Last time out, we covered a bit of an unusual homestand for the Cubs. They lost two of three to start the homestand against a subpar Brewers team. But then, just when things were starting to look down in a very close division race, the Cubs bounced back and took four of five from the then second place Cardinals. That moved the Cubs past the Cardinals and into second place.
The Cardinals went on to a 13-13 record in September which isn’t all that bad in its totality. But the killer for the Cards was that after starting the month eight games over .500, they started the month 4-10 to drop all of the way down to just two. They fell as far as six games out of first. They finished the season winning nine of 12 including a couple of wins over the Astros in the penultimate weekend of the season. But that couldn’t erase the damage that was done between losing four of five to the Cubs and then 10 days later getting swept by the Astros.
Those events left the NL Central a two team race. The Cubs? After facing the Cardinals, they had a six game road trip to Milwaukee (who had just beaten them two out of three) and Montreal. The Cubs had taken two out of three from the Expos in Chicago, but that was way back in April. The Expos would finish in fourth place in the NL East that year, but they did that with an 83-win season in what was probably the strongest division in the NL that year.
Let’s get to the action and see how the Cubs did in their chase of the first place Astros over the final 22 games of the season (of which 13 were road games).
Game 141, September 5: Cubs 4 at Brewers 2 (74-67)
This game was a matchup of Juan Cruz and Ben Sheets. It’s funny the way we remember things, I remember Sheets as being particularly tough on the Cubs. Alas, he was 10-9 with a 4.08 in 27 career starts against the Cubs. He carried a 3.78 ERA in his career, so given that he actually was if anything a little worse than normal. The Cubs scored two in the first and added one in the third and with Cruz pitching well, that turned out to be all they needed.
Three Heroes/Three Goats:
- Superhero: Mark Grudzielanek (.204). Once Mark got back from his injury in September, he settled largely into the #2 spot in the order behind Kenny Lofton. He did a great job as table setter in this one. He had a double and a walk in four plate appearances. He stole a base and scored both times.
- Hero: Sammy Sosa (.180). Sosa had two hits, including a first-inning two-run homer to get the Cubs off to a great start.
- Sidekick: Juan Cruz (.165). Juan threw 6⅔ innings and allowed six hits, three walks and two runs. He struck out six. Three relievers followed him and allowed just one walk over the final 2 1⁄3 innings to close it out.
- Billy Goat: Eric Karros (-.145). Karros was one of three Cubs who were hitless in four at bats. He struck out once.
- Goat: Damian Miller (-.110). Damian had exactly the same line...
- Kid: Tom Goodwin (-.066). ...and so did Goodwin. All four runs were scored by the Cubs top three hitters in the order. Those three hitters had four of the team’s six hits and one of the two walks.
Game 142, September 6: Cubs 8 at Brewers 4 (75-67)
Mark Prior had his worst outing since returning from the disabled list in this one. But the Cubs bats pounded Brewers starter Matt Kinney for five runs in five innings. It was usually the pitching that carried this club, but on this day, the hitters powered the Cubs to a fourth straight win. Unfortunately, the Astros had won three straight, so the Cubs gained just half a game in the standings (due to an Astros off day).
Three Heroes/Three Goats:
- Superhero: Troy O’Leary (.186). Troy didn’t get a ton of playing time after the Lofton trade, but Moises Alou missed a couple of days in September and one of them lead to this start. O’Leary made the most of it. He had an RBI double, a two-run homer, a sacrifice fly and drew a walk in five plate appearances.
- Hero: Mark Prior (.130). You are on quite a roll when seven innings, 10 hits, one walk and three runs allowed qualifies as a relatively disappointing start. He struck out seven.
- Sidekick: Kenny Lofton (.087). Kenny had a triple and a successful sacrifice bunt (on which he reached on an error) on the day. He scored two runs.
- Billy Goat: Mark Grudzielanek (-.076). Grudzy drove in a run with a sacrifice fly. He was hitless in his other four plate appearances and struck out once.
- Goat: Alex Gonzalez (-.017). Alex had just one walk in four plate appearances. He also struck out once.
- Kid: Dave Veres (.002). Dave threw the eighth inning. At the time the Cubs were only leading 5-3. So it was that he allowed a solo homer to Richie Sexson and still had a positive WPA score. Sexson had a pretty strong career against the Cubs with 18 HR in only 58 games (244 plate appearances against the Cubs). He had a career .929 OPS against them (.851 career).
Game 143, September 7: Cubs 9 at Brewers 2 (76-67)
The Cubs completed the three game sweep of the Brewers and extended their winning streak to five. With the streak, they reached nine games over .500 for the first time since June. Finally, the Astros lost. And so the Cubs moved back into first place. Kerry Wood was on the mound for the Cubs and his opponent was Doug Davis. The Cubs plated two in the first and three in the third to put this one away early. The Cubs had 11 hits including three home runs in this one.
Three Heroes/Three Goats:
- Superhero: Kerry Wood (.168). Wood threw seven innings and allowed eight hits, two walks and two runs. He struck out six. Sexson went deep against Wood for his second home run in two days.
- Hero: Randall Simon (.142). Simon had a three-run homer with one out in the third. He added a two-run shot in the seventh. Those were his only hits in five at bats, but it was more than enough to propel the Cubs to victory.
- Sidekick: Tony Womack (.086). Tony singled and doubled. He scored a run and struck out once in five at bats from the second spot in the order.
- Billy Goat: Damian Miller (-.041). Miller was hitless in three at bats and struck out once.
- Goat: Ramon Martinez (-.031). Ramon got a couple of at bats in this one off of the bench and was hitless and struck out once.
- Kid: Alex Gonzalez (-.008). Gonzalez started the game at short and was hitless in two at bats with a strikeout.
Game 144, September 9: Cubs 4 at Expos 3 (77-67)
For the first time the Cubs reached 10 over .500 on the season. Not surprisingly, that came in the longest winning streak of the season at six games. The Cubs had been off the day before, but the Astros played and won. So the Cubs entered play tied. Both teams won this day to remain tied. The wins on the 8th and 9th by the Astros were also in Milwaukee against a reeling Brewers team. Carlos Zambrano was the Cubs starter and he was opposed by Zach Day. This time it was late scoring that pushed the Cubs to victory with one in the sixth and two in the seventh.
- Superhero: Sammy Sosa (.219). Sammy had a hit, a walk and a hit by pitch in five plate appearances. He scored twice. Sammy had an interesting line that September. He was .206/.268/.490 (wRC+ 88). He slugged nine homers, scored 23 runs and drove in 17.
- Hero: Carlos Zambrano (.168). Zambrano did it all around in this one. He threw seven innings and allowed five hits, three walks and two runs. He struck out five. He added two hits and a run at the plate in three at bats.
- Sidekick: Randall Simon (.144). Simon had three more hits in this one. Included were an RBI single and a double. Randall had a big September with a .277/.324/.492 (wRC+106) with four home runs in 71 plate appearances. He scored eight and drove in 12.
- Billy Goat: Kenny Lofton (-.154). Even when Lofton was here, he was still contributing. He had a hit and a walk in five plate appearances.
- Goat: Paul Bako (-.138). Paul had one hit in four at bats.
- Kid: Alex Gonzalez (-.084). Gonzalez had one walk in four plate appearances.
Game 145, September 10: Cubs 4 at Expos 8 (77-68)
All good things come to an end. The six game winning streak was snapped. And the Astros won to move back into sole possession of first place by one game. Matt Clement started this one. He wasn’t all together bad allowing three runs in five innings of work after being staked to a four run lead. But Kyle Farnsworth was battered for four runs in one inning of work and the Cubs never recovered.
Three Heroes/Three Goats:
- Superhero: Dave Veres (.220). Matt Clement started this game with five scoreless as the Cubs built a 4-0 lead behind three home runs. Then Clement walked the first three batters to start the sixth. Mark Guthrie followed and walked the only two batters he faced. Veres then allowed a single to the first batter he faced to cut the Cubs lead to 4-3. But he bounced back by getting Vladimir Guererro to pop out and striking out the final two batters (the second of which was ex-Cub (‘95) Todd Zeile).
- Hero: Aramis Ramirez (.124). Ramirez had just one hit in four at bats but it was a second inning two-run homer to start the scoring.
- Sidekick: Matt Clement (.086). Matt had one of the oddest lines you’ll ever see. He allowed no hits in this one. But he allowed three runs on five walks and five strike outs.
- Billy Goat: Kyle Farnsworth (-.566). Amazingly, the nightmarish sixth inning wasn’t even the worst inning of this game for the Cubs. Kyle records the fifth largest negative WPA score of the year for the Cubs. With the Cubs leading 4-3, Mike Remlinger allowed a single to start the eighth. That brought Farnsworth into the game. He allowed a stolen base and then a bunt single. He actually bounced back with a Guerrero strike out and a ground out that didn’t score a run. But then things fell apart. He allowed a double that gave the Expos the lead. Another double (6-4), a single (7-4). The single went to second on the throw to the plate and then stole third. Then yet another single (8-4). Before a strike out to end the inning.
- Goat: Mark Guthrie (-.248). As mentioned above, inherited the bases loaded on three straight walks. Guthrie then walked two more batters to force in two runs.
- Kid: Sammy Sosa (-.060). Sammy was hitless in four at bats and struck out once.
Baseball can be stupid. Two large Expo rallies and Guerrero was retired in the middle of each. On the season? He missed time due to injury, but when he played he had 467 plate appearances with a .330/.426/.586 line (wRC+ 152). The Cubs retired easily the most dangerous Expo hitter twice but got beat by everyone else. Five straight walks, how does that happen?
Game 146, September 11: Cubs 2 at Expos 3 (77-69)
A second straight loss. This was a tough one. The Cubs and Mark Prior allowed a run in the fifth and two more in the sixth. Meanwhile Tomo Ohka was dealing for the Expos. The Cubs managed only two hits and no runs off of him in the first eight innings. But Ohka went back out for the ninth inning trying to complete what he started. He was greeted by a Sammy Sosa single and Vlad Guerrero error to put a runner on second with no outs. Moises Alou followed with a single and that was it for Ohka. Rocky Biddle was summoned and promptly walked Aramis Ramirez to load the bases with no outs.
Eric Karros followed with an RBI single to cut the deficit to 3-1. Alex Gonzalez followed and he grounded into a double play but the score was 3-2. Randall Simon was sent to pinch hit and the Expos called upon Joey Eischen who got a ground out for the third and final save of Eischen’s career (the other two were in 2002).
Three Heroes/Three Goats:
- Superhero: Eric Karros (.131). Eric had just the one hit and one RBI in four at bats. He struck out once.
- Hero: Aramis Ramirez (.056). One very large walk in four plate appearances.
- Sidekick: Dave Veres (.031). Dave retired the final batter in the sixth inning and then threw a scoreless seventh. He allowed only one hit.
- Billy Goat: Alex Gonzalez (-.349). Alex had one hit in four at bats. That double play was a back breaker. Have I ever mentioned that I think Alex is probably my least favorite Cub of all time?
- Goat: Tony Womack (-.129). Womack started this one and was hitless in three at bats with a strike out.
- Kid: Randall Simon (-.116). He was put into a tough spot and didn’t come through.
The silver lining is the Brewers finally won a game, so the Cubs remained just one game out of first place.
Dave Veres was a name that popped up three times in this one, all three times with a positive WPA. We’ve made it to September and I’ve not done a bio for him. Dave was in his age 36 season for the Cubs in 2003. That would be his final year in the majors. He’d originally been drafted by the Oakland A’s in the 4th round. He reached the majors for the first time with the Astros in 1994. He pitched parts of 10 seasons in the majors for five teams. His best years were actually the two with the Astros at the start of his career where in 104 games over two seasons he recorded a 2.31 ERA. The largest volume of his work was with the Cardinals from 2000-2003 when he pitched in 213 games, saving 48 of them and recording a 3.33 ERA. All together he recorded 95 major league saves and had a 3.44 ERA over 694 innings in 605 games.
For the Cubs that year Dave only was healthy enough to get into 31 games. He threw 32 2⁄3 inning and had the worst year of his career (4.68 ERA, though only a 3.58 FIP). He missed all of May and June with an injury as well as the last half of April. From July 4 to the end of the year, he pitched 27 innings and allowed 28 hits, four walks and 12 runs. He struck out 22. Six of the 12 runs were in two rough outings against the Astros in August. Aside from those two games, he was very, very good in the second half for the Cubs.
The Cubs went on the road and took four of six. After winning the first four, it certainly felt like it could be much more, but still a very good trip. Unfortunately, They actually managed to lose a half game in the standing as the Astros won five of seven.
Just 16 games remain in the regular season. The Cubs are still down one in the standings. Next up? The Reds and Mets come in for three each. The Mets and Reds were two of four teams to lose 90+ games in 2003. This is an important homestand. While the Cubs were battling two of the worst, the Astros would be home for three against the still hanging around, though back sliding, Cardinals and then going to Colorado to start their final six game road trip of the season. The Rockies weren’t a very good team either, but Colorado is always a tough place to play.
So this would seem to be an extremely important six game stretch for the Cubs (who would play nine of their final 16 at home). Next time, we’ll see if the Cubs could take advantage of this six game stretch and catch the Astros.
Until then, thanks for reading and thanks for commenting.