And then, suddenly, they won it in dramatic fashion.
This was only the first of many, many fun days at Wrigley Field during the spring, summer and fall of 2016. The Cubs and Reds came into this game tied for first place at 5-1; the Cubs moved one game ahead with this win. They would not again be tied for the top spot in the N.L. Central.
If this is what the Cubs' home season is going to be like, I'm not sure I can take 80 more games (plus, hopefully, 11 or so in October) of heart-pounding excitement like this.
Wait. Wait a minute. Of course I can. This is what we've all been waiting a lifetime for.
After not being able to solve Brandon Finnegan for a hit until the seventh inning, the Cubs put together a nice two-out, nobody-on rally for two runs in that frame, and then, with two runners on base against the Reds' bullpen in the eighth, this happened:
A no-doubt-about it three-run, game-winning homer launched by Addison Russell off of Jumbo Diaz' first pitch, the dinger brought a playoff-atmosphere crowd to its feet roaring. Hector Rondon struck out the side for his second save and the Cubs opened the 2016 home season on a spectacular high note with a 5-3 win over the Reds, in so doing taking over sole possession of first place in the N.L. Central. Keep that in mind as this season goes on, because maybe, just maybe, April 11 will become known as the day the Cubs took over first place to stay.
On a chilly day for mid-April, most Cubs fans appeared to take the team's admonitions to "arrive early!" to heart. At 4:35, when gates opened (30 minutes earlier than usual), the lines to get into the bleachers both stretched at least a block. I won't say the entry procedure was perfect -- nothing is, usually, on a first attempt like this with new equipment and new ways of doing things -- but it worked reasonably well enough, and soon I was in my usual spot in the left-field corner of the bleachers, which filled up rapidly.
This was the line at Gate K on Waveland, opposite the firehouse, at 6:40 p.m., about 25 minutes to game time:
Most of those people missed this:
It was much louder at the park than you hear on that video. It must have been quite emotional for Kyle Schwarber to get that reception; I know it was for me and my friends in the bleachers.
The Cubs then came out to begin the game and Jon Lester promptly gave the Reds the lead on a seeing-eye single, a second hit on which Jorge Soler inexplicably tried to throw Zack Cozart out at third (he was easily safe), which allowed Joey Votto to take second. Cozart, who apparently hurt himself on the single, scored on a groundout, but left the game in the fourth inning.
Lester didn't pitch badly -- he allowed only three other hits, including a home run to Billy Hamilton, and three runs overall -- and he fielded two comebackers flawlessly. But he departed after six innings and 102 pitches down 3-0 because the Cubs just couldn't get anything going off Finnegan.
Finnegan walked four and Kris Bryant reached on a two-base error in the sixth, but up to that point the Cubs had no hits. I figured they'd break through eventually, The first inning featured three hard-hit balls to the outfield, one of which became a spectacular catch by Adam Duvall off a sinking liner hit by Jason Heyward.
Tiring in the seventh, Finnegan finally gave up a single to David Ross that broke up the potential no-no. That came with two out and no one on base, and that's when this team got to work. Pinch-hitter Matt Szczur worked a walk on a very close pitch. Finnegan departed for Caleb Cotham, who walked Dexter Fowler. With the bases loaded, Heyward produced this two-run single (no embed code available), bringing the Cubs to within a run.
Adam Warren had an uneventful eighth (three groundouts and a single) and then, after a walk drawn by Ben Zobrist, Soler was hit by a 3-2 pitch, leading to Russell's heroics.
The ballpark really was electric all evening. Some, but not many, left early, meaning almost a full house was still there when Russell connected. It was loud, much louder than you hear on any of those highlights.
Among other things, the Cubs had five runs and three hits and won the game. That's a rare occurrence. Including Monday night, that's happened just four times in Cubs history. Here are all four such games.
I hope you have plans to come to the ballpark this season. If you do, you should make it a point to try to get a bleacher seat at least once, because the Cubs have intentionally put quite a bit of history on display in the bleachers. For that, I thank them. They did a magnificent job.
As did the team Monday night. It's a baseball cliché, but this team really doesn't appear to have any "quit" in it. Even down 3-0 and without any hits, they found ways to get important baserunners and important hits at the most critical times. As you know, this went on much of last year and the players seem to be just continuing that feeling. As Fowler said not long after he re-signed in February, it feels like they have "unfinished business" and are going about that with determination every day.
It's wonderful to see.
The Cubs have a well-deserved day off Tuesday. Wednesday evening at Wrigley, John Lackey will pitch game two of this series against the Reds; Alfredo Simon goes for Cincinnati.