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Season on the Brink 

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In the week before the All-Star break, the Cubs put their season in jeopardy. Having swept the White Sox at Wrigley Field, they appeared to experience an emotional letdown in Milwaukee and were swept in turn by the Brewers. They scored a total of two runs in the three games. They then had to marshal their forces somehow to face the first-place Cardinals in Saint Louis, but they lost the first two games of a three-game series to extend their skid to five straight losses. In second place at the start of the week, three games behind the Cardinals in the National League's Central Division, they were now eight back with a game to go in Saint Louis before the three-day break.

Kerry Wood came off the disabled list to pitch well in the Sunday finale, and Sammy Sosa homered--all of a sudden it was like old times--and the Cubs won 8-4. But when the season resumed with last weekend's rematch at Wrigley against the Brewers, the emotional boost from that victory over the Cardinals only added to the dramatic shifts in mood. The Cubs won the first game Thursday night while suffering a potentially crippling loss, dropped the second in hangdog fashion, then produced the most beautiful baseball game of the season on Saturday. The game was like a desert flower--quick to wilt, as it turned out.

Morning showers led a cold front through Saturday, and the shadows of straggler clouds washed across the field from the left-field bleachers to the first-base grandstand as the midafternoon game began. The wind was blowing in, good pitching weather. It was almost chilly in the shade, but wonderfully warm in the sun, where I was lucky enough to be with my old pal Boomer and three of our kids in the lower deck down the first-base line.

"How long has it been since we've seen a game together at Wrigley?" Boom-Boom asked.

"Too long," was all I could say--maybe since the Cubs banned cigars at the not-so-Friendly Confines, a move that contributed to our giving up our season-ticket package about two kids ago. Regardless, it was a day for fond returns all around, as Greg Maddux was on the mound. Things had undeniably changed for Maddux too over the years; he was no longer the pitcher he'd been when we saw him on a regular basis with the Cubs. He'd lost the opening game of the Cardinals series, giving up four runs, and though, yes, he beat the Sox at Wrigley, that was after getting pounded by them at White Sox Park. He entered the day with a 7-7 record and a humble 4.51 earned run average (a run allowed every two innings). Worse yet, he was opposed by Milwaukee ace Ben Sheets, 9-5 with a 2.26 ERA and fresh from an appearance in the All-Star game. And as the game began, the Cincinnati Reds were in the process of blowing a 4-0 lead to the Cards, eight games ahead.

Maddux gave up a hit in the first, but faced the minimum by starting a pitcher-to-shortstop-to-first double play. He then settled into a routine approaching that of his prime--changing speeds, every pitch darting in a direction only he knew. "What you don't see on TV," Boom-Boom said, "is what terrific rhythm he has." Maddux has a reputation for working fast, but what it really is, when he's on, is beautiful efficiency. He gets the ball, takes the sign, kicks into his motion, and then his arm comes flashing over his shoulder with deceptive violence, absorbed in that distinctive little hop in his follow-through that puts him in perfect fielding position. He might occasionally snap at a throw back from the catcher with that big mitt of his, or push back his cap to mop the sweat from his brow with his bare hand, but otherwise there's no wasted motion, no squandered energy.

He retired nine batters in a row before giving up a single to Geoff Jenkins with two out in the fourth, then got himself in trouble by failing to field a squibber down the first-base line by Lyle Overbay. Yet Maddux got Keith Ginter to pop to left field to end the inning and begin another string of eight straight retired--the last seven on groundouts, an indication of how effective his changeup and other sinking pitches were this afternoon. The kids were equally methodical working their way through bags of Cracker Jack and cotton candy, and we sat and enjoyed the sun and between innings talked about summer camp and other idle pursuits.

The Reds were coming back to beat the Cards 7-5, and the Cubs were staking Maddux to a two-run lead on a pair of solo shots off Sheets. A 2000 U.S. Olympic hero, Sheets throws in the mid-90s straight over the top, a motion that also adds bite to his curveball. Sosa, however, pounded a fastball straight into the teeth of the wind--into the left-field bleachers--in the first inning, and Moises Alou responded in kind in the fourth. The 2-0 advantage would have been enough for Maddux in his prime, but back with the Cubs this season at 38 he'd been a little infirm protecting leads, and he hadn't completed a game in a year. So the game's critical juncture might actually have come with the Cubs at bat. When Jose Macias walked and Paul Bako singled against Sheets in the seventh, Maddux came to the plate with one out. The Cubs might have considered a pinch hitter, but there was no one warming up in the bullpen. This was either an oversight by manager Dusty Baker or a display of confidence in Maddux; in either case the responsibility for the game was all Maddux's after he grounded into a double play.

He responded by striking out the side in the eighth, allowing a two-out single but then getting pinch hitter Brooks Kieschnick on a lovely pitch that sailed up to the plate like a high, tight fastball, then dipped and faded over the inside corner for strike three. (Kieschnick, a former all-hit, no-field Cubs prospect, has found new life with the Brewers as a hybrid pitcher/pinch hitter. He'd beaten his old team the day before on an RBI single up the middle after Matt Clement surrendered a 2-0 lead.) Having broken into the Brewers' bullpen, the Cubs scored three insurance runs in the eighth, two of them on a Corey Patterson homer onto Sheffield Avenue, and Maddux closed out the game in the ninth, striking out the leadoff man, giving up a hit, then coaxing Jenkins to line to Derrek Lee at first for a game-ending double play.

Maddux is usually in the clubhouse by the end of his starts, but here he seemed to take a quiet pride in standing just beyond the pitcher's mound, at the head of the congratulatory line of players emerging from the dugout, and greeting the position players one by one as they came in from the field. Then he turned and was congratulated by Baker and the bench players. "He looked like Greg Maddux today," said one fan as we made our way up the aisle, kids in tow. That he did, offering testimony to the idea that though things do change, moments can be found when they're somehow the same for all the difference. It was youth recaptured, all the sweeter for the time lost.

But that idyll proved to be the high point of the weekend. Otherwise, the mood tilted erratically between elation and despair. There was a golden glow to the field Thursday night as Mark Prior warmed up in the bullpen prior to the opening game of the season's second half. Not even the rendition of the national anthem by 70s San Francisco rock hacks Journey could disturb it. (Steve Perry was nowhere to be seen, making "The Star-Spangled Banner" a Jimi Hendrix-style instrumental; thank goodness Aynsley Dunbar was missing too, else they would have had to disrupt Prior's warm-ups for the obligatory 15-minute drum solo.) Prior fell behind when leadoff man Scott Podsednik slapped a fastball flat-footed down the left-field line for a double, then scored on a pair of fly balls. In the bottom half the Cubs left a man on third with one out, a persistent fault during this home stand. Macias singled with one away and went to third on a single by Patterson, but he was left hanging when Sosa fanned and Alou popped to left.

That disappointment was nothing next to what was to come. Prior retired the leadoff man in the second on a comebacker, then got Chad Moeller to ground to Lee. Replays showed Prior had pushed off his right foot in rushing unnecessarily to cover first, and when he came up lame speculation centered on a reinjured Achilles tendon. Pitching coach Larry Rothschild visited the mound, and there were multiple gasps of "Oh no!" from the crowd when Rothschild motioned to the bullpen. Prior, the very emblem of the Cubs' new steely determination, was gone with some sort of injury--soon revealed to be not the Achilles but the possibly much worse "discomfort in the posterior area of his right elbow."

Left-hander Glendon Rusch came on and mowed down the lefty lineup the Brewers had stacked against Prior, but a fog of despair seeped into the ballpark. Milwaukee starter Doug Davis proved susceptible enough. Pitching tentatively, kicking forward and throwing his gloved hand out like someone reaching for a light switch in a darkened stairwell, he literally got Lee to fall over swinging on his first pitch, only to watch Lee work the count full and hit the next pitch on a line into the left-field bleachers. Rusch held the tie until a Milwaukee error and an Alou triple helped the Cubs push three runs across in the sixth, and the bullpen held on for a 4-1 win. Yet, the question was, how was Prior?

"We don't know," Baker admitted afterward.

"Trust me, I want to know what's going on more than anybody," Prior said. But exams the next day revealed nothing about the cause of the shooting pains in his elbow, and though he reported no problems after throwing Sunday, all signs pointed to something that would resurface, and sooner rather than later.

The injury tinged the rest of the weekend: not just Clement's squandered start but another fine performance by Wood wasted on Sunday. Macias gave him a lead with a solo homer off Chris Capuano, but then the Chicago offense again went into the doldrums. (A leadoff man who gets on base would help--as Kenny Lofton did last season.) The Brewers eventually tied the game on a Podsednik triple and a sacrifice fly, and then Wood was chased by his pitch count. The Cubs' relievers gave an additional three runs to the Brewers, and Lee's solo homer was all they could get in return. The Cubs lost 4-2 while the Cards were winning again, and Chicago fell eight games back--one game worse than they'd been after Wood's win in Saint Louis a week before.

If for one day things were almost unbelievably beautiful at Wrigley Field--with Maddux hurling a shutout and Sosa and Alou homering and the fans marveling at how fortunate they were to be there or watching on TV or listening on the radio--by the end of the weekend that joy felt like the sort of straw Cubs fans used to grasp at. Even so, I wanted to stop for a moment and recall us walking up an aisle packed with people who had stayed for the final out of the Saturday game, and me saying to myself with a smile, in a voice the kids couldn't hear, "That fucking Maddux. That goddamn fucking Maddux."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Stephen Green.

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