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We Are The (NL Central) Champions!

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CINCINNATI -- In 1984, I was in Pittsburgh with about 5,000 other Cub fans at Three Rivers Stadium when the Cubs clinched the NL East title by beating the Pirates 4-1.

In 1989, I didn't go to Montreal as it was far too expensive to find a flight there at the last minute, but once again the Cubs won the NL East on the field when Mitch Williams struck out Mike Fitzgerald to nail down a 3-2 win.

And in 1998 and in 2003, the Cubs won playoff spots (a wild card and NL Central title, respectively) in front of wildly cheering throngs at Wrigley Field.

So it was a little surreal to "experience" the Cubs winning the NL Central title last night with about 100 other Cub fans at the Rock Bottom Brewery in downtown Cincinnati when Trevor Hoffman struck out Rickie Weeks in Milwaukee, eliminating the Brewers and nailing down the Cubs' fifth playoff spot in my lifetime, and third in the last ten seasons.

That makes this one different already. And so we begin the month of October, again, with hopes and dreams that this time, the postseason of 2007, will end differently than the disappointments and losses of 1984, 1989, 1998 and 2003. It has been a season of ups and downs -- I don't have to recap here in one post all of it, because all of us have experienced it here as one -- and not only that, but a final week of the same. Given the almost-finished collapse of the Mets, the gallant but apparently not-to-be miracle run of the Rockies, and the fact that the 90-loss Marlins have had a big say in who's going and not going to the postseason, I believe anything can and will happen in the next four weeks. There is no dominant team in the National League, and that gives this Cub team -- flawed as it is -- a real chance to advance to the World Series, just as the Cardinals wheezed into the playoffs a year ago and then blazed through to a World Championship.

We can dream NOW, can't we? I'm just glad the Cubs don't have to play the Marlins any more, because as badly as they looked playing Florida this past week, that's as good as they looked in shutting out the Reds 6-0, a combined eight-hitter by Carlos Zambrano, Bob Howry and Ryan Dempster.

Frankly, I was stunned to see Dempster in the ninth inning, given his well-known failures in non-save situations, but he had an efficient inning, giving up one hit but inducing a game-ending double play to finish with a 13-pitch, nine-strike appearance.

Carlos Zambrano looked like the Z of old -- walking only one, getting ground balls, and keeping the histrionics on the mound to a minimum in throwing seven shutout innings, in getting his 18th win of 2007, and dropping his season ERA to 3.95.

The crowd of 32,193 included at least 20,000 mostly blue-clad Cubs fans, myself included (I assume this because the night before against Houston, the Reds drew 13,626), and we were sent into a roaring frenzy with the first at-bat of the game, a home run by Alfonso Soriano (his sixth leadoff HR of September, setting a major league record for the most leadoff HR in any month). I don't know what it sounded like on television, but at the GABP, it sounded like a home game. That continued throughout, as the Cubs extended the lead in the second inning on a Ryan Theriot sac fly, and later on Derrek Lee's 22nd HR of the season in the fifth (and after a very slow start, D-Lee's power numbers look decent, not up to his 2005 season, but in line with his career prior to that year, with a much higher batting average). When Jacque Jones doubled in two more (missing a HR by only a couple of feet) in the 8th, we knew we'd be at least assured of a tiebreaker game in Chicago on Monday... so after Dempster nailed it down, we were off to watch the Brewers/Padres game at the Rock Bottom Brewery, and the cheering was just as loud there as I'm sure it was at the watering holes in Wrigleyville, or at your house.

A couple of quick notes about the GABP, which I'll try to walk around a little more extensively today (this is my first visit there, and the first time I've been in Cincinnati since Opening Day 1982, Ryne Sandberg's first game as a Cub). It's nice enough, but seems a bit "generic ballpark". From my seat in the LF corner of the lower deck, you can't really see out of the park -- the view of Kentucky across the Ohio River of which the broadcasters often speak is really only visible from the upper deck. The sightlines to the plate weren't bad -- except when people kept walking up and down the aisle to the right. From that angle, too, you can't see the out-of-town scoreboard on the LF wall, nor half of the main board above the LF seats. The best seats in the house, oddly enough, seem to be the RF "sun/moon deck" seats, which cost only $16 (although if you can get them, which I couldn't for this game, there are plenty of discounted ones available).

The Skyline chili was good, though -- among the best ballpark food I've had, although a little pricey at $9. The large-size $4.75 soft drink cup is a pretty good deal -- but don't try to put it in the cupholder in front of your seat; mine briefly got stuck in there before I gently pried it out.

And I am now the proud owner of one of the wackiest giveaways I've seen -- a Marty & Thom Brennaman bobblehead.

We can laugh and have fun at things like that now; today, likely, will be played like an exhibition game -- I imagine we'll see Sam Fuld, Felix Pie, Ronny Cedeno, and Mike Fontenot, among others, start. Rich Hill will, I imagine, be the starting pitcher anyway, as he'll be needed in the postseason and if he doesn't pitch today, that'd make two weeks in between starts. Tomorrow, you might see Sean Marshall or Sean Gallagher or Kevin Hart start, and the regulars should again all play, to tune up for Wednesday's playoff opener -- and it will be Wednesday barring a last-gasp comeback by the Mets or Rockies -- which now will be in either Arizona or San Diego, most likely Arizona.

And a brief note to the second-place Brewers, who ran a tough and gallant race: that's one tough offense you've got there; Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Corey Hart, J. J. Hardy -- these are great young hitters. The Brewers have a chance to contend and win for many years to come. Nevertheless, I'm glad you guys are sitting home this October!

Enjoy and revel in victory! There is, of course, much work yet to be done, but the first step has now been taken. Onward to October!!