1998: Wild-Card Fever

By Chris Rewers on Sunday, September 19, 2010

When the Milwaukee Brewers visited Wrigley Field for a three-game weekend series Sept. 11-13, 1998, I had a full-blown case of Wild Card Fever.

The Cubs had fallen hopelessly behind the first-place Houston Astros in the National League Central race in August. When the Astros completed a three-game sweep at Wrigley Field, Aug. 22-24, they increased their lead to 10.5 games over the second-place Cubs.

But thanks to MLB's adoption of the six-division, two-wild card format in 1994, the Cubs remained in the thick of an intense race to earn a postseason berth. The focus of the race was on the Cubs and the New York Mets although Dusty Baker's San Francisco Giants would close strong and nearly sneak into October play.

The Cubs, Mets, and Giants all had major deficiencies and were inferior when compared with division champions San Diego, Houston, and Atlanta. But somebody had to win the wild card, and my thoughts were that it might as well be the Cubs.

The other focus that month was on the Great Home Run Race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. History has since diminished the significance of that year's race for the NL home run crown, but in 1998 it was captivating to even the most casual fans.

When the Brewers arrived in town, the Cubs and Mets were tied for the wild-card lead with the Giants 2.5 games back. McGwire's last home run - his record-breaking 62nd - was hit off the Cubs' Steve Trachsel on Sept. 8. Sosa had gone six games since his last homer - his 58th.

In the series opener with Milwaukee, the Cubs' most glaring weaknesses - their weak back end of their starting rotation and awful bullpen (outside of the overused Rod Beck and Terry Mulholland) was fully exposed.

Starter Don Wengert was tagged for five runs and was unable to survive the third and the Brewers racked up eight more runs against Cubs relievers en route to a 13-11 victory.

The poor effort by the pitching staff wasted a huge effort from Cubs hitters against the equally bad Milwaukee pitching staff. Taking advantage of a prevailing 17 MPH northeast breeze, the Cubs pounded out 15 hits - seven of which went for extra bases. One of those extra-base hits was Sosa's 59th home run of the season - an opposite-field solo blast, inside the right-field foul pole, off Brewers starter Bill Pulsipher. It ended a streak of 27 homerless plate appearances for Sammy and it was one of 12 homers he hit against Milwaukee that season.

The Cubs did not lose any ground in the wild-card race, as the Mets lost 5-1 to the Expos and the Giants fell 7-6 to the Rockies. McGwire singled in four at-bats in the Cardinals' 8-2 loss at Houston.

The awful pitching continued in Game 2 of the Cubs-Brewers series at Wrigley Field as the teams combined for 34 hits and nine home runs in a dramatic 15-12 Cubs victory.

Sosa tied Babe Ruth's longtime single-season home run mark when he cracked his 60th, with help from a 10-MPH breeze onto Waveland Avenue, off Valerio de los Santos, with two aboard in the seventh inning.

Mike Morgan, who was acquired from the Minnesota Twins two weeks earlier, had his fourth in a series of five awful starts with the Cubs. He was torched for eight runs on seven hits - including home runs to Geoff Jenkins, Bobby Hughes,and Jeromy Burnitz - during an eight-run Milwaukee third.

The Brewers led 8-2 before the Cubs mounted a steady comeback. They tallied a run in the fifth, two in the sixth, four in the seventh, and one in the eighth but entered the bottom of the ninth trailing 12-10.

It was the kind of game that gives one a feeling that the last team to at will win the game, and that is exactly how this game played out.

Milwaukee closer Bob Wickman allowed back-to-back singles to Sosa and Glenallen Hill to open the inning. Both runners moved up a base on Gary Gaetti's sacrifice bunt and Mickey Morandini walked to load the bases. Tyler Houston's two-run single tied the game and pinch hitter Orlando Merced, who had been signed as a free agent, hit a game-winning home run. It was the only homer in Merced's brief 12-game Cubs career.

The Cubs jumped a game in front in the wild-card race after the Mets lost 5-3 at Montreal and the Giants fell 3.5 games off the pace after losing 1-0 to Colorado. McGwire struck out in all three of his at-bats as Randy Johnson pitched Houston to a 3-2 victory over St. Louis.

In the series finale, the Brewers scored in seven different innings but still lost the game, 11-10, when the Cubs rallied to tie the game with two runs in the bottom of the ninth and win the game with a run in the 10th.

But it was Sosa who made headlines, hitting his 61st home run, off Bronswell Patrick, in the fifth inning to pass Ruth and equal Roger Maris' 1961 mark, and his 62nd, in the ninth off Eric Plunk, to pass Maris and pull even with McGwire.

But even after Sosa's historic homer, the Cubs still had work to do. There was one out in the ninth and they trailed 10-9.

The North Siders wasted no time. Henry Rodriguez doubled off the center-field wall and pinch runner Jason Maxwell scored the tying run when Gaetti smashed a line-drive single to center.

Beck set the Brewers down in order in the top of the 10th and in the bottom half, with two outs, Mark Grace socked a high fly off Al Reyes into a 7-MPH wind that was blowing out to center. It carried the ball into the right-center bleachers, capping an unforgettable weekend.

The victory kept the Cubs a game ahead of the Mets (a 1-0 winner at Montreal) and 3.5 in front of the Giants (a 4-3 winner over Colorado). McGwire went 0-for-2 in the Cardinals' 3-2 triumph in Houston.

During that wild weekend, that included 72 runs and 94 hits, the Cubs seized the lead in the wild-card race and Sosa passed two legends and caught up with McGwire.

The Cubs would go on to capture the wild card in a one-game playoff victory over San Francisco and McGwire topped Sosa in the home run race, 70-66.

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