It was inevitable, I suppose, that the Atlanta Braves were going to clinch the National League East title at Wrigley Field, once they came in with a magic number as small as they had. Around the fourth inning, when the Washington Nationals' loss to the Miami Marlins first came across smartphones -- causing a ripple among Braves fans in the stands -- and then was posted on the scoreboard, you could see some of the Braves walking up and down their dugout, shaking hands on their division title.
When Craig Kimbrel struck out Junior Lake to end the Braves' 5-2 win over the Cubs, the visitors from Atlanta got into the traditional division-clinching scrum near the pitcher's mound, with bullpen pitchers and bench players running out to join the pile. We've seen Cubs teams celebrate like that at Wrigley; it happened after the 1998 wild-card tiebreaker game against the Giants, after the doubleheader sweep over the Pirates that clinched the N.L. Central in 2003, and in the defeat of the Cardinals that took the Central crown in 2008.
Let's hope it's not too much longer before we see those kinds of scenes again, instead of other teams winning on the Wrigley turf.
Truth be told, I spent part of the sunny but chilly afternoon tracking other contending teams on my phone; I watched the Royals win on a walkoff grand slam in the 10th inning (now that would be exciting even if your team isn't in contention). In between, I watched the Braves smack three home runs into the teeth of a strong wind blowing in. Freddie Freeman's first-inning, two-run homer was the most impressive; it landed on Sheffield despite the wind. If not for the breeze, that ball might have hit one of the buildings on the east side of the street.
Andrelton Simmons was responsible for the other two homers; the second of them, off Brooks Raley with a man on base in the eighth inning, put the game out of reach.
And that brings me to yet another complaint about Dale Sveum's bullpen management.
Dale trudged to the mound three times in the seventh inning to get the platoon advantage; first, replacing Edwin Jackson with James Russell, who induced a strike-em-out-throw-em-out double play. Then, Russell was lifted for Blake Parker, who gave up a single to Justin Upton. Raley was then summoned to face Freeman, who he retired on a ground ball to Darwin Barney.
Raley struck out two of the first three hitters he faced in the eighth, sandwiched around a single by Brian McCann.
Now, up comes Simmons, righthanded hitter, who has already homered once.
Yoo-hoo! Dale! Where are you now? Platoon advantage time, right? Hector Rondon was warmed up and ready to go.
Nope. Raley's left in to face Simmons, after having thrown 21 pitches. I probably could have written "HR" on my scorecard before it happened, because it was utterly predictable.
If Dale is indeed let go a week from now, I will not miss this bullpen mess.
The Cubs generated eight hits' worth of offense, but none of them was particularly memorable, save Dioner Navarro's single in the ninth inning that was originally ruled a catch by Justin Upton (replays clearly showed it was trapped). As Len and JD said, in 2014 that will result in a "challenge flag", or whatever method they choose, but Dale came out and asked for a conference, which he got; the umpires, to their credit, got it right.
For Navarro, who is having the best year of his career, that raised his batting average to .303. In all of Cubs history, there have been just 11 seasons where a catcher has had as many plate appearances as Navarro (251) and has hit .300 or better. Five of those seasons belong to Hall of Famer Gabby Hartnett, and since Hartnett retired, there have been just three: Bob Scheffing (.300 in 317 PA in 1948), Rick Wilkins (.303 in 500 PA in 1993) and Michael Barrett (.307 in 418 PA in 2006). I'd like to see Navarro add his name to that list and be retained to continue to back up/mentor Welington Castillo next year.
(If you're curious, here's the entire list.)
The Cubs must now win two of three from the Pirates to avoid losing 50 games at Wrigley Field in a single season for the first time in franchise history. That isn't likely to happen. If they lose two more games, that will mark the most losses in two consecutive seasons in franchise history.
One final note: I'm sure you have now heard that Ryne Sandberg will be managing the Philadelphia Phillies for the next three years. Congratulations to Ryno, well deserved, and though the Phillies might be in for tough times due to their aging roster, it will be interesting to see how he does over three full seasons.
I also noted when the next return of Sandberg to Wrigley Field will be -- the home opener in 2014. That ought to be interesting.