September 29, 2007
CINCINNATI (AP) -- They lost on the field, fought in the dugout, fell out of contention before the season's midpoint. Then, the Chicago Cubs did something that defied their long history of failure and disappointment.
Somehow, they pulled together and won the division.
Chicago's two biggest offseason investments took them the final step toward the playoffs on Friday night. Alfonso Soriano hit another leadoff homer, Carlos Zambrano kept his cool, and the Cubs clinched the NL Central with a 6-0 victory over the Cincinnati Reds.
"Hopefully we can have a few more little parties like this," said Lou Piniella, who enjoyed a champagne shower in his first season as the Cubs manager. "They're fun."
This celebration was so unexpected.
The Cubs invested $300 million in their roster in the offseason, a big-budget solution to their last-place finish in 2006. By June, it looked like a lousy business decision. Chicago was 8 1/2 games out on June 23, with long-suffering fans ready to write them off.
On Friday night, that $300 million paid a return: 30 cases of fine California champagne, sprayed giddily on everyone and everything in the visitors' clubhouse at Great American Ball Park.
"I'm glad to be cold," said reliever Scott Eyre, soaked through with champagne. "I don't think anybody remembers last year."
Instead, the reference point is 2003, the last time the Cubs made the playoffs. They reached the NL championship series under first-year manager Dusty Baker, only to collapse when a fan interfered with a foul ball in Game 6 against Florida.
Now, they get another chance to make a run at their first World Series title since 1908.
"We're as good as anybody going into the playoffs," closer Ryan Dempster said. "We've played as good as anybody. Since the All-Star break, we've been playing great."
Lately, no one has been better than Soriano.
The outfielder was the centerpiece of the offseason splurge, getting an eight-year, $136 million deal that was the fifth-largest in baseball history. Since returning from a strained thigh that sidelined him for most of August, Soriano has gone on a tear unsurpassed in Cubs history -- 13 homers in September, matching Ernie Banks' record of 50 years ago.
"I'm very proud of myself," Soriano said. "I've never had a good September. This time, my team needed it."
The Cubs stumbled into town after getting swept in Florida, stalling their quest. Soriano got them back in high spirits by hitting the third pitch from Bronson Arroyo (9-15) into the seats in center field for his 32nd homer.
His six leadoff homers in September are the most by any major leaguer in any month -- and that's wasn't the end of it. The left fielder also threw Joey Votto out at the plate in the fourth inning, matching Hank Sauer's team record of 19 assists for the season.
From Soriano's emphatic opening homer, this one had a playoff atmosphere with tens of thousands of blue-shirted Cubs fans giving the visitors a home-field advantage.
"I'm not real happy about that," interim Reds manager Pete Mackanin said. "Nobody likes letting the opposition fans raise the roof in your own ballpark. It's a little unsettling. You'd like to quiet them down and make them a little nervous."
Nothing made Zambrano sweat. Keeping his emotions in check, the right-hander allowed six hits in seven innings and strengthened his case to start the first game of the playoffs.
In June, Zambrano was the epitome of Chicago's tumultuous start. He got into a fight with former Cubs catcher Michael Barrett in the dugout and again in the clubhouse, the low point of Chicago's early slide.
Zambrano completed the turnaround by winning on the same field where he had an emotional meltdown on opening day.
"This one was very important to me," said Zambrano (18-13). "We started the season here. Before the game, I was thinking: Here we started, and here we finish."
When Milwaukee lost to San Diego 6-3 later Friday, the Cubs got to pop some corks in the city where their volcanic manager is still revered for blowing his cork and leading the Reds to a World Series championship in 1990.
Piniella had a new look on Friday -- the customary two-day stubble was gone from his face, shaved clean after that stomach-churning visit to Florida. Piniella kept his eyes on the bigger picture: That four-month comeback to win the majors' weakest division.
"We've got some nice talent here," Piniella said. "At the same time, we got into a situation where the team in front of us gave us a chance to get back in the race. We said, 'All right,' and we got after it."
Piniella's top starter had a new way about him, too.
The Cubs gave Zambrano a five-year, $91.5 million contract extension on Aug. 17 despite one glaring flaw. The 26-year-old pitcher has tended to let the big games get to him, imploding in his last three opening day starts.
Could he handle the pressure this time?
He stayed as serene as those 30 cases of Korbel champagne stored in a room off the visitors' clubhouse, waiting to be shook up.
No team had clinched a playoff spot in Cincinnati since 1999, when the Mets beat the Reds at Cinergy Field to win the NL wild card. ... The Reds are missing all three starting outfielders to injury. Ken Griffey Jr. (groin), Adam Dunn (knee) and Josh Hamilton (hamstring) combined for 89 homers and 246 RBIs. Their replacements on Friday -- Norris Hopper, Buck Coats and Jason Ellison -- had a combined one homer and 18 RBIs. ... Griffey, who played for Piniella in Seattle, poked his head into the manager's pregame session with reporters in the dugout. "You still doing this stuff?" Griffey asked incredulously.