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This year's Cubs are a breed apart. They're different from the Cubs of the past--even the relatively successful Cubs of 1984, '89, and '98--in that they're less lovable but more steely and determined. That attitude is epitomized by Mark Prior, who established himself as the team's ace in the second half of the season by going 10-1 with a 1.52 earned run average. That was after spending three weeks on the disabled list because of a July collision with Atlanta Braves second baseman Marcus Giles in a baserunning gaffe at Wrigley Field.

With his cap pulled low on his forehead, leaving only his jaw to jut out of the shadows as he delivered a mid-90s fastball and a biting curve, Prior took the Cubs beyond where even manager Dusty Baker had led them. It was no coincidence that he had a critical role in two of the wildest days--and nights--in memory at Wrigley Field: the Central Division-clinching doubleheader two Saturdays ago and the game three victory over the Braves last Friday. On each occasion the scene was familiar--most reminiscent of the two games the Cubs won to open the 1984 playoffs, which they went on to lose to the San Diego Padres--but also radically new. These Cubs seemed to expect to win, as the championship-era Bulls had. These Cubs, as embodied by Prior, didn't elicit a fan's love and mere jubilation at good fortune, but rather admiration and respect--an unusual sensation at the Friendly Confines.

Though the sparse crowd, slow to arrive for the early start, roared with surprising strength from the moment he emerged from the dugout, Prior was typically stoic as he walked to the bullpen to warm up for the opener of that doubleheader with the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Cubs had entered the final weekend in an identical tie for first with the Astros at 86-73, but had been rained out on Friday while the Astros were losing to the Cubs' regional rivals--and sudden best friends--the Milwaukee Brewers. Everyone knew that if the Cubs won both games and the Astros lost again the Cubs would clinch the division title, though that seemed highly unlikely.

Prior came out throwing a 94-mile-an-hour fastball. After allowing a hit to the leadoff man, he dropped a couple of lovely curves on Pittsburgh's dangerous Jason Kendall before fanning him with a fastball, then struck out ex-Cub Matt Stairs with a curve to end the frame.

Dark-bottomed clouds like those at the start of The Simpsons rolled slowly across the sky, and the bleachers filled quickly while the grandstand gradually packed. The fall afternoon was placid only on the surface. Every fan watched the hand-operated scoreboard for signs of life behind the shuttered slots, and when the Astros scored in the bottom of the first there was a sense that, well, that was expected. But when the Brewers put two on the board in the third, there was a sudden rise of energy in the crowd; people could almost smell it, the potential for something grand and historic to happen.

In the fourth, Prior left a high fastball out over the plate, and Craig Wilson pounded it into the left-field bleachers. Prior didn't look sharp. He was making a lot of pitches and seemed to be overthrowing. Usually his motion is so compact and efficient that the ball flies out of his hand like a fighter jet catapulted off the deck of a carrier, but he seemed to have to work to throw it hard on this day--a bad sign and perhaps a dangerous one, as he'd been averaging 130 pitches a start in September, heavy use for someone just turning 23 and finishing his first full season in the majors. Still, he always made the pitch he needed to get himself out of the moderate trouble he'd gotten himself into, and the Cubs came to his rescue in the fourth and fifth.

Mark Grudzielanek led off the fourth with a hit, and Sammy Sosa and Moises Alou followed with walks from former White Sox phenom Josh Fogg. Aramis Ramirez grounded to short, but Alou went in hard at second to break up the double play as Grudzie scored. "Aloooooo!" the crowd yelled. Randall Simon used his buggy-whip swing to loft a fly to left that scored Sosa and put the Cubs in front, 2-1. Minutes later Wes Helms homered for the Brewers in Houston, only moments before Cubs catcher Damian Miller responded in kind, putting both teams up 3-1. I was watching in the press box and saw the Helms homer on TV, but all the fans had to go on that something was up in Houston was a pitching change announced on the scoreboard. Prior followed Miller's shot with a single and came around to score on a Sosa sacrifice fly. The Cubs led 4-1, and then the scoreboard put up a 3 for the Brewers in the sixth, making it 5-1 in Houston. Excitement was building in the fans like steam in a kettle, and even in the press box one reporter--I swear it wasn't me--gasped "Yes!" at a Prior strikeout, prompting Cubs media relations director Sharon Pannozzo to utter the familiar admonition "There is no cheering in the press box" over our speakers.

After giving up a run in the sixth, Prior walked a man with two out in the seventh on his 133rd pitch, prompting Baker to remove him for Kyle Farnsworth. Farnsworth finished the inning, but then walked the leadoff man in the eighth--a cardinal sin with a 4-2 lead. But he worked through it, and turned the game over to closer Joe Borowski in the ninth. The Astros, meanwhile, scored a run in the seventh but then went quietly. When the 5-2 final went up on the scoreboard, fans went ape. Here it was, the chance to make history. "Let's go, Cubs!" they chanted. Borowski got into some two-out trouble in the final frame, but Kendall popped to Grudzie to end the game. The Cubs had clinched a tie for first, and needed only to win one of the final two against the Bucs to claim first outright.

But it wasn't that simple. If the chin-bearded Matt Clement lost the nightcap, the Cubs would have to send Kerry Wood to the mound in the regular season finale. If they clinched with a sweep, they could save Wood for the Tuesday opener of their series with the Braves. Clement stepped purposefully on the foul line--ignoring all baseball superstitions--in taking the mound and proceeded to mix a 90-mile-an-hour fastball with a hanging slider that got him into trouble but bit just often enough to get him out of it. He allowed hits in each of the first three innings but managed to keep the Pirates from scoring, and by that time the game was blessedly in hand.

Sosa started things off--as he so often did this season--with a gargantuan homer in the first. He crushed a low pitch from fireballer Ryan Vogelsong and, hopping almost out of his shoes, sent it up, up, and away, over the shrubbery of the hitting background and into the refreshment stand at the base of the deep-center-field bleachers. The fans roared; they could feel it. When the Cubs opened the second with four straight hits--Ramon Martinez's scooted under the glove of the second baseman like a mouse under a kitchen counter to score Ramirez--the call went forth across the north side. The Cubs scored five that inning to open a 6-0 lead, and it was just a matter of time.

A few pockets of fans had vanished after the first game, but after that no one left. The rooftops all around filled as the evening came on, and word circulated that the cops were closing down the streets in every direction. In the middle innings Clement's fastball began to sink, and he mowed down the Pirates. Expectation built. He gave up a couple of runs in the seventh and departed, but Mike Remlinger ended the inning and Dave Veres came in to mop up the final outs.

By that time Alou had added a shot onto Waveland Avenue to make it 7-2, and I'd moved down into some unoccupied seats in the lower deck behind home plate. Everyone was standing in the ninth, shouting and screaming. A guy in front of me was listening to the game on the radio on headphones, and I asked him how Ron Santo sounded. "Real crazy!" he shouted, with a lunatic grin of his own. Santo, I later heard, was saying it was the best he'd ever felt, and I think many fans would have echoed that. When Veres got the last outs on a double-play grounder after a walk, the place went mad--but reservedly so. The players clustered so that no one could make out individuals; it was their wives and children, ushered onto the field and hugging and dancing with one another when they weren't watching their men celebrate, who offered the best visual expression of the team's jubilation. The Cubs finally broke it up and circled the field for a victory lap, the fans all screaming and yelling; then a few players went into the dugout and emerged with champagne from the clubhouse and started spraying one another.

I was watching the beginning of the scene in the clubhouse when Baker came in, started congratulating everyone he met, and then was turned around by Pannozzo and headed toward the media interview room. I hightailed it after them and wound up following Baker across the infield as 35,000 fans--and more on the rooftops--cheered his name. He had insisted all along, since taking the job last fall, that this scenario, as unlikely as it seemed after 95 years without a championship, was possible, and now here it was--reality. The players said they couldn't have done it without him.

"Dusty told us, respect the history, but it has no bearing on us," Eric Karros said afterward.

"Feel free to believe in us," Remlinger added. "Don't worry about getting hurt."

What odd advice for Cubs fans!

I don't know if it was the air of purposeful confidence the Cubs gave off--the feeling that getting there was not enough, as it had been in 1998, that there was still work to be done--or just the drain of watching two exciting ball games, but the celebration inside and outside the stadium wasn't as raucous as it had been in 1984, when the Cubs clinched on the road and we all went pouring out of the neighborhood bars and into the Wrigleyville streets. Yet it didn't take long to reach that fever pitch when the Cubs returned to Wrigley last Friday for the third game of their series with the Braves. The Cubs had won the opener in Atlanta on a masterful performance by Kerry Wood. The only hit he gave up when the game was in doubt was a homer to Marcus Giles on an inside fastball Giles somehow got around on without hitting a foul. Carlos Zambrano lost the second game, as the Cubs' offense scored two but left the bases loaded in the first inning and then sputtered to a halt. Yet now the Cubs had Prior going again, on a full four days' rest, and even though he was facing turncoat Greg Maddux, the craftiest pitcher of his generation, confidence rather than dread reigned supreme.

Traffic was snarled all around the park in the dark, misty chill after a day of rain, and the crowd was slow to arrive. (Baker later talked of how fans seemed to have "dropped out of the sky" at the start of the game.) Oddly enough, Prior emerged from the dugout just as public-address announcer Paul Friedman was starting to give the lineups, so the usual roar of greeting as Prior walked down to the bullpen was swallowed by the larger set of cheers. Prior worked methodically through his stretching and long tossing before taking the bullpen mound, while the older Maddux was already warming up on the Braves' side in the cold. That was when I looked up into the stadium lights and saw the swirling mist form tangible raindrops that fell from the sky in larger and larger sizes. Prior and Maddux scurried to their dugouts, and the start of the game was delayed 30 minutes. The disruption seemed to affect Maddux more than Prior, who hadn't really begun to warm in earnest before the rain. Prior's control was off, as he walked four men in the first four innings and whacked another, the Braves' dangerous Gary Sheffield, with an errant pitch in the sixth. But through seven innings he allowed only a single hit, to Giles, and no runs. Maddux, meanwhile, twinged a calf muscle in the process of warming, halting, and warming anew, and gave up two runs in the first. Kenny Lofton, the Cubs' second-half spark plug, led off by slashing a cut fastball into right field and went to second when Grudzie reached on an eely bunt that eluded slipping first baseman Robert Fick. Maddux got Sosa and Alou and seemed about to work out of it when Simon--who makes life hard for a pitcher of Maddux's craft because "I always swing at everything and I hit everything," as he later explained--swished one down the right-field line to score two. Those were all the runs Prior would need.

He was something to watch, relying on his mid-90s fastball early and an increasing number of curves later in the game as he regained a feel for the pitch. The crowd of 39,982 rose to its feet every time he got two strikes on a batter with two out--and then just whenever he got two strikes. He received a huge ovation hitting in the seventh but gave up a run in the eighth on a double by pinch hitter Mark DeRosa, who came around to score on a sacrifice fly. The Cubs got it right back in the bottom half, as Alou singled, stole second, and scored on a Ramirez double off Atlanta reliever Kevin Gryboski. Baker never seemed to seriously consider taking Prior out. Having thrown 115 pitches, he took the mound to raucous applause in the top of the ninth and mowed the Braves down on 19 more tosses, actually retiring four batters: Javier Lopez struck out but reached base when a biting curve got past Miller. When Fick popped to Grudzie for the final out, Prior pumped his fist slowly, raised it above his head as the catch was made, and pumped it again. Before he was pulled aside for a postgame TV interview on the field, he tipped his cap to the fans in the grandstand. Gods may not answer letters, but they do sometimes acknowledge applause.

Clement couldn't finish the job the way he had against the Pirates. Starting the fourth game at Wrigley last Saturday--as men, women, and children wore muffs on their chins in a show of support--he struggled. Handed a 1-0 lead, he gave up a run in the third and three in the fourth as Chipper Jones hit a two-run homer. Jones added another two-run shot off Mark Guthrie in the eighth, negating two solo homers by Karros. The final was 6-4, with Sosa hopping as his long fly off John Smoltz died on the warning track for the final out.

Wood took the mound in Sunday's deciding game back in Atlanta. Which Wood would he be--the one who threw too many pitches early in the season and routinely turned games over to the bullpen, or the one who toughened and responded to Prior's challenge for the title of staff ace late in the year? Sporting a "Mark Prior" baseball mitt, Wood made it clear from the outset he was the latter. The Cubs gave him a run in the first on a Lofton double and an Alou single, and another in the second on a homer by Alex Gonzalez--who always seems to have a role in critical situations--and they were all he'd require. Ramirez hit a two-run homer in the sixth to make the score 4-0, and even though an umpire's muffed call cost Wood a run in the bottom half, he turned a 5-1 lead over to Borowski in the ninth.

Make no mistake, the Cubs wouldn't have approached the playoffs without Baker as manager. But I don't believe they'd have advanced to the National League Championship Series without Prior. The example he set was a statement that making the playoffs was not sufficient, that nothing was worth playing for but the championship, and it was contagious. If the Minnesota Twins had ponied up the money to draft him in 2001, they'd be playing this weekend for the World Series, and the Cubs would still be looking for their first postseason series victory since 1908.

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