Now that was worth the price of admission!
After the Cubs and Astros had played 12-plus innings, scoring only one run each on long home runs by each team's Lee (Carlos, off the batter's eye in CF; Derrek, to Waveland Avenue), and getting strong relief pitching, Alfonso Soriano said, "Enough", and even though a base hit or medium-deep fly ball would have ended the game, Sori hit Chris Sampson's second pitch to almost the same spot Carlos Lee's ball had landed in the second inning, giving Houston a 1-0 lead at the time.
The 5-1 Cubs win over the Astros was their fifth in a row, matching the season-high winning streak, and also matched the high-water mark of the season, seven games over .500. It made the home record 31-18, which is now creeping up on the great home start the Cubs had in 2008; after 49 home games last year, the record was 36-13.
And in between the two solo homers and the grand slam, there was outstanding pitching on both sides -- although sixteen walks were issued among the eleven pitchers who took the mound last night, five of them intentional. The bullpens for both teams did a terrific job, particularly Aaron Heilman (who would have guessed?), Carlos Marmol (who looked like the Marmol of old, with two called K's), and rookie Jeff Stevens, who had to be bailed out by Sean Marshall after giving up a two-out double and an intentional pass in the 11th. Stevens looked solid even while giving up a pair of extra-base hits; he struck out the side in the 10th.
Both starting pitchers were dominant last night -- apart from the homer to Carlos Lee, Carlos Zambrano nearly matched Rich Harden's gem from Sunday, allowing just four walks and a pair of harmless singles through seven innings. Had he not overextended himself a bit in the seventh inning, Lou might have left him in to throw the eighth, but at 103 pitches, Z was left in to bat for himself with the lead run on second base and two out, but he appeared a bit overanxious as he grounded into a force play on the first pitch.
Meanwhile, Wandy Rodriguez, who always gives the Cubs fits, did it again last night. Derrek Lee solved him for his long home run onto Waveland -- and if you follow ballhawk's tweets, you know that he just missed the ball; it bounced down Kenmore where "Jr. Ballhawk Mikey" came up with it. Apart from that, Rodriguez allowed only one fly-ball out (by Ryan Theriot in the first inning), recording seven K's and 13 outs on ground balls. Both teams turned two double plays in the first six innings; had Mike Fontenot not missed on a suicide squeeze play in the last of the ninth, the game would have been over in about two and a half hours.
This was becoming a game for the memory books even before Soriano's slam. Ex-Cub reliever LaTroy Hawkins, who is having a good year for Houston, started jawing at home plate umpire Mike Everitt after seeing his second pitch to Aramis Ramirez in the eighth inning called a ball. He must have made some sort of obscene gesture or used "the magic word", because Everitt walked halfway to the mound and tossed Hawkins. When have you ever seen a pitcher ejected in the middle of an at-bat? I can't remember ever seeing that before. Jose Valverde entered and got A-Ram to hit into a force play, and though he loaded the bases on two unintentional walks and one intentional pass in the ninth, he got out of it on Fontenot's missed squeeze and the fly ball Fontenot hit to Michael Bourn in CF.
Things would have become interesting for the Cubs had the slam not occurred and the game had gone longer. The Cubs used their last position player, Andres Blanco, to pinch-hit for Marshall in the bottom of the 11th. The pitcher's spot was due up second had the game gone to the 14th inning; Samardzija is 0-for-3 as a major league hitter. My guess is that Rich Harden would have been the pinch-hitter, and as Lou said in his postgame remarks, Justin Berg was warming up and would have been the next pitcher. Angel Guzman and Kevin Gregg were also not used last night, so despite the length of the game, the bullpen should be in good shape today.
As I noted above, the first eight innings went very quickly -- the pace only slowing down after the ejection of Hawkins. Still, the 3:49 game time isn't that long for 13 innings; even so, about 1/3 of the 40,794 in attendance had headed home by the time Soriano won it. I'm sure we'll hear definitively later today, but before last night, the last time I can remember a Cub hitting a walkoff slam was Barry Foote on April 22, 1980, a day on which the city of Chicago set a record for the warmest April temperature ever (92 degrees) and Ivan DeJesus hit for the cycle. I'll also be interested to find out whether Soriano's homer would be the latest walkoff slam ever hit by inning.
In the meantime, the Cubs maintained their 1/2 game lead over the Cardinals, who beat the Dodgers 6-1, and also picked up a game on the Brewers, who lost to the Nationals 14-6, giving up two grand slams to Josh Willingham.
Let's keep it going tonight. The Cubs, at last, are playing the way we all hoped they would this year.