Jon Lieber pitched four full seasons for the Cubs from 1999-2002, and returned briefly in 2008. In 2001, a year where the Cubs led the NL Central for a couple of months, Lieber was a 20-game winner (back when that meant something), the second-to-last such season in Cubs history, and posted a 3.80 ERA. That might not sound great now, but in the high-charged offense of that ERA, it was good enough to get him an All-Star nod and fourth place in NL Cy Young voting.
The following year, Lieber began on basically the same track. And on June 21, he did something that no Cubs pitcher or team has been able to do at Wrigley Field since — throw a complete game, nine-inning victory in less than two hours.
J.D. Drew homered off Lieber with one out in the first inning. He allowed just two more hits, both singles, didn’t walk anyone and struck out seven. In fact, all the runs in this game scored on solo homers. The Cubs got two of them from Fred McGriff and won the game 2-1.
Lieber threw 108 pitches in completing this victory, with 80 strikes. The other two hits after Drew’s home run came in the fourth and sixth innings and Lieber retired the final 11 Cardinals in order, throwing just six pitches in the ninth inning.
Sadly, no video survives of this game. Manager Don Baylor, who would be fired just two weeks later, summed it up in Teddy Greenstein’s Tribune recap:
“To me, that’s a National League game,” Baylor said. “You come out, you throw strikes.”
Said Lieber: “I wish they could all be like that.”
So do I, Jon, so do I. Greenstein wrote that it was the shortest nine-inning game of 2002 by four minutes, running an hour and 49 minutes. Imagine going to a 1:20 p.m. game today and it’s over at 10 minutes past 3. Overall there were 200 pitches thrown. The MLB average for a nine-inning game is about 250.
Sub-two hour games used to be commonplace back in the 1940s and 1950s; over time they began to disappear for a number of reasons, absolutely none of which were related to TV commercials. Inning breaks back in the 1960s were essentially the same length they are now, about two minutes. It’s just that TV channels ran fewer commercials back then, and would come back to the ballpark before the action began. Mostly it’s more walks, more foul balls, more pitches thrown and baseball players standing around not playing baseball (which is the primary reason we’re likely getting the pitch clock in 2023).
Anyway, in 2002 there were five other nine-inning games that lasted less than two hours, but over time that has dwindled. There have been just two overall in MLB since 2015, including one earlier this month (June 9) between the Cardinals and Rays at the Trop that ran 1:54, also a 2-1 game won by the home team.
While this Jon Lieber gem was the last such game at Wrigley, the last sub-two hour nine-inning regular season game involving the Cubs happened September 25, 2009, a two-hit shutout thrown by Carlos Zambrano in San Francisco. They also played one in Spring Training in 2010.
We might see the return of the sub-two hour nine-inning game in 2023 when the pitch clock is instituted, as expected. It’s happened in the minor leagues a few times this year.
For now, this Cubs win over the Cardinals was the last sub-two hour nine-inning game at Wrigley Field, and it happened 20 years ago today, Friday, June 21, 2002.