Today's frustrating and depressing 10-5 Cub loss to the Pirates hinged on two sinking line drives to center field, one of which was caught, and, well... one of which wasn't.
The one that wasn't, a line drive that should have ended the second inning with the Cubs trailing only 3-2, was misjudged by Jacque Jones -- he broke to his left when he should have broken to his right, and his frantic dive after the ball when he realized he'd gone the wrong way failed, the ball rolling to the wall, and only a nice relay by Ryan Theriot to the plate to nail Freddy Sanchez prevented it from being an inside-the-park grand slam.
So although Steve Trachsel's pitching line looks pretty awful, I believe it wasn't all his fault.
The second of those sinking liners was caught by Pirates rookie CF Nyjer Morgan (a very, very impressive looking young player, I might add) off Aramis Ramirez, who had a look of utter disgust on his face after the catch.
It was that kind of day. The Cubs managed to fight their way back to a 7-5 deficit on the strength of a two-run HR by Alfonso Soriano and a solo shot from Geovany Soto, his first (of what we hope are many) major league home run.
Two runs down going into the seventh. Doable, right? Even more doable after Ramirez leads off the 8th with a double.
But after that the Cubs saw exactly FIVE MORE PITCHES in that inning -- a pitch fouled off by Matt Murton, and following that a groundout, and a useless groundout, because it couldn't even advance Ramirez to third. Then Jacque Jones took ball one, and after that hit a rocket -- right into the glove of Jose Bautista at third base. Who knows? Had Ramirez been at third, maybe Sanchez' defensive positioning would have been different and that would have been an RBI single. One pitch later, Mark DeRosa grounded out and that, as they say, was that.
Who was managing that inning, anyway? Dusty Baker? Don Zimmer?
There still might have been a chance at a ninth-inning comeback, except for Kerry Wood, who up to now had had ten good outings and three bad ones.
Make that four bad ones, and this one was probably the worst, as he threw only 9 strikes in his twenty-one pitches, giving up two hits and two walks (he probably should have been yanked after the second hitter, except he was already the seventh pitcher used in the game and I don't think Lou had any intention of using anyone except Will Ohman, who finally did come in, even if the Pirates had scored ten runs in that inning). Three of those baserunners scored, and as is often the case after a team makes a close game a blowout in the last of the 8th, the trailing team goes out meekly in the ninth, and the Cubs complied with that old baseball saw.
So. With Milwaukee's 10-5 win over Cincinnati, the Cubs drop out of first place, a game behind, for the first time since August 16 (they have been either ahead or tied for first since August 17). And just as things were decided four years ago, this division -- or at least the Cubs' chances of winning it -- may be decided by the five games they have remaining with the Cardinals, one tomorrow at Wrigley Field (weather permitting), and four next weekend in St. Louis.
I take this opportunity to remind you that pennant races do have their ups and downs. Don't take this as a statement that "well, because it happened this way in 1998 or 2003, it's going to happen that way this year", because of course that's not true. But I will remind you that after losing two straight games in Pittsburgh on September 19 (2nd game of a DH) and 20, 2003, the Cubs stood a game and a half out of first place -- with only seven games remaining. I further note that after getting swept by the Reds from September 18-20, 1998, the Cubs stood a game out of the wild card lead with only five games remaining -- and the team they were trailing on that day, the Mets, not only didn't win the wild card, they finished third.
There are twenty games remaining. The examples above are only races involving the Cubs -- if I had time, I could easily find similar examples of tight playoff races involving other teams that completely turned around.
Oh, heck, here's one that I remember well. On September 24, 25 and 26, 1987, the Detroit Tigers lost three straight games to the Toronto Blue Jays, who they then trailed by 3.5 games with eight games remaining. The next day, they were losing 1-0 in the top of the ninth -- a loss that day would have put them 4.5 games out with seven left, an almost insurmountable deficit. Kirk Gibson homered to tie the game and the Tigers won 3-2 in 13. Toronto, then a powerhouse in the AL who had won the AL East in 1985, didn't win another game, and the Tigers beat them 1-0 on the last day of the season to clinch the division.
You see the point, I think. Today felt awful. But what the Cubs must do is shake this off, beat the Cardinals tomorrow, and then go to Houston and remember what it was like playing there from 2004-2006, when they went 16-10 combined in the Juice Box.
One note: Len and Bob started talking about doubleheaders during the telecast today, in advance of the split DH the Cubs will play in St. Louis this coming Saturday. Len mentioned, correctly, that back in the 1970's, they used to play DH in Pittsburgh that started in the morning -- and I'm sure those of you old enough to remember that will remember holiday doubleheaders (particularly Memorial Day and Labor Day) in Pittsburgh that started at 9:30 am Chicago time. Anyway, that triggered a memory for Bob of a day where -- he claimed -- he caught the first game of a DH, then was supposed to just sit in the bullpen and not play at all in the second game, since it was a hot midsummer day.
However, he said, Giants RF Jack Clark was ejected, so he (Brenly) had to go in and play right field, then as the game went into extra innings, he wound up behind the plate, and the second game went eighteen innings.
I was skeptical -- because sometimes the passage of time makes memories like this fuzzy, and makes ten-inning games into 18-inning games.
So I looked. And darned if Brenly didn't get it all correct, except for the identity of the right fielder that day. The date was July 13, 1984; here's the first game, which Brenly started and caught. In the second game, Giants right fielder John Rabb, not Clark (and Rabb played exactly eight games in the OF for the '84 Giants), left the game. The play-by-play doesn't make it clear why, but I'll take Brenly's word that he was ejected. In the 12th inning Brenly was moved to catcher, so he wound up catching sixteen innings that day.
Nice job, Bob, remembering something that happened twenty-three years ago. That was a Cub division title year. Let's get that going in 2007. Starting rightfreakingnow.