(Editor's Note: Fourteenth in a series recalling the 30 greatest moments in Cubs history.)
It seems so long ago, but it's only been a little over two years since the Cubs, with the best record in the National League, clinched their second straight Central Division title with a 5-4 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals on Sept. 20, 2008. My confidence in the Cubs was never - before or since - as high as it was in '08. And the highlight of that magical regular season came on Sept. 14 when Carlos Zambrano pitched the first Cubs no-hitter in over 36 years.
Carlos Zambrano - on Sept. 14, 2008 - was the first Cub to throw a no-hiiter since Milt Pappas in 1972.
The Cubs' magic number for clinching the division crown was eight entering play on that Sunday night as they prepared to open a hastily-arranged two-game neutral site series against the Houston Astros at Milwaukee's Miller Park.
The games were moved to Milwaukee after the Cubs' scheduled series that weekend in Houston was postponed by Hurricane Ike. Astros owner Drayton McClane Jr. balked at the idea of moving the games to a neutral site, but was eventually forced to move two of the three postponed games to Milwaukee by Commissioner Bud Selig.
The Astros, as is their custom, were playing their best ball. They had won 14 of their previous 15 to pull to within 1.5 games of wild-card co-leaders Philadelphia and Milwaukee.
The Astros were most angered by the order to play the games at Miller Park. They proposed sites like Kansas City, New Orleans, and the ballpark of their Triple-A affiliate in Round Rock, Texas.
A paid crowd of 23,441 - mostly Cubs fans - turned out. And the crowd could have been even bigger had Miller Park's upper deck been open. The upper reaches of the ballpark remained closed because of manpower issues.
"This is not a home game," Houston manager Cecil Cooper grumbled before the game. "This is definitely an advantage for the Cubs, and that's saying it as mildly as possible."
WGN televised the game on its local feed only - it was blacked out on the superstation - after WGN Sports executive producer Bob Vorwald spent much of the weekend lobbying MLB and ESPN to waive their Sunday night blackout rule. ESPN was televising a White Sox-Tigers game from the South Side. Kudos to Vorwald for his efforts, providing me and other fans with the opportunity to witness the historic event and providing a video record of the gem.
The front-running Cubs were in a holding pattern, playing their worst baseball of the season while dropping eight of 11. The slump coincided with a Zambrano health issue. Big Z had not pitched since Sept. 2 because of shoulder inflammation and rotator cuff tendinitis. Manager Lou Piniella planned on limiting his ace to 100 pitches.
The Astros, who had spent much of the weekend hunkered down with their families in the Houston area as the hurricane approached land. They hastily departed Houston on one of the final flights to depart ahead of the storm.
The strain of the ordeal was evident early on in the game. The Astros were flat and the Cubs seized a 5-0 lead by the third inning against Houston starter Randy Wolf. Alfonso Soriano led off the game with a home run and the North Siders added four more in the third on a two-run double by Derrek Lee, an RBI single by Aramis Ramirez, and a run-scoring double by Geovany Soto.
Zambrano meanwhile, hitting as high as 98 MPH on the speed gun, went through a listless Houston lineup like a hot knife through butter.
The only hard-hit balls off the 27-year-old Venezuelan right-hander were a line drive by David Newhan that was snared by first baseman Lee to end the fifth and a long fly ball by Geoff Blum - one of just two balls to reach the outfield - toward the right-field corner that was hauled in on the run by Mark DeRosa for the first out in the bottom of the eighth. The only Astros to reach base were Michael Bourn (bases on balls) in the fourth and Hunter Pence (hit by pitch) in the fifth.
Humberto Quintero led off the bottom of the ninth and grounded out to shortstop Ryan Theriot on Zambrano's first pitch. Then pinch-hitter Jose Castillo also grounded out to Theriot for the second out. The final batter, Darin Erstad, chased a two-strike split-fingered fastball (Z's 110th pitch) low and away. It was Zambrano's 10th strikeout.
Zambrano dropped to his knees to the left of the mound and pointed to the sky with both hands before being mobbed by his teammates.
My hopes for the Cubs ending their 100-year drought that year were dashed. It's one of the many disappointments that I have endured. But nobody can take away the memories and the enjoyment I got from moments like Zambrano's no-hitter and countless other moments during my nearly four decades of watching Cubs baseball.
There is something extremely satisfying for getting a payoff for the three hours invested in watching any given game. Each game has a seed for greatness and it's marvelous on those rare occasions when we are privileged to see that seed bloom.