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The 19 greatest starts in Cubs history, No. 6: Frank Castillo, September 25, 1995

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This was part of a great late-season run that fell just short.

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The 1995 Cubs weren’t expected to do much. The previous year’s edition had started by losing its first 12 home games, prompting the infamous “Firehouse Chat” with manager Tom Trebelhorn. They’d lost nine of their last 10 pre-strike, costing Trebelhorn his job.

Jim Riggleman, a highly-regarded young manager (he was just 42 when he took over the Cubs, just about David Ross’ age now), got the team playing better. They inhabited first place for a while in May and early June before fading, but stayed near .500.

With 10 games to go in the strike-abbreviated 144-game season, the Cubs were 65-69 and 5½ games behind the Dodgers, who then led the wild-card race. Ah, yes, the Cubs still had an outside shot at the wild card, despite being four games under .500.

And then they started winning. They took three from the Pirates and then the Cardinals came to Wrigley Field to begin a three-game series.

Frank Castillo was on the mound to face future Cub Alan Benes. The strike had hurt attendance, and the late September weeknight didn’t help; only 18,298 came to Wrigley Field that evening.

And they saw Castillo hurl a gem. The Cubs pounded Benes for four in the first and added three more in the fourth. Castillo had allowed just two baserunners through eight, both on walks, one erased on a caught stealing.

The Cubs were almost certainly going to win this game, leading 7-0 going to the ninth. Could Castillo become the first Cub to throw a no-hitter in 23 years?

Terry Bradshaw — not the quarterback, this guy — was called out on strikes. Castillo struck out Mark Sweeney. One out to go.

Then this happened, per Paul Sullivan in the Tribune:

Castillo had two strikes on St. Louis outfielder Bernard Gilkey with two outs in the ninth inning of the Cubs’ 7-0 victory when Gilkey lined a high fastball to right in front of Sammy Sosa to spoil the no-hit bid.

Gilkey wound up with a triple when the ball rolled past Sosa to the wall, leaving Castillo with a magnificent one-hit effort that earned several standing ovations.

The game is one of 70 no-hit/perfect game bids that were broken up with two out in the ninth inning. Castillo struck out 13 and posted a Game Score of 96 for this gem.

The 7-0 win was the fourth of what eventually became an eight-game winning streak. The last two of the eight were won in extra innings against the Astros, who the Cubs would also face for the final two games of the season. The Dodgers had also been winning in the final week and they took over first place in the N.L. West. Thus with two games to go, the wild-card standings read:

Rockies 75-67
Astros 74-68
Cubs 73-69

If the Cubs could beat the Astros twice more and the Rockies lose a pair to the Giants, those teams would have wound up tied for the wild card. Sadly, it went just the reverse: The Rockies took two from the Giants and the Astros beat the Cubs twice, giving the wild card to Colorado.

Fun fact: This was the second year of the three-division setup in MLB. Had the N.L. teams still been in the old two-division East and West configuration, the Cubs’ 73-71 record would have won the old N.L. East — they were the only old East team with a winning record this year. (Don’t believe me? Go look it up.)

Frank Castillo was traded to the Rockies in 1997 for no one you’ve ever heard of, and eventually also pitched for the Tigers, Blue Jays, Red Sox and Marlins. He died in a boating accident in Arizona in 2013, aged just 44.