The 2001 Cubs contended for most of the year, then brought the team back mostly intact... and then plummeted to the basement of the N.L. Central. Why?
Mostly because the bullpen was awful. Tom Gordon and Jeff Fassero did quite well closing games in 2001, but Gordon was gone and Fassero ineffective in 2002, and the closing was being done, sort of, by Antonio Alfonseca. Nuff said, I'm thinking. (Also, Jon Lieber was injured and missed the last third of the year.)
So by the time this Friday afternoon game against the Marlins began the season's second half -- it was the first game after the All-Star break -- the Cubs were 36-51, 12½ games out of first place.
Preston Wilson and Fred McGriff hit matching two-run homers, and the Marlins scored off Kerry Wood in the seventh inning, tying the game 4-4. And then the Cubs' bullpen decided to be very, very good, for a day, at least. Kyle Farnsworth, Alfonseca, Juan Cruz, Joe Borowski and Fassero combined to throw nine innings in relief, allowing five hits, two walks and no runs, striking out eight.
Meanwhile, the Cubs' offense was impotent. They had baserunners in every inning from the ninth through the 15th and RISP in the 10th, 11th, 14th and 15th, and failed to score.
Now we're getting into the era when recaps are online, and I can link to them. Here's how the Cubs won the game, via the Associated Press:
Florida center fielder Preston Wilson ran into the wall with two outs in the 16th inning and dropped pinch-hitter Angel Echevarria's fly ball single, giving the Chicago Cubs a 5-4 win over the Marlins on Friday. Wilson said he knew a rough collision was coming. "You know when you come here, there's not much of a cushion," Wilson said. "Anywhere else in the league, it's padded. It's more like a curtain. Window dressing." Wilson appeared to run down Echevarria's fly, but did not hang on as he ran into the wall. Wilson fell to the ground and umpires immediately called it a no-catch. "Everything happened so fast," Wilson said. "When he hit it, it just kept going. I was on a dead run."
I remember this one well. Wilson ran into the wall at full speed, fell on his back, and dropped the ball, allowing the winning run to score. At first, it looked as if he had been seriously injured, but he managed to get away with a couple of minor wrist injuries. He didn't miss a game.
Echevarria was an interesting signing. A Rockies prospect, he had put up big numbers in the Colorado system but never really got a chance to play regularly for them. He didn't play much for the Cubs, either, just 111 plate appearances in which he hit .306/.351/.469, which is pretty decent, but he was not retained for 2003. After two years not playing at all, the Cubs signed him again in December 2004, but released him after he hit poorly at Iowa in 2005.
He's pictured at the top of this post, one of the more obscure players in recent Cubs history.