
Sure, you're going to say, this is why it's good to have pitchers bat. Sure, I admit that this sort of thing is fun, but look again at the numbers above: 5-for-70. Ugh.
The Cubs were still in second place after winning this game, but it was things like this -- Zimmer making what appeared to be the wrong choice, but it worked anyway -- that got many of us to believe. The Cubs lost the next afternoon, then went on a 20-6 run that put them in first place to stay; they wound up winning the division by six games. Of the play against the Giants in October, perhaps that's best left alone. 1989 was a lot of fun, until then.