Last night's 2-1 Cub win over the Phillies was the modern Cub fan's life in microcosm. Here's how it went:
- a whole lot of nothing. For a long time.
- Then, excitement. But just when you think the excitement is going to result in something really, really good, something really, really stupid happens.
- Right after the stupid thing, when you think that everything's going to collapse in a muddy heap, something good happens that gives you hope.
- And finally, just when you think there's going to be a "happily ever after" ending, things get completely turned around, and it ends with a crushing defeat.
So maybe, just maybe, because the last of those points didn't happen, the way last night's game ended is a portent that this season still might turn around.
Ryan Dempster pulled a Mitch Williams last night -- it's this game in particular that I'm thinking of, though Williams loaded the bases on singles with nobody out, rather than walking them full, as Dempster did; but Williams struck out the side to end the game, and Dempster came up with two clutch strikeouts to end this one, throwing a ludicrous total of 41 pitches -- guess he won't be available tonight, as Len and Bob reminded us during the inning.
It was just as hot and sticky in Chicago last night as it was in Philadelphia, so it was a good day for Mark and me to sit inside and watch the game. I think he was as nervous as I was, watching that ninth inning. At nearly ten years old, he's learning a bit of this sort of Cub history.
For comparison's sake, the year I turned ten, the Cubs lost 103 games.
I'm glad none of us has to live through a season like that again, hopefully for a long time. Every time you think things are getting hopeless, think about this: you could be a Rockies, Royals or Devil Rays fan, where you begin every single season with zero hope of play in October.
I'll take this. Yes, even games like this one, of which the broadcaster of my childhood, Jack Brickhouse, would have said:
Let's deconstruct each of the points I made at the top of this post:
The first seven innings, very little happened. Both pitchers fired blanks at the opposition. Z was terrific, at one point retiring eleven straight Phillies, and even when he let the leadoff man get on base in the sixth and seventh, he got the rest of the Phils out on his signature groundouts. For a while, in fact, I thought the game might be over before it even got dark outside in Chicago -- 8:08 pm sunset time yesterday.
Meanwhile, the Cubs were doing their usual bangup job of making a guy with a 5+ ERA look like Roger Clemens, as Vicente Padilla pretty much matched Z for the first seven innings. The Cubs made meek attempts to score in the third and fourth, only to hit into double plays.
And then there was the eighth. After a leadoff single and sacrifice, two walks (one intentional, to D-Lee) loaded the bases, and it felt like the Cubs were about to break the game open.
I've sat in the bleachers and along with Dave, Howard and Jeff, praised Jeromy Burnitz' heads-up play in the field and at the plate much of the season. And then he goes and gets himself picked off.
He did it again last night, though to be fair, this appeared to be a very difficult play to gauge -- on a wild pitch, Matt Lawton decided not to chance trying to score. This actually appeared to be a smart baserunning decision. Lee, seeing this standing on second base, also stayed put. Unfortunately, Burnitz didn't see this and took off, and was easily picked off.
This is where we all look at each other and just know that this game is going to be lost; that the inning in question is going to wind up scoreless, and then someone named Mike is going to come in from the bullpen and cough up a couple of runs, and the road trip will start off badly and end worse.
But that's not what happened! Aramis Ramirez picked up his teammate's gaffe with a two-run single, setting up Dempster's anti-heroics.
You could see with each closeup of Dempster's face that he was really, really laboring. Of the four walks, the one that really got to me was the one on Ryan Howard, the one that scored the only Phillies run. Dempster had him down to his final strike, but wouldn't bust him inside or throw him one of the 97-MPH fastballs that the rest of the Phillies were waving at.
At least he said he was sorry:
And in a way, that's a good thing. Maybe a true closer wasn't made until last night. A game like this, where Dempster clearly was laboring and didn't have command of any of his pitches, even though his velocity was terrific, and he gutted it out and made the save anyway, is one that has to give him even more confidence that he can go out there anytime and get the job done.
That's something that's been lacking in Cub closers since, well, since the end of the 2003 season.
For more on the game, there are two excellent diaries on the right sidebar from people who were there -- check them out.
One final thought on not only the good start to this absolutely, positively critical road trip, but this entire week -- the only one of the six primary contenders for the wild card who is playing any of the others, is the Cubs, who can pick up ground on both the Phillies and Mets this week. All of the other teams (Houston, Washington, and Florida) are playing teams outside the wild-card race, not only in their current series, but in their upcoming weekend series.
It's a stretch, I know. But the Cubs can pick up ground on everyone this week, and they have to. They've played very well on the road this year -- now over .500 at 27-26 -- and really have to win five of six, at the least.
After winning in the way they did last night, there's a glimmer of hope that they can actually do this. Keep the faith.