CHICAGO | On a perfect summer Saturday afternoon in July of 1995, my girlfriend and I were walking down Clark Street about an hour before a Cubs-Phillies game with no plans to actually go inside the park. We hadn't planned ahead and figured we'd have to pay scalper's rates, so we were just out strolling around the Wrigleyville neighborhood, which we lived in at the time.
A woman on a bicycle stopped next to us and asked if we needed tickets. We said no for the aforementioned reason, but the woman said we misunderstood — she wasn't trying to sell the tickets. She couldn't use them and just wanted to give them away. Suddenly we were standing on the corner of Clark and Waveland with two third-base side box seats at our disposal.
So we watched the game which was pretty good for the most part. The Cubs led 5-4 going to the ninth, but Randy Myers failed to retire any of the four batters he faced and the Phillies scored three times. At that point, we were just glad that we got to enjoy the afternoon sun, a few beers and a ballgame. The Cubs are the Cubs, after all, and we couldn't expect the cherry on top in the form of a win.
In the bottom of the ninth, the Phillies brought on Heathcliff Slocumb, who was just beginning a run as a fairly successful closer. He struck out the first two batters and got Scott Bullett to chop one to third for what should have been a game-ending groundout, but Charlie Hayes booted it.
Then, well, it just happened so fast.
Brian McRae was hit by a Slocumb pitch, putting runners on first and second. Then free-swinging Shawon Dunston came up and, you guessed it, blasted the first pitch he saw into the left-field bleachers to finish an 8-7 Cubs win.
Ever since then, I've pointed to that afternoon as a prime example of how baseball can serve up unforgettable moments when you least expect them. No other sport affords you the opportunity to stop and mull over the possibilities of what may come the way baseball does. Sometimes, it even delivers.
That didn't happen on Monday night, but it almost did. The Brewers rolled up a methodical 7-3 lead going to the bottom of the ninth and the 2012 Cubs seemed well on the way to their third loss in four games. Then Ian Stewart led off with a double off Manny Parra. One batter later, Geovany Soto drew a walk. That sent Ron Roenicke to the mound to call for his fire-balling closer, John Axford.
Marlon Byrd hit a hard grounder at third baseman — and former Cub — Aramis Ramirez for what should have been an game-ending double play. Ramirez booted it Hayes-style, and even though the circumstances were very different — early April night game on a weeknight — you better believe I had flash of déjà vu. Steve Clevenger singled in a run and with two outs, and Darwin Barney walked to load the bases for Starlin Castro.
Just like that, on a night that seemed as routine as they come, we had one of those fantastic moments that baseball serves up when you least expect it. Castro was 0 for 4 and when he flew out in the eighth, it seemed a certainty that his streak of reaching base in 43 straight games was history. But here he was, with one more chance, and the bases were loaded with two outs and his team down by two runs. He was facing Axford, who pinches each side of his moustache Rollie Fingers-style, giving him a certain villainous quality.
Castro, who had barely taken a pitch all night, or this season for that matter, struck out on three pitches. He took a 96 mph fastball on the outer half of the plate to end the game. As I made my way down to the interview room, I heard a kid asking his father if he could stay home from school tomorrow. "I can't bounce back after this," he said.
Yeah, it was one of those moments.
- Castro fell one game short of matching Riggs Stephenson, who reached base in 44 straight games back in 1928, the last Cub to do so in that many games. Stephenson, a .336 career hitter, was in the midst of a four-year stretch when he hit .347. Stephenson's streak was snapped by New York Giants hurlers Freddie Fitzsimmons and Jack Scott.
- I raved about Barney's improved physique last week. He put the new muscles to good use on Monday, rifling a Shaun Marcum pitch into the left-field bleachers for a first-inning home run. The wind was blowing out, but it was giving more help to balls hit to right, such as Bryan LaHair's moonshot in the second that landed on Sheffield Ave.
- It's too early to make much of Dale Sveum's tendencies, but he doesn't seem to go to much effort to gain a platoon advantage late in the game, either with his relievers or his hitters. The other day I bemoaned the fact that he didn't have lefty James Russell warmed up to pitch to Washington's Adam LaRoche, who got a big hit off of Kerry Wood. Russell finally pitched on Monday, replacing rookie righty Lendy Castillo who struggled in his big-league debut. Russell came on to face Rickie Weeks, which I wouldn't have termed a favorable matchup. Score one for Sveum — Russell struck Weeks out. He also whiffed Ryan Braun in the ninth.
- As you'd expect, Braun did not get a warm reception from the Wrigley Field denizens in his first regular-season road game since last winter's suspension debacle. Did it bother him? He doubled, singled, walked, stole a base and scored a run. Guess not.