"... and you know... the darkest hour... is always... just before the dawn." -- Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, "Long Time Gone", 1970
Stop me if you've heard this one before.
There are three teams in a wild card race.
One of them, the favorite, has played up and down all year, but somewhat better after acquiring a star player in a mid-season deal.
The second, a not-so-talented squad with one superstar having a monster season, has hung with the better team all down the stretch, to the point where not much more than a game separated them all September.
And the third team came out of nowhere, lurking way behind, but streaking home, suddenly finding themselves ahead with the season slamming to a close.
No, I'm not talking about the Cubs, the Giants and the Astros. The teams I'm referring to are the 1998 Mets (Mike Piazza, the star player acquired), the 1998 Cubs (Sammy Sosa, monster season), and the 1998 Giants, who went on a long winning streak and as we all remember, overtook the Mets and forced the Cubs into a tiebreaker game, which the Cubs won to make the playoffs.
Oh, but there's more to this. The 1998 Mets looked, on the second-to-last weekend of the season, as if they'd clinched, when the Cubs lost a bitter game to -- of all teams -- the Reds, a team they should have defeated easily, on a day set aside to honor Sammy Sosa. Here's what I e-mailed my friend Tom, the Mets fan, on that day, one week before the end of the '98 season:
Congratulations on winning the wild card and good luck in the playoffs against the Astros. After Sunday, they don't deserve to win. I guess the Mets were really the team of destiny. Very, very disappointed. Again, best to your team. You won it fair and square.
Damn, I was never happier to be wrong about that, because the Mets then lost five in a row to -- you following this -- the two worst teams in the league, the Marlins and Expos, and fell out of the race entirely.
Does this sound like the last five days of Cubs baseball? Sadly, it sure does, and today's -- what else can I call it -- absurd, 12-inning, 2-1 loss to the Reds, puts the Cubs in a hole, obviously, though in a season like this, where absolutely nothing has made sense, perhaps we have three more unexpected days remaining.
Here's how absurd it got for us in the bleachers:
Jeff started singing, "The wheels on the bus are falling off... falling off... falling off..."
Dave was ripping the Cubs and Dusty Baker a new... well, you know what, for not moving runners along, not pinch-running for Aramis Ramirez again, and a myriad of other sins.
Jon tried to entertain me with more puns (when Ryan Freel pinch-ran in the 10th, he said, "I have a Freel-ing he might steal". I felt like hitting him with the clipboard, but instead I held back.
And sitting too long made my right knee lock up, and it hurt for a while, but by the time the game ended, I had unlocked it. Maybe they should have sent me out there to pinch-hit, because there didn't seem to be a soul wearing pinstripes today who could do that. The Reds kept trotting out pitchers with 5+ ERA's, including Juan Padilla, who came in with one over 12, and the Cubs were swinging weakly and popping up or grounding out on the first pitch. They left twelve men on base, including the bases loaded three times, the last such time in the eleventh inning.
This wasted Mark Prior's best start of the year. By the sabermetric tool Game Score, it was the second-best start by any major league pitcher this year, the only one better being Randy Johnson's perfect game.
Prior was nearly unhittable, striking out sixteen (including Adam Dunn three times, the second of which was his 190th of the season, breaking the single-season record held by Bobby Bonds, which had stood since 1968), and making only one mistake -- a pitch that Austin Kearns rocketed to left off the foul pole, and if not for that, the Cubs would have come out with a 1-0 victory. Incidentally, Sammy Sosa also made a bit of history today -- his 34th homer, a rocket onto Waveland, was the 573rd of his career, tying him with Harmon Killebrew for 7th place on the all-time list.
I don't have anything to say about the rest of the hitters, because they themselves were silent this afternoon.
Summer tried to hold on today, gripping tight with fingernails in the slowly fading sun, as the temperature hit the low 70s with bright sunshine, and I trotted out the shorts, and my Expos T-shirt from last year's trip to Puerto Rico -- I thought that was appropriate given the announcement yesterday that the Expos are no more, but instead the Cubs played like this year's version of the Expos (well, except when the Expos were playing the Cubs, but you get the idea). It is supposed to be warm again tomorrow, and then fall will hit with a vengeance over the weekend, with temps only in the 50's Saturday and Sunday.
It's just this simple: the Cubs need a three-game winning streak right now and some help. Kerry Wood, Carlos Zambrano and Greg Maddux will throw against a team the Cubs last played almost exactly six months ago. The history of baseball is littered with stirring comebacks even more amazing than this one would be -- one example I thought of today was the 1980 Astros, who went into Los Angeles on the final weekend of the season needing to win only one game to get in, and got swept -- but then won the tiebreaker game.
We have to keep hope, my friends, until all hope is gone, and though it seems bleak right now -- remember the musical phrase I quoted at the top of this post.
And remember one other connection this Cubs team has to the 1998 wild-card race:
Without Neifi, there'd have been no tie-breaker game, because the Cubs and Giants went into the final day of the season tied, and the Cubs lost in Houston, and literally 30 seconds later, Perez, then playing for the Rockies, beat the Giants with a ninth-inning homer. I have a sense, a feeling, something inside me, that says that Neifi Perez, mediocre player that he is, will produce something similar for the Cubs this weekend.
There are three days left, and heroics to come. Keep the faith.