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Today in Cubs history: Clinching a postseason spot for the first time in 39 years

The Cubs ended 39 years of losing with a huge win in Pittsburgh.

1984 division clinching
The video board at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh after the Cubs clinched the N.L. East title there
Al Yellon

The Cubs made the postseason four straight years from 2015-18. That’s something that had never happened before for the franchise, although they did win three straight National League pennants from 1906 to 1908 (and four in five years, with one in 1910).

This is a weird thing for Cubs fans. As grating as the “lovable losers” moniker is to many long-time fans, the name does encapsulate the feeling that the experience of most Cubs fans has been suffering. There have been books written about the Sisyphean life of Cubs fans before they finally got that boulder to the top of the hill in 2016.

But while even the youngest Cubs fan reading this can remember the dark period of 2011 to 2014, fewer and fewer of you can remember the era that earned the Cubs their bad reputation: 1946 to 1983. From the beginning of their history to 1946, the Cubs had never had more than three straight losing seasons. They were under .500 for the next 16 seasons after that. After a short streak of winning (but not making the postseason) under Leo Durocher in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Cubs then had losing seasons in ten of the next eleven seasons from 1973 to 1983. In the other season, 1977, they finished at exactly .500 after an epic second-half collapse.

That’s why it’s hard for younger fans to remember how celebratory it was on September 24, 1984, 35 years ago today, when the Cubs beat the Pirates and clinched the N.L. East for their first title of any sort since 1945.

The Cubs had been fighting with the also-resurgent Mets for first place for much of the summer of 1984, but the Cubs pulled away in August with a 20-10 month. The Mets, meanwhile, went 15-17 in August. This was a nice reversal from 1969, whose 50th anniversary we’ve also been celebrating this season. The Cubs started August just a half-game ahead of the Mets. They finished the month 5½ games up. That lead extended to 9½ games on September 15. The Cubs magic number was five after two straight wins at Wrigley over New York.

Then the Cubs gave everyone a scare. They lost the final game of that series to the Mets and then got swept at home by the Pirates. After a loss to the Cardinals in St. Louis, the Cubs had lost five in a row. It seemed impossible that a team could blow a 9½-game lead in mid-September, but Cubs fans were used to catastrophe. Fortunately, the Mets only went 3-2 over this time and the Cubs magic number dropped to three. The Cubs then swept a doubleheader from the Cardinals on Sunday the 23rd, setting up the potential clincher on September 24 in Pittsburgh.

The matchup was Rick Sutcliffe, who was 15-1 on the season since coming over to the Cubs in mid-June. The Pirates sent Larry McWilliams to the mound. Although McWilliams was a journeyman of no great repute, he had two strong seasons with the Pirates in ‘83 and ‘84 before turning back into a pumpkin after that. The two pitchers had faced off at Wrigley the week before and the Pirates came out on top, 11-6, although Sutcliffe got a no-decision.

So while it was clear that the Cubs would clinch eventually after the doubleheader sweep on Sunday, when it would happen still up in the air as the two teams took the field at the old Three Rivers Stadium.

The Cubs put those fears to rest quickly. The second batter of the game, Ryne Sandberg, doubled of McWilliams. The next hitter, Gary Matthews, singled him home.

In the second inning, Larry Bowa reached on a two-out infield single and went to second on the play on a throwing error by Pirates third baseman Jim Morrison. (Not the guy who was the lead singer for The Doors, although it would be a better story if it was.) That brought up Sutcliffe with two outs. Sutcliffe has a reputation as a better hitter than he actually was. His lifetime batting average was .181 with four home runs. But he did hit a career-best .250 in 1984 and he came through here with an RBI single to right field. The Cubs led 2-0.

The Cubs added another single run in the third when Sandberg led off the inning with a double and Matthews walked. Manager Jim Frey had Keith Moreland lay down a bunt to move the runners over and honestly, I can’t think of someone who should be bunting less than Moreland. I guess the reason you have Moreland bunt is that it cuts down the chance that he’ll hit into a double play. But if you’re really that worried about that, he shouldn’t be batting cleanup. But it worked. Not only did Moreland lay down a good bunt, but once again Morrison made a throwing error that allowed Sandberg to score. The Cubs now had a 3-0 lead in the third inning and runners on second and third and no outs. But the Cubs failed to put the game out of reach in the third as Ron Cey and Jody Davis both struck out and Larry Bowa ended the inning with a fly out after Leon Durham was intentionally walked.

Meanwhile, Sutcliffe had retired the side in order over each of the first three innings. But it looked like the Cubs might pay for not scoring more runs in the third inning when Joe Orsulak tripled to lead off the bottom of the fourth. After Sutcliffe struck out Lee Lacy, a Johnny Ray groundout made it 3-1.

The Cubs got that three-run lead right back in the top of the fifth inning when Matthews led off the inning with a walk and Moreland and Cey loaded the bases with no outs on back-to-back singles. Matthews scored when Jody Davis hit into a double play. Again, the Cubs had a chance to blow the game open and failed to capitalize. But they at least got another run.

That was more than Sutcliffe would need that night. Sutcliffe only allowed one more baserunner in that game when Orsulak, again, singled off him in the sixth inning. But Sutcliffe picked Orsulak off first base to end the inning.

The rest of the game was just counting down outs. Neither team had a baserunner after Orsulak’s single in the sixth. When Sutcliffe came out for the ninth inning, he needed to get just three more outs for the complete game and to end 39 years of early ends to the Cubs seasons.

Sutcliffe got the first two batters of the ninth on fly balls to the outfield. Just one hitter stood between the Cubs and the division title, and of course it was Joe Orsulak, the Pirates only baserunner of the night. And he had two hits off of Sutcliffe already.

Famously, catcher Jody Davis came out to Sutcliffe and said “I want the ball,” meaning he was telling Sutcliffe to strike out Orsulak. Here’s what happened.

It’s always weird these days to remember that back then, baseball fans rushed the field after big wins like college football fans still do.

Sutcliffe threw a complete game two-hitter. He struck out nine and didn’t walk anyone. It was undoubtedly the greatest game of his career.

When you consider the emotional impact of the game and the terrific performance by Sutcliffe, I think you have to consider this to be the a top-five game in Cubs history. Nothing can touch Game 7 of the 2016 World Series. The “Merkle’s Boner” game and the makeup of that game in 1908 are also in the top five. The other one would be the famous “Homer in the Gloaming” game on September 28, 1938, which was also against the Pirates. That game was not, however, a pennant clincher although it did move the Cubs into first place for good that year. It was also the ninth straight win for a Cubs team that had been 3½ games back when the streak had started.

There’s no need to go into what happened after the Cubs clinched in 1984 — you all know what happened. But the importance of this game and this season was that it showed that the Cubs could win, that they were not doomed because of a small ballpark and the lack of lights, even though they would not win another title until after lights were installed.

Above all, it was one of the greatest Cubs games ever.