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The Changing Of The Guard

Today, we all saw baseball past become baseball future.

In an absolute masterpiece of postseason pitching, twenty-three-year-old Mark Prior served notice that he, not thirty-seven-year-old Greg Maddux, is going to be the force in baseball for the next decade or so, just as Maddux dominated the last decade.

The Cubs beat the Braves 3-1 tonight, taking a 2 games to 1 lead in their National League Division Series behind perhaps the loudest crowd I have ever been part of at Wrigley Field.

Unlike the regular season, MLB mandates that all seats for the postseason are reserved; the ticket office collected seat locations for many of us who are season-ticket holders in the bleachers, and so we were all in our regular seats. At the gate, at first, security was going to let us in first, then said no, so we all got in line with everyone else. It didn't matter, really, since the seats were reserved, which probably explains why there were only about 50 people in line when the gates opened at 5:05.

While the pregame mood was festive, it still didn't feel like a playoff game until Paul Friedman on the PA started to announce the lineups, and the teams lined up on the foul lines. It's too bad, because I love that kind of stuff, but you could hear Friedman hurry through the Cub starting lineup, kind of ruining the effect, but he was doing it because of the bizarre little rainstorm that blew through for about twenty minutes just before game time, after it appeared on the Weather Channel radar that all the rain had cleared the area by about 4 pm!

Nothing's ever easy, right? Maybe this is a sign that we have to suffer a bit more before we reach the Promised Land. Everyone says we could reach a Biblical-style apocalypse if the Cubs ever do make it to the World Series, so maybe this rainstorm was just a sample.

Anyway, the game was delayed about thirty minutes, and after the rain stopped I tried to get to the men's room. Bad idea, as the aisles were so clogged with people, many of whom had probably never been in the bleachers before, so I gave up. With the way tickets are distributed and sold for the postseason, it really is likely that there are a lot of newbies in the bleachers; the crowd seemed older and better behaved than most, and that was refreshing.

Trish and Cheryl came over from right field and passed out Dusty Baker-style toothpicks to all of us, which we kept in our mouths for the entire game. They promised to bring more tomorrow.

The attempt by nearly everyone in the ballpark to imitate the Atlanta "chop" was hilarious -- what it reminded me of most was back in August when we were all swatting at the gnats!

And one discordant note -- in the fifth inning when we were all up cheering for a third strike, someone standing behind us smoking thought he'd come over and tell us that we were blocking his view. Well, he chose to stand back there! There were very few people standing with all the seats assigned, of course, which only possibly proves that they do in fact way oversell the bleachers during the regular season, something they can't do with all seats assigned. They had painted seat numbers on the benches before the last homestand of the regular season, but waited until this week to renumber the sides of each bench with the row number. And then they did it with -- magic marker. Nothing but the best for us!

When the game started, something was wrong with the ball and strike indicators on the main scoreboard, so they put the count up on the message board until they got it fixed. Then the side scoreboard on the LF upper deck started to malfunction (almost like a Frankenstein creation, flashing like it was saying "It's alive! It's alive!"). We blamed all of this on Jeff's light-up cap, because there probably isn't enough power in the Wrigleyville area to power all of those things at the same time and keep the lights on too. Maybe tomorrow it'll be OK during a day game.

The Cubs played a nearly flawless game, apart even from Prior's spectacular pitching performance. We must thank the Pirates yet again, because our three acquisitions -- Lofton, Simon and Ramirez -- combined for five of the eight hits and all of the RBI. I know that Eric Karros has hit Russ Ortiz well over his career, and that's why he started game one, but I'd have Randall Simon in the lineup again tomorrow. Just a hunch.

Greg Maddux was good, but his time has passed, and the Cubs did exactly what you have to do to beat him -- score off him in the first inning, and that also ensured that you'd see the dark underbelly of the Atlanta bullpen, which allowed an important insurance run to score in the eighth. With the rain, the air was very heavy -- we knew no one would hit a ball out of the ballpark unless they crushed it, and no one did. The Braves played sloppy defense, making four errors, but none of them figured in the scoring, and Prior managed to pitch himself out of every single jam, mostly created by a bit of wildness, particularly in the first inning when he walked two, then again in the sixth when he hit Gary Sheffield, and finally in the ninth when he wild-pitched on strike three to Javy Lopez. We knew when Larry Rothschild came out that Prior was going to stay in, even though Joe Borowski was ready, and even though Prior wound up throwing 133 pitches, it was the right choice.

Now the bullpen is totally rested, having had two days off, so the club is well set up to have Remlinger and Farnsworth as the first two guys in if Matt Clement gets in trouble, but I think Clement's ready to have the second "game of his life" on consecutive Saturdays. The sun's supposed to be out tomorrow, with lighter winds and decent temperatures in the upper 50's (in fact, tonight, despite a 54-degree gametime temperature, was never uncomfortable; the wind died down quite a bit after the rain), a perfect scenario for yet another clincher.

A little history lesson: the Cubs have played fourteen postseason series in their history. In only seven of them, including now this one, have they won even as many as two games, and this is the first time since 1984 that they've won two games in one postseason series. This one feels different. It feels right. It feels ready to be closed out tomorrow.

Hope sings, hope soars, and hope to celebrate tomorrow afternoon.