The 94-loss 1997 season nearly cost manager Jim Riggleman his job, but then-GM Ed Lynch and team president Andy MacPhail decided to keep him on. Riggleman's team rewarded him with an 8-2 start, and even after they slipped back toward .500, they stayed in playoff contention. A 10-game winning streak in late May/early June put them back in first place.
But wait! you're saying! Kerry Wood!
I've written about Wood's 20-K game before; it's clear that his addition to the team was one of the key factors in the '98 Cubs' wild-card spot. But what I want to talk about here is the race itself; after it was clear that the Astros were going to win the division, the Cubs settled into a tight race for the wild card, where for the last 45 days of the season, no team led that spot by more than one game. It was an amazing ride, and no series reflected that more than a three-game set at Wrigley Field against the Brewers from September 11-13.
Milwaukee won the Friday afternoon affair 13-11. The Cubs came back from a 10-2 deficit to win Saturday 15-12 on a walkoff homer by Orlando Merced, who had just three hits in a Cubs uniform.
The Cubs entered the rubber game of the series at 83-66, leading the Mets in the wild-card race by one game. And it looked like an easy win at first; the Cubs entered the sixth inning leading the Brewers 8-3.
For this game, I'm not going to quote a Tribune recap; I was at this one and remember the playoff race, the home-run race and how this one ended quite well.
The Brewers started coming back; it didn't seem to matter what pitchers Riggleman brought into the game. The usually-reliable Terry Mulholland got hit hard in the eighth inning after he had replaced starter Steve Trachsel following a Bobby Hughes homer off Trachsel that made the score 8-5. It was 8-7 with one out after Mulholland gave up three straight hits and a walk; Matt Karchner came in and issued another walk, loading the bases.
That's when Riggleman summoned Felix Heredia. It might have been this game that began to turn so many Cubs fans against Heredia. He gave up a two-run single to former Cub Darrin Jackson; that gave the Brewers a 9-8 lead. Heredia gave up another single to Fernando Vina, and the Brewers would have extended that lead except for a superb throw from center fielder Lance Johnson to the plate that nailed Rafael Belliard for the second out.
Things got weirder. Riggleman was running out of pitchers, and he was definitely running out of good pitchers. He brought in Don Wengert, who the Cubs actually traded for earlier in the year (Ben Van Ryn was sent to the Padres for Wengert). Wengert is one of the worst pitchers in major-league history; only four other pitchers have thrown as many or more career innings with a career ERA higher than Wengert's (6.01).
Wengert was to face Mark Loretta, who was having his first good season and who always hit well in Wrigley Field (.304/.371/.413 in 207 career PA). Loretta ran the count to 2-2 and Wengert got him to hit a foul popup to end the inning with Cubs down by one.
In the ninth, Riggleman had to use Chris Haney, a lefthander of middling talent, who pitched in just five games for the Cubs. With one out, Jeff Cirillo homered off Haney -- his second of the day, and the Brewers' fifth of the afternoon -- to make the score 10-8 Milwaukee. It looked bad for the Cubs, and the Wrigley scoreboard had posted the Mets' 1-0 win over the Expos. The Cubs had to win to keep their one-game wild-card lead.
Earlier in the game, Sammy Sosa had hit his 61st home run; Mark McGwire, who Sosa was chasing in the home-run race that had, at the time, captivated the nation, hadn't homered since he passed Roger Maris with his 62nd against the Cubs five days earlier. With one out, Sosa slammed an Eric Plunk pitch toward the intersection of Waveland and Kenmore, where an enormous scrum of ballhawks and wannabe-ballhawks piled after it.
The Cubs trailed by one run, but not for long. Henry Rodriguez doubled and Gary Gaetti, who performed so admirably for the Cubs after his mid-August acquisition, singled him in to tie the game 10-10. Gaetti was stranded and the game headed to extra innings.
Rod Beck came into the game. The Shooter, who had wound up with the win after recording just one out the previous day, hadn't expected to pitch in this game with the Cubs trailing, but he retired Milwaukee 1-2-3 in the top of the 10th. The Cubs were to face Alberto Reyes, a modestly-talented middle reliever, in the last of the 10th. This game, tied 10-10, had featured six home runs, 29 hits, nine walks and a whole bunch of bad pitching by 13 pitchers before Reyes came in. It was after 5 p.m.; shadows crossed most of the infield when Reyes retired Lance Johnson on a ground ball and Jose Hernandez on an ordinary line drive to right field. Reyes had thrown four pitches to the first two hitters in the inning; everyone groaned, expecting this game to drag on past nightfall.
The next hitter due was Mark Grace, who had singled and doubled earlier in the game.
Grace hit Reyes' first pitch onto Sheffield Avenue and ran around the bases with the goofiest look on his face, as if to say, "How did I do that?" It was the 16th of Grace's career-high 17 home runs that season, and none was more important.
I remember leaving Wrigley that day with feelings of amazement at what I had witnessed not just that weekend, but all through that incredible run to the postseason for the Cubs. This series is the only one in Cubs history where both teams scored in double figures in all three games. Regardless of how you feel now about the Sosa/McGwire home-run race, that playoff race was something we will likely never see again. I told friends of mine, after the Cubs won the tiebreaker game against the Giants, that if they didn't win another game, it was all worth it. As you know, they didn't win another game... but the excitement of that weekend, and that race, was definitely worth it.
This is the final entry in the Game in Cubs History series. I figured this is a good place to end it; the history of BCB begins just a few years later and the years after 1998 haven't quite receded into fading memory yet.
And there's one more reason to end this series today. Pitchers and catchers report to Mesa today, have physicals Monday and their first workout Tuesday, and so we have real baseball to talk about, with just 13 days until the first spring-training game.