But by last Friday evening, the Cubs had victory snatched away from them yet again—and the Atlanta Braves encountered their first dose of heartbreak.
The Braves jetted across the country to the Bay Area just in time for a day game on April 9—a 13-inning loss to the San Francisco Giants.
With one out in the bottom of the ninth, former Braves shortstop Edgar Renteria sent a 1-2 pitch from Atlanta closer Billy Wagner over the left field fence to tie the game at four apiece. The Giants, held scoreless until the seventh inning, went on to win 5-4. (Renteria was traded from Atlanta to Detroit in 2008 for the Braves’ eventual No. 2 starter, Jair Jurrjens.)
The Cubs headed to Cincinnati to begin a series with the Reds on April 8, a familiar early-April opponent. With Chicago ahead 3-1 in the bottom of the eighth inning Friday night, Cubs reliever Esmailin Caridad loaded the bases on a pair of walks and a bunt single.
On the next play, Reds leadoff hitter Drew Stubbs, like Caridad a second-year up-and-comer, hit his first career grand slam to deep center field to give Cincinnati a 5-3 advantage. (Stubbs was a high school standout in Atlanta, Texas.)
A ninth inning, bases-loaded Cubs rally was easily extinguished when pinch hitter Chad Tracy hit a check-swing tapper back to Reds closer Francisco Cordero for the final out.
It was the second time in three days Chicago’s bullpen had given up a lead in the eighth—the first being a two-run blast by the Braves’ Chipper Jones in a 3-2, game two loss at Atlanta.
The Cubs (2-4) and Braves (3-3) each went on to win game two and then lose game three of their respective series on the road.
Atlanta hands Jurrjens the ball again on Monday as the Braves continue their West Coast trip with a three-game set against the San Diego Padres. Through Saturday’s games, the Braves pitching staff led the National League in earned run average (2.70).
The season might be young, but the Cubs’ first home stand—which begins Monday against the Milwaukee Brewers—couldn’t arrive sooner. Ryan Dempster, the club’s most effective starting pitcher, makes his second start of the year (his first being a no-decision on Wednesday).
The team staggers home a bit frazzled, having failed to chip in more than a handful of runs in each game thus far, relying heavily on the long ball. Chicago hitters have failed to manufacture runs (25 men were left on base Friday and Sunday combined), and the team has swiped just one bag in six games.
The bullpen, however, has been the easy target for each loss, having compiled an ERA of 7.27 through the first six games.
Returning home to a sea of blue—and new spiffed-up digs—at the Friendly Confines might change their fortunes. The 96-year-old park now features upgraded batting cages, a cozier clubhouse, and even a team psychiatrist, Carrie Muskat of MLB.com reported.
By Sunday, the Cubs had tallied 18 total runs on the season, barely eclipsing the Braves' one-day total of 16 on Opening Day.
Wacky Opening Day script stays on course
If factoids about Braves-Cubs season openers of years past hinged on the bizarre and overly coincidental, the script continued along the same path this year.
The Cubs’ implosion on April 5, a 16-5 thumping at Atlanta, marked their largest margin of defeat on Opening Day in well over a century—and the most runs they had ever surrendered in an opener. Ever. As in 134 years.
The closest they came to such embarrassment to begin a season was on May 1, 1884. The franchise, then known as the Chicago White Stockings, fell 15-3 to the New York Gothams at the original Polo Grounds. (The 1884 season was also the final year the club, and most others, began a season in May. Chicago won its first two pennants in 1885 and 1886.)
Before Opening Day this year, the Braves had never won—or lost—by such a wide margin while based in either Atlanta or Milwaukee. The most lopsided opening contest the club has ever played took place on April 19, 1938. The New York Giants soundly defeated the Boston Bees 13-1 at the fourth and final incarnation of the Polo Grounds (the "Bees" moniker never stuck, and the organization restored the "Braves" nickname in 1941).
It was the largest Opening Day crowd that season, with almost 40,000 people in attendance. The next largest? At Crosley Field in Cincinnati, just over 34,000 fans watched the Cubs rally to beat the Reds. (Chicago made its second-to-last trip—to date—to the World Series that season.)
Speaking of Opening Day attendance records, more people (53,000-plus) flocked to the Braves-Cubs game at Turner Field this year than any other stadium. Only the Toronto Blue Jays-Texas Rangers game at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington came close, with a little more than 50,000 filling the seats.
No other game this year featured a higher run total—and no other game across the major leagues had a warmer start time temperature (it was a sultry 86 degrees and sunny at Turner Field when Derek Lowe fired a strike to Ryan Theriot).
Jason Heyward, the Braves’ highly touted rookie center fielder, homered off Cubs starter Carlos Zambrano in his first big-league at-bat. Jordan Schafer, last year’s Opening Day starter in center field for Atlanta (also a rookie), hit a solo shot in his first plate appearance as well.
Fellow center fielder and first-year Cub Marlon Byrd went deep in his first time to the plate. (The last player to homer in his first game as a Cub was Henry Rodriguez in 1998.)
Byrd, who attended high school in Marietta, Ga., admitted to cheering for Atlanta as a kid. “I love the Braves,” Byrd admitted after the Cubs’ 2-0 win on Thursday.
Perhaps there’s no harm in Byrd (or teammate Tyler Colvin, also a boyhood Braves fan) still having an affinity for the Braves. The Cubs have until Aug. 20 before the head-to-head drama with the Braves continues.