Photo above from espn.com
Coming off Thursday’s improbable late-inning rally against the usually airtight White Sox back-of-the-bullpen, the Cubs were on their way to falling fast and hard on Friday afternoon, in their series’ opener with the Cleveland Indians.
The exciting win from the day before seemed to be settling into what it truly was: one win. One win, less than halfway into a 162-game season.
After starting pitcher Rich Harden gave up two three-run homers, in the second and third innings respectively, the Cubs found themselves down quickly 6-0. Two innings later, it was 7-0.
The struggling Cubs’ offense had come out of hibernation for two innings Thursday afternoon to help the Cubs steal a win. Now it had decided to return to hiding; its return unknown to the Wrigley faithful.
With Cliff Lee on the mound for the Indians, there was even more reason to think the afternoon would end much more somber than it had the day before. Lee was coming off a dominant three-hit shutout of the Cardinals last Sunday in Cleveland, showing the form that easily won him the 2008 AL Cy Young award.
In the Cubs’ fifth, Reed Johnson managed to finally get to Lee, with a solo homer, getting the Cubs on the green scoreboard. The following inning, Derrek Lee hit one out as well, into the right-center bleachers. However, it was another solo shot, and the Cubs’ were still staring at a five-run deficit, at 7-2.
Think back two seasons ago—on another Friday afternoon at Wrigley, in the month of June. June 29, to be exact. The Cubs dug themselves an early 5-0 hole against the Milwaukee Brewers, leaders of the NL Central at the time. The Brewers were playing excellent baseball to that point in the season, and the Cubs trailed them by 9.5 games in the NL Central going into that game.
Even though it was still June, the series took on more of a sense of urgency for the Cubs.
The Cubs broke through with two runs in the fourth, and then another in the seventh. They still trailed 5-3 when they came up in the ninth facing closer Francisco Cordero.
After Soriano and Mike Fontenot singled to start the inning, Derrek Lee drove in a run with a sacrifice fly, making it 5-4. Aramis Ramirez then came up, but with two outs. On the first pitch he saw, he launched a three-run bomb into the bleachers in left center. Just like that, the Cubs had pulled off an extremely improbable 6-5 win.
Ramirez had sent Wrigley into a wild frenzy that late afternoon, and the buzz carried on throughout that summer. The Cubs managed to make up the entire 9.5 game deficit just over a month later After a win over the Phillies on Aug. 1, again at Wrigley, they moved into sole possession of first place for the first time that season.
The Cubs remained in first place through the rest of the ’07 season, and of course went on to the postseason. While their play in the postseason, losing in three games to the Arizona Diamondbacks, was disappointing, the path the Cubs took to get there was quite exciting, if not somewhat unexpected.
Back to yesterday afternoon. With Lee leaving the game after seven excellent innings for the Indians, the Cubs seized the opportunity. For the second straight day, they managed to put four runs on the board in the eight inning.
Key contributions came from throughout the lineup – Geovany Soto, with a double; Andres Blanco, with a two-out, two-run single; and Alfonso Soriano with a single to score Blanco, trimming the Indians lead all the way down to 7-6.
Meanwhile, the Cubs’ bullpen was certainly doing their part to give the Cubs a shot at pulling off another improbable late-inning comeback. David Patton threw two scoreless innings following Harden’s departure, and Aaron Heilman threw a scoreless eighth. Carlos Marmol managed to work his way out of some self-made trouble in the ninth by striking out Victor Martinez to end the inning, leaving runners on first and second.
It seemed as though the hitters and pitchers were feeding off each other, neither wanting to end the Cubs’ chances at another exciting comeback victory.
In the bottom of the ninth, D-Lee came up with one out, facing former long-time Cub Kerry Wood. Lee did his best to replicate the magic that Aramis had two years ago, lifting Wood’s pitch into the left field seats to tie the game at 7. It was Lee’s second homer of the game, and his biggest of the season to this point.
After another scoreless inning of relief, this one from Kevin Gregg, Soriano came up with two outs and nobody on. He drew a walk off reliever Luis Viscaino. He then took the opportunity to get in scoring position by stealing second with Theriot at the plate.
Theriot then hit a ground ball to the right side, just enough to get out of the infield, allowing Soriano to race home with the game winning run. A mob scene ensued around the first base bag, with teammates immediately jumping around The Riot.
Nothing energizes a team quite like a spirited come from behind victory. The last two days saw not only an awakening of the Cubs’ offense, but an awakening of their collective pulse. These wins were true team efforts, after a month long period in which the team seemed to be simply riding their starting pitchers to stay somewhat competitive, hovering around the .500 mark and remaining within three games of the NL Central lead.
Is the worst stretch now behind this team? Hopefully so. If the Cubs can build off the energy created the last two days, like they did in ’07, then it should be another exciting summer at Wrigley.
Game information from 6/19/2009 and 6/29/2007 from mlb.com