Those would be the 2001, 2003, 2004, 2007, 2008 and 2009 Cubs.
Each season included a win that made you believe that “it” was gonna happen, and a loss that made you realize that you’d be grabbing your ankles and hoping it would end soon enough.
In at least one case I tried to avoid the most obvious “killer” and managed to find one that foreshadowed the whole goddamned thing.
Today we look back at the great season that went in the shitter so completely that just thinking about it makes us all want to drive nails through our eyeballs–2003.
Thriller – September 3, Cubs 8 Cardinals 7
In many ways the 2003 Cubs to this point in the season had reminded us all of the 2001 Cubs. It was a collection of guys that we just weren’t that sure of. We kept waiting for Mark Prior to come down to earth, for Kerry Wood’s arm to fall off, and the two young guys that we all had high hopes for, Corey Patterson (seriously) and Hee Seop Choi had both gotten injured along the way.
But some castoffs like Eric Karros, Mark Grudzielanek, Damian Miller and Joe Borowski were coming through. A late July trade brought a real, live leadoff hitter in Kenny Lofton and a grownup third baseman in E-ramis Ramirez. We had grown accustomed to the Cubs swooning during the summer and they had played the part going 12-14 in June and 12-15 in July. But they had just put together a winning August (15-13) and while that wasn’t great, it put them within striking distance in an NL Central that nobody seemed to want to win.
The Cardinals came to town on Labor Day Monday, September 1, for a five game series and rain delayed the game for several hours. Then Mark Prior went out and shut out St. Louis 7-0.
The next day, it took the Cubs 15 innings, but a game that featured 42 players and 12 pitchers, Sammy Sosa took our old buddy Jeff Fassero deep with one on for a 4-2 walk-off win. The Cubs had pulled within a half game of first, and suddenly, you didn’t have to be an optimist and strain to believe the Cubs were in it, because they were.
They played a second game that night and thanks to a terrible call by third base umpire Jay Klemm (who?) the Cubs were denied a chance to tie the game on a ball down the third base line. El Pulpo was so upset that between innings he waddled out to argue with Klemm, bumped him with his expansive belly and was thrown out of the game.
The Cardinals won 2-0 and pushed the lead back to one and a half.
So the next day’s game was huge. With a win, the Cardinals would have effectively nullifed the work the Cubs did in the first two games of the series. With a win, the Cubs could get back to within a half game with one more to play.
The sometimes awesome, sometimes awful Matt Clement was shaky, and the Cardinals scored twice in the top of the first on a Tino Martinez two RBI single.
In the fifth, the Cardinals had three straight singles and a walk, but didn’t score, thanks to the always interesting 7-3-4 putout when JD Drew overran second on an Albert Pujols single, and was caught in a rundown.
The Cardinals added four runs to their lead in the sixth when Drew hit a grand slam (scoring Mike Matheny, Fernando Vina and Orlando Palmeiro) off of something named Felix Sanchez. Sanchez then walked Pujols and it looked like it was 8-0 when Tino sent Lofton into the vines in left-center for the third out.
So down six runs, what did the Cubs do? Did they pack it in?
Not these Cubs. They got three back in the bottom of the sixth when Sosa doubled into the vines and Moises Alou drove him home with a single. E-ramis followed with a two run bomb off of Fassero to make it 6-3. They almost had a huge inning, as they loaded the bases after the homer on an Alex Gonzalez walk (seriously, he walked) a Miller double that somehow didn’t score Gonzalez and a Lofton single. But Doug Glanville grounded to short.
Pulpo pitched the seventh and gave one back on an RBI single by Renteria. 7-3 St. Louis.
Sosa led off the bottom of the seventh against Russ Springer with a walk. And Alou homered to make it 7-5.
With two outs Gonzalez homered and it was 7-6, and the Cubs were feeling frisky.
Vina led off the eighth against Mark Guthrie with a triple. JD Drew flew to left, and the Cubs walked Pujols intentionally. That brought up Tino who lined to Karros at first. With two out, Dusty Baker brought in Joe Borowski to keep the deficit at a run.
Joe got himself properly lubed up and with sweat pouring off of him like Roberto Novoa in a spelling bee, Scott Rolen flied harmlessly to Sosa in right.
The unctuous Steve Kline faced Tony Womack to start the eighth, and Womack hit a slow roller to short and beat it out. Lofton bunted him to second with one out.
The Genius being the Genius, he went to the bullpen and brought in Woody Williams who had started the first game of the series on Monday. This was Wednesday.
Williams pitched like a starting pitcher on one day’s rest.
The first batter he faced, Grudzielanek tripled, scoring Womack easily and tying the game. With Sammy Sosa coming to the plate with the go-ahead run on third, Wrigley Field’s rickety rafters were shaking.
Sosa popped to Tino in foul territory, and it was going to take a two out hit by Moises to give them the lead.
And that’s just what they got. He lined a 1-1 pitch into left scoring Grudzielanek and giving the Cubs an unlikely, improbable lead.
Sweaty Joe pitched the ninth and with two outs, not only struck out Lassie but brought him to his knees. (Not that Edmonds was unaccustomed to being brought to his knees by a sweaty man.)
The Cubs had won, were a half game out and with another bonertime the next day the Cardinals left Wrigley in third place behind the Cubs and the Astros. St. Louis would no longer be a factor in the race, and a doubleheader sweep of Pissburgh on the second to last day of the season would give the Cubs the NL Central championship.
With a stacked pitching staff, a suddenly complete defense and a dependable, sweaty closer, the Cubs looked like the darkhorse team to win the NL and advance to their first World Series in 58 years.
Killers Game One NLCS, October 7, 2003 Marlins 9, Cubs 8
Hah, you thought this was going to be game six. Well screw game six. If the Cubs hadn’t coughed this one up they’d have swept the Marlins. As it was they are the only team to light up Josh Beckett in a playoff game, and they didn’t win it. Guh.
Even though Florida had a better record than the Cubs during the regular season (and were the best team in the National League from August 1 on) they could not have home field advantage over the Cubs (or any other NL playoff team) because they were the wild card entrant into the playoffs.
So the Marlins of south Florida would have to trek north to Chicago for the first two games of the series, into the cold, crisp autumn night.
And it was 75 degrees with the wind blowing out to center to start game one.
But the Cubs took advantage early. After Carlos Zambrano pitched a scoreless top of the first, the Cubs went to work in the bottom.
Beckett walked Lofton to start the inning. Grudzielanek tripled to score him. 1-0 Cubs.
After Sosa popped to third, Alou homered, scoring Grudzielanek and making it 3-0 Cubs.
E-ramis tripled (what was with all the triples in this series?) and scored on a two out double by Alex Gonzalez. After one inning it was already 4-0 Cubs. Hey, this is gonna be easy!
Zambrano pitched a scoreless second around a Jeff Conine…you guessed it…triple.
But he ran into serious trouble in the third. After retiring Beckett on a liner to Sosa. He gave up a…yup…triple to Juan Pierre.
Then he walked Luis Castillo.
Then he gave up a homer to Pudge Rodriguez. Oops. 4-3 Cubs.
He struck out Derrek Lee to staunch the bleeding.
And then gave up back to back jacks (something tells me Ron Santo wasn’t happily yelling that) to some hack rookie named Miguel Cabrera and Juan Encarnacion.
It was 5-4 Marlins heading to the bottom of the third.
Josh and Carlos settled in, with neither allowing a run until the top of the sixth when a Gabor Bako passed ball set up a Jeff Conine sac fly to make it 6-4 Marlins. (And you guys wondered all these years why I hated Gabor so much, between this passed ball and the dropped third strike in game three, I think he was trying to throw the series.)
But the Cubs bounced right back. With two outs, Randall Simon doubled off of Beckett and then Gonzalez homered to tie the game at six. Did you remember that? I didn’t remember that.
The Cubs blew a chance to take the lead in the seventh. Miller who had come into the game in a double switch (I’m still convinced Dusty thinks that the only way you can sub players into a game.) and doubled. He was bunted to third by Lofton with one out. Beckett was taken out and Chad Fox came in. And Grudzielanek, clutch all year, popped out to first. Two out.
Sosa grounded to short and the inning ended with Miller still on third.
The Farns worked a scoreless eighth.
Tom Goodwin struck out with runners at first and second and two out in the bottom of the eighth.
Then, Sweaty Joe came in to pitch the top of the ninth. Just get through that inning and the Cubs had Miller then the top of the order due up in the bottom of the ninth.
But after getting the other Alex Gonzalez out to start the inning. Joe gave up a pinch hit double to Todd Hollandsworth (has he ever gotten that guy out?), then walked Pierre.
Then, the Cubs crack defense showed up. Castillo grounded to Grudzielanek, who tried to tag Pierre and missed. Bases loaded one out.
The Cubs never got Pudge out in the series (well, it seemed like it), and he singled to score two. It was 8-6 Florida. In a game the Cubs once led 4-0 they had given up eight runs. Guh.
Joe rallied to get Lee to pop out and Cabrera to ground out to Gonzalez.
The Cubs trudged off to the bottom of the ninth, wondering how this one got away.
Ugueth Urbina, the man that Jim Hendry spent all of June and July trying to trade for, came in to close for the Marlins. Think how different the Cubs bullpen would have been in the playoffs if he’d pulled off that trade. Remember, this was before Ugy and his henchmen killed a guy with a machete.
Ugy got Miller out on a ground ball to start the inning.
But Lofton followed with a double, and Cubs fans, who had come accustomed to this team that never died, started to get excited.
Grudzielanek grounded to third and there were two outs.
Sosa came to the plate as the Cubs last chance.
On a 1-1 pitch, Urbina threw Sammy a fastball, and Sammy absolutely crushed it. He probably never hit a ball harder in his life. It went very, very high into the air, so high that at first it looked like a pop-up, but this was no pop-up. It landed on the camera well to the left of the scoreboard in center, some 480 feet from home plate. To say Wrigley Field went nuts is an understatement. A rocking Wrigley Field makes a sound unlike any other in sports, and she might be 95 years old, but she’s never sounded before or since the way she sounded at that moment. It got loud a few days later when Kerry Wood hit a bomb in game seven, but for that moment, before the pathos of game six, this was the moment, as unfounded as it was, that every Cubs fan, everywhere, honestly thought that this–a two out homer in the bottom of the ninth–was that sign that the Cubs were going to the World Series. Decades of frustration and untapped excitement were all released in a singular moment. And as Sosa circled the bases, after pulling the Cubs off the mat and back into a tie, anything seemed possible. Our goosebumps tell their goosebump grandchildren about this moment.
It wasn’t over. It was just tied. The Cubs had work to do.
Moises flied to right to end the inning. And after a beat, Wrigley roared again, imploring the Cubs to take advantage of their second life.
And Joe did his job, going 1-2-3 through Encarnacion, Conine and Gonzalez in the top of the tenth.
The bottom of the tenth seemed promising. E-ramis Ramirez would lead off, then fan favorite Randall Simon second, and the suddenly super-hot Alex Gonzalez third.
But E-ramis flew to center and Simon and Gonzalez both whiffed against Urbina.
And the Cubs needed a new pitcher for the 10th. With Pierre and Castillo due up second and third, Dusty opted for lefty Mark Guthrie. One problem. Marlins manager Jack McKeon had one good bat left on his bench, third baseman Mike Lowell, who hadn’t started the game because of an injury. But it was no secret that he was available to pinch hit.
And he did.
And he came out of his shoes to blast one to center, over Lofton’s head and over the basket. 9-8 Marlins.
Ugh. Time to start penting up your frustrations for the next 100 years.
Guthrie got Pierre to ground out and then Dusty did something so infuriating, so…let’s just say it…fucking inane, that I still remember to this day, hating him for it.
He took Guthrie out and he brought in El Pulpo.
So let’s get this straight, Dustbag. Everybody in the park knew that Lowell was going to lead off the inning, and you chose to face him with a salad tossing lefty, when you knew all along that you were going to go with Alfonseca to face Castillo anyway? So you used Guthrie to get Juan Fucking Pierre out? When you go to hell, I hope you enjoy your stay.
Now Alfonseca sucked, we all knew that, but so did Guthrie. Despite a good ERA in 2003 (2.74) he sucked. This was no secret. We all dreaded seeing him in the game. In 40 innings he barely struck out more (24) than he walked (22) and he was terrible at Wrigley (batters hit .309 there against him that year with a whopping .894 OPS).
El Pulpo was terrible too (so I guess this is all Dave Veres’ fault) lucking out of this mess:
Castillo singled and stole second, Pudge walked, Lee walked, and Cabrera smoked one to Gonzalez to start a double play.
So the Cubs went to the bottom of the 11th down 9-8 with this coming up: Ramon Martinez, Damian Miller, Kenny Lofton.
Braden Looper (ugh) went 1-2-3 for the save, and the Marlins led the series 1-0.
So why is this a bigger killer than game six when the Cubs were only five outs away from the World Series with a three run lead, at home?
It’s probably not, but I’m not writing about that shit ever again.
But this one foreshadowed that in so many ways.
The Cubs blew a multiple run lead at home. In this case 4-0.
The Marlins proved adept at putting together a huge inning. The five run third seemed gigantic until the eight run eighth in game six.
This game taxed the bullpen, and the quick strike Marlins offense scared Dusty into leaving Mark Prior in game two to pitch three extra innings with an 11-0 lead. Those innings came back to haunt the Cubs when Prior ran out of gas in game six.
But the worst part is that hindsight tells you that if the Cubs could have held on to this one, they could have ended the NLCS without ever facing Beckett again. Instead, he beat them in game five, then came back on two days rest to kick the Cubs ass out of the bullpen in game seven.
If the Cubs win game one, the three hits no Cubs fan would have ever forgotten would have been Sosa’s two outs in the ninth homer in game one, Doug Glanville’s pinch hit triple in game three, and E-ramis’ game four grand slam.
But that’s not how it happened.
And the biggest tragedy is that with the way this series ended, we don’t look back on the 2003 Cubs and remember just how much fun that summer and fall was. Because it was fun. It was the most fun we’ve ever had.
And that’s the problem. That’s why the way it ended still pisses us all off.