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Another September collapse ruined a possible winning record, and perhaps even contention for a division title.
1996 was a strange Cubs season. They held first place after winning April 19 to run their record to 10-6. That was immediately followed by a seven-game losing streak, then a few wins and a few losses so that by the time they defeated the Astros 6-0 May 13, they held first place... two games under .500, at 18-20.
They had another six-game losing streak in May, but somehow managed to creep to within two games of the division lead with a 16-inning win over the Padres June 22. They were four games under .500; the division-leading Cardinals and Astros were at .500, leading to jokes about the "Comedy Central."
And yet, mediocre as this team was -- Sammy Sosa and Mark Grace were their only decent hitters; Ryne Sandberg, in his return from his first retirement, hit .244/.316/.444 for a 97 OPS+, although he did hit 25 home runs and drove in 92 runs -- it slowly but surely traipsed back toward the .500 mark as summer went on.
And then there was Steve Trachsel. Trachsel had a very good year in 1996, posting a 142 ERA+ and making the All-Star team. But he drove us nuts with his pace on the mound. Slow-paced pitchers are common today -- it'll be a blessing if we don't have to see Rafael Betancourt take 20 minutes between pitches if he closes games against the Cubs -- but then, you could still get many nine-inning games complete in less than three hours.
Not with Trachsel pitching. You could time most of his games with a calendar. This is the story of one of the few Trachsel starts where he worked quickly, a garden-variety, ordinary 4-2 win over a really bad Phillies team. Neil Milbert has the Tribune recap:
Little things meant a lot Friday when the Cubs were 4-2 winners over Philadelphia in Wrigley Field, keeping alive their pennant prayers. For example: - Losing pitcher Rich Hunter's having seemingly minor lapses in control in the first and sixth innings. - Winning pitcher Steve Trachsel's yielding nary a walk. - Another errorless game by the National League's best fielding team, highlighted by Brian McRae's six putouts in center field. "McRae did a great job," said manager Jim Riggleman. "It was hard with the wind and sun. A couple of balls were well hit, and he flagged them down."
"Pennant prayers?" Yes, somehow, the Cubs had, in winning this game, sneaked to within five games of the division lead, with a 74-72 record. Neither they, nor anyone else in the Central, was going to take the wild card; it was division title or bust.
There were 16 games left. Five games out with 16 remaining -- difficult, but not impossible, especially since they had two games left at home against a Phillies team that was 30 games under .500, and then were heading to St. Louis to take a direct shot at the division leaders. Maybe... maybe... maybe...
Nope. "Bust" it was. The Cubs went 2-14 in their final 16 games of the 1996 season and finished 12 games out of first place. We didn't know it at the time, but that would be a harbinger of the start of 1997.