When Ryan Theriot poked a single into right field to lead off the bottom of the eighth inning last night, then took off in a scamper toward second base, I was reminded of this September 1989 game, when Dwight Smith did much the same thing in front of a startled Tom Brunansky, starting a rally which tied a crucial game that the Cubs later won in extra innings.
Ken Griffey Jr., whose night got a lot worse two batters later, was charged with a tough error on the play -- I thought Theriot would have made second base anyway. After Derrek Lee singled Theriot to third (and yes, Mike Quade did the right thing, absolutely, holding him up with one out), Griffey appeared to plant himself awkwardly and then strained, according to the reports, an "abdominal" muscle (although if you were watching the replay, his abdomen wasn't what he was clutching in obvious pain). With the Reds out of contention, that likely ends Griffey's season.
Reds manager Pete Mackanin then brought in lefty Mike Stanton, upon which Lou sent Matt Murton up to bat for Cliff Floyd. Murton hit a sinking liner to Adam Dunn in left, ruled a trap. Theriot scored the winning run, while Lee, who had to hold up to see if the ball would be caught, was forced at second base.
Replays appeared to show that Dunn might indeed have caught that ball.
But you know what? We have 99 years of breaks coming to us. We'll take it.
And thus, the Cubs beat the Reds 3-2, and that, combined with the Brewers' 5-4 loss to the Astros in 10 innings, put the Cubs back in first place by one game, with Milwaukee now picking up one of the "games in hand" tonight, when they play in Atlanta, while the Cubs have the day off.
You could almost feel the momentum start shifting -- scoreboard-watching, as we all were, the Brewers took an early lead, and after Alfonso Soriano hit the first pitch of the game for his ninth leadoff HR of the season (establishing a new club record, breaking the tie with Rick Monday, who hit eight of them in 1976, and for all of us who wanted Lou to give Soriano yesterday off, we're sure glad he didn't!), the Reds answered with two solo shots of their own, one by new Cub-killer Edwin Encarnacion, the other a moon-shot by Dunn that landed far over the bleachers onto Sheffield. It started to feel wrong -- would the Cubs fall out of first place entirely?
But Geovany Soto -- and he impresses me more every day, and Lou hints Soto may get some more playing time the last nine games -- tied the game with a solo HR in the fifth (and paid off for me, as I had chosen him in our game of HR Derby last night), and we watched, and watched, and watched, as the Astros changed pitchers (putting Stephen Randolph, then Dave Borkowski, then Chad Qualls into the game) several times, and then tied the game in the seventh. The Cubs game ended just before Houston took the lead in the last of the eighth, and I was getting phone updates on the way home.
But that's a diversion. After the Cubs took that lead, we were all surprised not to see Ryan Dempster take the mound for the ninth. There was a good reason for that; the above-linked article including the note on Soto explains:
In his place, Bob Howry (6-7) finished off the game in the ninth after pitching the eighth and earned the win.
With a day off today, manager Lou Piniella said he expected Dempster to be ready to pitch again Friday, when the Cubs open a series against Pittsburgh.
That's understandable (and even at that, Dempster was still sitting in the bullpen and did his usual throw-the-ball-against-the-pads-wearing-a-catcher's-mitt routine in the 7th inning) -- but we were all still surprised to see no one warming up at all in the 9th, Lou apparently having complete confidence in Howry to finish things off. He did so with a flourish, striking out Reds rookie Joey Votto to end it, in yet another reminiscence, this time of this 2003 come-from-behind win over the Cardinals, when Joe Borowski struck out Jim Edmonds to preserve a one-run win, crowd standing and roaring just as they were last night. Of the 40,805 (exactly four more than the night before) in attendance on a gloriously warm mid-September evening, very, very few had left by game's end, and as often happens when the Cubs are in a tense pennant-race game, the usual drunken frat-boy-and-girl behavior in the bleachers completely vanished. Everyone was into the action on the field.
In addition to the Soto and Soriano homers, and the heroics in the eighth and terrific closing by Howry (who got the win), the hero of the night had to be our new ace pitcher, Ted Lilly, who threw one of his best games of the year, on three days' rest. He allowed only five hits -- apart from the two HR, only two singles and a double -- walked one, and struck out eight, including a K of Alex Gonzalez on his ninety-ninth pitch (seventy-three of them strikes, most impressive), to end his outing after seven innings. He really made only one mistake, getting that pitch up to Dunn, whose HR landed only on Sheffield after seeming to be on the way to Lake Michigan when it left the bat. One of the purposes of the three-days-rest for both Lilly and Z was to get an extra start in for Lilly, who will now start on five days' rest Tuesday in Miami, and then be ready to start the last game of the regular season in Cincinnati. Incidentally, that notes column linked above says that Jason Marquis would start the if-necessary tiebreaker game on Monday, October 1. Let's hope it's NOT necessary.
One thing Lou has preached for the last two weeks is "win series". The Cubs accomplished that with their win last night, against a team that's been very tough on them all year (they're now 7-8 vs. the Reds, with the series in Cincinnati next weekend still to come). They'll enjoy the day off (and rest, something many players on this club surely need) while the Brewers begin a four-game series in Atlanta against a Braves team which, although virtually eliminated from contention (5.5 games off both the NL East and wild card leads), has won four in a row and just completed a sweep of the Marlins, winning the three games by a combined score of 20-10.
BCB reader Damen Jackson joined us last night, and told me of a personal dilemma: he's headed to Boston on business and has a chance to see the Red Sox play at Fenway next weekend (they're playing the Twins, and he's never been to Fenway before). If he does so, though, since he'd be paying over face value for the Fenway tickets, he wouldn't be able to afford playoff tickets. I told him before the game that he'd have to make that choice -- then afterwards, told him that if he doesn't ever come to a playoff game, that the atmosphere last night was close. And it was.
We go onward. Enjoy the off-day, keep the faith, and enjoy the ride.