The 2004 Cubs were supposed to be better than the 2003 version. You know how this all ended, but they started out fairly well and were in a tight NL Central race until a stretch in early July where they lost nine of 12 (and four of five to the first-place Cardinals) shunted them off to the wild-card race.
They were in the thick of that when they visited Philadelphia toward the end of the month. The teams had split the first two games of the series and were matched up in a Sunday afternoon finale with Mark Prior facing hard throwing Philly lefthander Eric Milton.
Milton walked Mark Grudzielanek to lead off the game. Three pitches later Grudzielanek was doubled off first base on a fly to right.
That was the only Cubs baserunner through eight — Milton retired 24 in a row after the leadoff walk, striking out 10 through the first eight innings.
The Phillies scored a pair off Prior, both driven in by Chase Utley, on a sac fly in the third and a home run in the sixth.
So it’s 2-0 Philadelphia as Milton takes the mound for the ninth with a no-hit bid going.
Michael Barrett, leading off the ninth, blooped an 0-2 pitch to center — eluding former Cub Doug Glanville, who broke the wrong way on the ball — to break up the no-no. He wound up on second with a double. Milton then struck out Jose Macias and Alex Gonzalez. That brought up Grudzielanek again. He singled Barrett to third.
In modern baseball, you’d bring in your closer here. Even in 2004, maybe. But manager Larry Bowa, an old-school guy, left Milton in.
Corey Patterson was the next hitter, and he smashed a double off the center-field wall. Both runners scored, tying things up at 2-2.
This is good, right? The Cubs are going to come back in this one, win it in extras maybe?
Nope. This game summed up the 2004 Cubs in just one inning. LaTroy Hawkins entered to throw the bottom of the ninth. (Right there, with that name, you just know something’s gonna go wrong.)
Hawkins walked Jim Thome leading off the ninth and he was sacrificed to second. Pat Burrell smacked Hawkins’ first pitch into left-center, scoring Thome and giving the Phillies a 3-2 win. The Cubs were 19-30 in one-run games in 2004, in large part due to Hawkins, who had nine blown saves (in addition to two other games besides this one where he entered in the ninth with the game tied and coughed up the winning runs). Hawkins pitched 10 more seasons after leaving the Cubs and became a beloved figure around baseball, but it is not an exaggeration to say that if the Cubs had a competent closer in 2004, they’d have won the wild card — they finished just three games behind the wild-card Astros.
Don’t feel too bad for Eric Milton, either. He had thrown a no-hitter previously in his career, for the Twins September 11, 1999, against the Angels.