The 1998 Cubs will never be mentioned when the greatest teams in franchise history are discussed.
Rod Beck celebrates after retiring San Francisco's Joe Carter for the final out of the Cubs' 5-3 victory in a one-game NL wild-card playoff at Wrigley Field on Sept. 28, 1998.
The only consistently reliable starting pitchers were 19-game winner Kevin Tapani, Steve Trachsel, and NL Rookie of the Year Kerry Wood. The bullpen also was thin with closer Rod Beck and workhorse left-hander Terry Mulholland doing most of the heavy lifting.
An old everyday lineup (average age: 32.6) was carried by Sammy Sosa's heroic 66-home run season and a .309 campaign from the always steady Mark Grace. Sosa knocked in 158 runs - 70 more than the Cubs runner-up in the category.
The Cubs remained in contention with Houston for first place in the NL Central - they were just 2.5 games out on July 27 - before the Astros pulled away in August after acquiring Randy Johnson in a July 31 deadline trade. The Big Unit went 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA in 11 starts with his new team and the Astros closed the season by winning 37 of their last 53. Houston beat the Cubs in four of six head-to-head meetings in August, including a three-game sweep at Wrigley Field, Aug. 22-24. The Astros outscored the Cubs 33-9 in those three games and were 11.5 games in front of the North Siders by Aug. 25.
The Cubs' focus shifted to the wild-card, still a novel concept that was in its fourth year of existence. The wild-card race was a two-team race for much of September between the Cubs and Mets, but when both of those teams faltered, the San Francisco Giants made a late push.
The Cubs ended their regular-season schedule by dropping six of eight. The skid included a three-game sweep at the hands of the Cincinnati Reds in their final home series and an excruciating loss in Milwaukee on Sept. 23 when left fielder Brant Brown muffed a fly ball with two outs in the bottom of the ninth enabling three runs, including the winning tally, to score. They completed their slate by dropping two of three in Houston.
The Mets entered the final weekend tied with the Cubs for the wild-card-lead but lost their final five game, including their last three in Atlanta, to finish one game back. Had New York won just one of those five games, it would have created an unprecedented three-way tie.
The struggles of the Cubs and Mets left San Francisco with an opening and the Giants took advantage. With an 8-4 victory at Colorado on Sept. 26 - their ninth win in 10 games - the Giants pulled into a tie with the Cubs for the wild-card lead.
While the Cubs were losing 4-3 in 11 innings at Houston on Sept. 27, the Giants could have clinched a playoff berth with a victory over the Rockies. Instead, they lost 9-8 when Colorado's Neifi Perez led off the bottom of the ninth with a home run off closer Robb Nen.
By virtue of winning a coin flip, the Cubs were declared the hosts of a one-game playoff with the Giants on Sept. 28. It was just the ninth tiebreaker in major league history, the sixth in the National League, and the fifth time that tie would be broken with a single game.
Trachsel, an inconsistent right-hander throughout his 14-year major league career was given the starting assignment by manager Jim Riggleman and picked the right time for a career performance. The 27-year-old Trachsel carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning. Through six innings, he permitted just four baserunners - three of them in the fourth inning.
With the game still scoreless in the fourth, Trachsel loaded the bases. He plunked Jeff Kent and walked Joe Carter, and issued a two-out walk to Charlie Hayes. But he pitched out of the mess when Brian Johnson took a called third strike.
The Cubs took the lead in the fifth on a two-run homer by 40-year-old Gary Gaetti off Giants starter Mark Gardner. The veteran third baseman was released by the St. Louis Cardinals and signed by the Cubs on Aug. 19. The low-risk move by general manager Ed Lynch paid dividends as Gaetti hit .320 with eight home runs and 27 RBI in 37 games with the Cubs.
Veteran Matt Mieske, a September call-up, doubled the Cubs' lead in the sixth with a two-run pinch-hit single.
Trachsel's no-hit bid ended with one out in the seventh when Brent Mayne singled. The right-hander exited after walking the next hitter Armando Rios and Cubs fans held their collective breath as Matt Karchner entered. Karchner, acquired in an awful deadline trade with the White Sox that cost the Cubs future major leaguer Jon Garland, retired Stan Javier on a flyout to left but former Cub Shawon Dunston singled to load the bases.
Tapani, making just the seventh relief appearance of his career and working on two days of rest, held San Francisco in the top of the eighth and the Cubs padded their lead to 5-0 in the bottom half when Sosa scored from third on a Jose Mesa wild pitch.
But Mayne and Bill Mueller opened the ninth with back-to-back singles off Tapani. Mulholland, who threw 121 pitches while working eight innings the previous day, entered and was ineffective. The rubber-armed lefty gave up an RBI single to Javier, a walk to Ellis Burks, and a sacrifice fly to Bonds. On came Beck. The closer, making his fifth appearance in six games, was also operating on fumes. His fastball topped out in the low 80s, but Shooter got the job done with his 51st save. Kent hit into a forceout and Carter, representing the tying run, concluded a terrific 15-year major league career by weakly popping out to Grace in foul territory.