Let’s take a break for a bit from thinking about this afternoon’s rainout makeup game against the Nationals and look back to a memorable Wrigley Field series played 20 years ago this week.
Two decades ago, these two clubs played a series that, while it meant little for the also-ran Brewers, had high postseason meaning for the Cubs.
1998 was the first year the Brewers were a National League team, and so the first time they had played as division rivals (they had played an interleague series the year before, when Milwaukee was still an A.L. club).
The Cubs blew a 3-0 lead and the Brewers plated six runs in the third inning off starter Don Wengert (no, don’t ask me why Jim Riggleman started Wengert in the middle of a pennant race). They came back to take an 11-10 lead thanks in part to homers by Sammy Sosa (his 59th), Gary Gaetti and Jason Maxwell.
Jason Maxwell? He was at one time a top Cubs prospect, but he never made it. The pinch-hit home was his only hit as a Cub.
But the Cubs bullpen blew the lead, and even though the Cubs got a pair of runners on base in the ninth and the tying run to the plate, a double play killed any real chance of coming back.
The Mets also lost that day, so the wild-card race remained tied.
The Cubs again fell behind, this time way behind, as the Brewers posted an eight-run third inning that chased both starter Mike Morgan. Morgan, who had a great year for the Cubs in 1992, was pretty much out of gas by the time they picked up the 38-year-old by trade in late August. (They sent Scott Downs to the Twins for Morgan. Then they got Downs back in the Rick Aguilera deal the next spring, only to send him to Montreal for Rondell White in 2000. None of the guys the Cubs got did much for the team; Downs had a 13-year, 11.2 bWAR career as a decent middle reliever.)
Anyway, the Cubs and Brewers both scored runs at will through the middle innings, and by the end of the eighth it was 12-10 Brewers. The Cubs smashed five home runs through the eighth, including Sammy Sosa’s 60th.
In the last of the ninth, two singles, a sacrifice bunt and a walk loaded the bases. Tyler Houston singled in two runs to tie it.
Then the Cubs sent up Orlando Merced to pinch-hit. They had signed him just one week earlier, after he was released by the Red Sox.
Merced hit a walkoff home run. It was his only homer as a Cub, and he went just 3-for-10 in blue pinstripes before he left as a free agent. He wound up having four more decent years as a bench player for the Expos and Astros, retiring after 2003.
The Mets lost, so the Cubs led the wild-card race by a game over New York.
This time it was the Cubs’ turn to blow a lead, as they led 6-2 after three innings. In the fifth, Sosa hit his 61st home run to give the Cubs an 8-3 lead, which four relievers frittered away and gave Milwaukee a 10-8 lead going to the bottom of the ninth.
Sammy hit his 62nd home run, tying Mark McGwire at that point in the home-run chase, and setting off a huge scrum of hundreds of people at the corner of Waveland & Kenmore going for the ball.
That made it 10-9 and after a Henry Rodriguez double, Gaetti drove him in to tie the game.
Rod Beck held the Brewers scoreless in the 10th and with two out in the bottom of the inning, Mark Grace sent a ball into the bleachers for another walkoff homer. The look on Grace’s face when he hit the ball was first, “Did I really do that?” and second, of relief, that the Cubs had won this series where both teams scored in double figures all three games.
The Cubs led the Mets by a game in the wild-card race after this win. As you know, eventually the Mets faded and the Giants and Cubs tied for the spot, and the Cubs won the tiebreaker at Wrigley Field. At no time during the last 45 days of that wild-card race was there more than one game between the leader and the second-position team in that chase.
It was certainly a memorable season. Here’s a video the folks at SB Nation put together for me about this series, with video highlights included.