The Cubs had unexpectedly leaped into contention in 1989, and by late August were in first place, though only a couple of games ahead as the Astros -- then a very good team, not the 100-loss squads we know now -- came to town.
Mike Bielecki, one of the biggest reasons for the Cubs' surge that year, took the mound on a beautiful Tuesday afternoon against Houston's Mike Portugal. Bielecki would go on to an 18-7, 3.14 season, best of his career, and finish ninth in Cy Young voting, but that day he got hit hard. He allowed six runs and was yanked after giving up hits to the first two hitters in the fifth, upon which Dean Wilkins entered and promptly allowed Rafael Ramirez to hit a grand slam. Ramirez drove in seven runs that day, by far the best game of his career.
The Astros thus led 9-0 after five. In those days, my TV job had me working afternoons and evenings, and I'd go to the afternoon games and see a few innings, then leave to get to work on time. That day, I left after five, and to this day I rememeber what I was thinking: "Okay, the Cubs are still in first place, they'll get 'em tomorrow."
They got 'em that day, and with only the benefit of a single home run (Lloyd McClendon, a two-run shot in the seventh). They scored two in the sixth, three in the seventh and four in the eighth, and Andrew Bagnato of the Tribune tells how it ended:
Dwight Smith wasn't supposed to play. And he wasn't supposed to bat against a lefty. He did both. Factor in his 2-for-30 slump coming in, and you have a most unlikely hero in a most unlikely victory. Smith's sacrifice fly in the eighth inning completed the Cubs' rally from a nine-run deficit and his single in the 10th ended a stunning 10-9 win Tuesday in Wrigley Field. Smith, who missed four games with a sprained ankle, had come off the bench to single in a run in the seventh inning, but he figured he was gone when the Astros brought in left-hander Juan Agosto in the eighth. "I thought (manager Don Zimmer) was going to pinch-hit for me," Smith said. "He still had (right-handed hitting) Darrin Jackson on the bench. But I looked at him and he said, `Smitty, you can hit this guy.' " Smith drove in the game's tying run with a sacrifice fly to center. Two innings later, he whacked a Dave Smith pitch into right field to cap an unbelievable day. "That (earlier) move allowed me to get that hit," Smith said. "All I can say is thanks for giving me the opportunity."
In 1989, Smith and Jerome Walton -- who wound up being named National League Rookie of the Year -- were two key components in helping the Cubs win the division title. Neither would ever have a year that good again, and both were gone from the Cubs by 1994. Such was the fate of many young Cubs players in that era.
But on one August afternoon, it seemed as if anything was possible, after the Cubs came from nine runs down to beat Houston -- with the winning run coming off Astros closer Dave Smith, who later spent a couple of really bad years with the Cubs, a running theme in the 1990s.