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Holy Cow, Only the Cubs

Wild-card playoff: Chicago sweats out Giants' ninth-inning rally to win, 5-3, and reserve an NL division series berth against Atlanta.

September 29, 1998|BILL PLASCHKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHICAGO — Through the roar of a city that howled and danced and cried, you could almost hear the words.

Through the cool night sky they descended, as if from the man to whom the Chicago Cubs' season was dedicated. Or at least from that giant white balloon beyond left field that bore his resemblance.

Holy Gaetti. Holy Trachsel. Holy Mieske.

Cubs win. Cubs win.

A franchise cursed ended baseball's special regular season with a game blessed. The Cubs defeated the San Francisco Giants on Monday, 5-3, to win the one-game playoff for the National League wild-card spot and advance to the postseason for only the third time in 53 years.

Holy Mulholland. Holy Merced. Holy Beck.

In the beginning, with Michael Jordan throwing out the first pitch and a 40-year-old man hitting a home run and a struggling pitcher throwing 6 1/3 no-hit innings, you had to think late announcer Harry Caray has something to do with this.

By the end, you were certain.

Mark Grace, the Cubs' long-time first baseman, grabbed Joe Carter's pop fly for the final out, leaned over and starting crying.

In the Wrigley Field stands, nearly 40,000 started leaping and hugging.

An hour later, neither had stopped.

"I've been through a lot of tough times here," said Grace later, eyes still red. "This makes it all worth it. I'm so proud to be a Cub."

Holy Tapani. Holy Rodriguez. Holy Johnson.

In a postgame celebration as unique as the team and the town who threw it, players ran around the old ballyard spraying champagne in the box seats. Fans boogied to old rock 'n' roll on the loudspeaker.

Grace did an entire victory lap by himself, seemingly pointing to every fan in every bleacher seat. Others stood on the railing behind home plate and hugged strangers.

Remember how they blew a chance to win the wild-card spot by blowing a lead in Houston on Sunday? Nobody here did.

"I'm almost happy we didn't win it in Houston," said catcher Tyler Houston, standing on the field in a champagne-soaked shirt while the party continued around him. "I didn't want to miss all this."

Typical of the Cubs, who meet the league-best Atlanta Braves in a five-game division series beginning Wednesday in Atlanta, they almost missed it anyway.

Yes, less than a week after blowing a seven-run lead at Milwaukee, one day after blowing a two-run lead in the eighth inning against the Astros, they almost blew a 5-0 lead in this one.

"You knew it couldn't happen any other way," Grace said.

Ninth inning. A five-run lead cut to two runs. A parade of three unlikely Cub pitchers--a starter who had not relieved in three years (Kevin Tapani), a starter who threw eight innings on Sunday (Terry Mulholland), a reliever who threw a season-high 2 1/3 innings on Sunday (Rod Beck).

A runner on first. Two out. Former World Series home run hero Joe Carter at the plate.

"I walked out to Beck and told him, 'I love you buddy,' " recalled Grace. "He just looked at me like, 'C'mon Grace, get out of here.' "

Beck was thinking of something else. Something, eerily enough, that had been taught him by Giant Manager Dusty Baker last season when Beck played there.

"I remember thinking Dusty had once come to the back of the plane and told me, 'Guys with long arms like the ball pitched outside,' " Beck recalled. "So I pitched Carter inside."

After Carter popped to first, Beck had another thought.

"I guess that meant Dusty has something to do with our victory," he said, smiling.

Baker was not amused.

Not after seeing his veteran team leave 11 runners on base, including the bases loaded twice.

Not after seeing Barry Bonds fail in a postseason-type game yet again, going hitless in three at-bats and managing only a run-scoring flyout when batting with the bases loaded in the ninth.

"I kept seeing that Harry Caray balloon in the outfield, it was like he was sending vibes to keep our balls going right at people," Baker said.

It could have also been the influence of the impatient fans, who began their five-hour standing ovation during the first strains of the national anthem.

Or maybe the karma from Bill Murray singing, "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," while throwing ice into the crowd.

"Nights like this, this is why you play the game," said Mickey Morandini, the Cubs' second baseman.

Holy Heredia. Holy Houston. Holy Hernandez.

Or maybe the Cubs survived because, thanks to Sammy Sosa, they have spent the last several weeks enduring spotlight games like this one.

"For the last couple of months, we have had tension in every game," Cub Manager Jim Riggleman said. "I think that makes a difference."

It certainly did to starter Steve Trachsel, who had not won a game this month, yet did not allow a hit for nearly 2 1/2 hours, until Brent Mayne's pinch single with one out in the seventh.

"The way the fans were, it was the adrenaline that carried me," Trachsel said. "I threw 121 pitches, and I felt like I threw 40."

Trachsel was given the boost he needed in the fifth inning when Gary Gaetti nailed Mark Gardner for his eighth homer in 37 games since the Cubs picked him off the scrap heap in August.

The two-run shot was a precursor to pinch-hitter Matt Mieske's two-run single to right in the sixth, giving the Cubs all they would need.

When Orlando Merced picked a foul fly ball by Stan Javier out of the stands down the left-field line with two runners on base in the seventh, the Cubs began feeling it was their night.

From there, it was up to Trachsel and the unlikely Cub relievers, working because Riggleman really doesn't trust anyone else.

So who is left to pitch in Wednesday's opener in Atlanta?

"I will," Trachsel said.

Holy Harry.

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