Only twice in my lifetime have the Cubs come out on top in a tight regular season race that wasn't decided until the final weekend.
In 1998, in spite of themselves, the Cubs captured a National League wild-card berth after losing six of their last nine but edging San Francisco in a one-game playoff. That edition of the Cubs was one of the weaker teams to ever participate in the postseason and they were promptly bounced from the playoffs as Atlanta steamrolled over them to a three-game sweep in the NL Division Series.
Backing in would not cut it in 2003 as the Cubs and Houston Astros battled throughout September for the NL Central championship. The teams were never separated by more than two games throughout the month and entered the final weekend of the regular season with identical 86-73 records. The Cubs hosted Pittsburgh for the final three games while Houston played at home against Milwaukee.
I had tickets to see the Cubs play the Pirates on Friday, Sept. 26. Mark Prior, at the height of his powers, was scheduled to start for the Cubs. I anticipated the chance to see the drama of September pennant race baseball at its best.
But I didn't even get to see a pitch. The tarp was on the field as a steady rain fell as I arrived at the ballpark. And I sat helplessly in my 400-level seat as public address announcer Paul Friedman announced that the game was postponed after a half-hour delay. It was rescheduled as part of a twinbill the following day.
I hung out with my friend, Kevin, in Wrigleyville for a few hours but we made sure that we were back at my house in time to watch the Astros-Brewers game on my MLB Extra Innings satellite package. We enjoyed our pizza and beer, and got even a bigger kick out of the game as Richie Sexson homered twice and drove in four to lead the Brewers to a 12-5 victory. Milwaukee scored six times in the second inning to take a 9-1 lead. The Cubs led by a half-game and could clinch the division on Sept. 27 with a doubleheader sweep and another Houston loss.
Prior pitched the opener and cruised to his 18th win, allowing two runs and seven hits over 6 2/3 innings while striking out 10. The Cubs went ahead to stay in the fourth inning and claimed a 4-2 victory. It was a win that was made all the more sweet when the final score from Houston was posted on the center-field scoreboard. The Brewers scored twice in the third and three more times in the sixth while their starter, Wes Obermuller worked eight solid innings en route to a 5-2 triumph. The Cubs' magic number was reduced to one and the division title could be their's outright with a Game 2 win.
Sensing blood in the water, the Wrigley Field crowd of 40,121 was abuzz and the Cubs sent them into a tizzy with a run in the first on a titanic Sammy Sosa home run (his 40th) to center off Pittsburgh starter Ryan Vogelsong and five more in the second to take a 6-0 lead.
Matt Clement scattered seven hits over 7 2/3 innings and the Cubs clinched the title with a 7-2 victory. Jose Hernandez, batting against Cubs reliever Dave Veres, rolled into a 6-4-3 double play to end it.