Tuesday, May 31, 2011

1998 NL Wild Card tiebreaker: Bonds' blast falls short

The 1998 season was a magical one on the north side of Chicago, as the Cubs began a resurgence fueled by two of the biggest breakout stars in the Majors. The first to break through was Kerry Wood, the flame-throwing rookie who made National League hitters look foolish through most of the summer. Later that year - in June, to be specific - came Sammy Sosa. The enigmatic outfielder hit 20 home runs in June, jump-starting a season that eventually saw him go neck-and-neck with Mark McGwire as the two sluggers chased Roger Maris' single-season home run record.

But, despite having Wood and Sosa at the peak of their powers, the Cubs still had no chance in the NL Central, as Houston was riding a dream season of its own on its way to an easy division crown. The Cubs were left to settle for the wild card race, and that was a tight one.

Through most of the first half of the season, the San Francisco Giants were comfortably in front in the wild card race. Almost immediately after the all-star break, though, the Cubs soared past the Giants into the lead. Eventually, the Cubs found themselves in a tight race not with the Giants, but the Mets, who battled the Cubs game-for-game through most of September. Just when it seemed like it would stay a two-team race, the Giants ripped off six wins in a row at the end of September. On September 25, with two days left in the regular season, the Cubs, Mets, and Giants were tied for the wild card lead.

On September 26, the Mets lost to NL East champion Atlanta, while Chicago and San Francisco inched ahead with wins. The last day of the season was September 27, and the Mets were eliminated with a loss. Chicago had an opportunity to clinch, and took a two-run lead into the eighth inning in Houston before falling in 11 innings. The Giants had an even better chance, leading 7-0 over Colorado with four innings to play, but they, too, blew the game. That set up a one-game playoff between the Cubs and the Giants, just a week short of 90 years after they played the makeup game after Fred Merkle's infamous baserunning blunder.

The Game
With Wood injured and out for all of September, pitcher Steve Trachsel took over Wood's role as staff ace played a big part in getting the Cubs to the tiebreaker game, so it was appropriate that he was picked to start the deciding game. For the Giants, the pitcher was Mark Gardner, who had been their best or second-best starter all year.

With the celebrated Sosa in the lineup for the Cubs and San Francisco boasting dangerous 3-4 hitters Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent - and considering the game was played in Wrigley Field - the game seemed destined to be a show of offensive fireworks. Instead, Trachsel and Gardner were in control early, and the game was scoreless through four. The best threat came in the top of the fourth, when the Giants loaded the bases on Trachsel before catcher Brian Johnson struck out looking.

The Giants would rue that lost opportunity in the bottom of the fifth. After a leadoff single by Henry Rodriguez, veteran third baseman Gary Gaetti, acquired mid-season specifically because of his playoff experience, blasted a ball deep into the left field bleachers to give the Cubs a 2-0 lead.

The Cubs broke through again in the sixth when Matt Mieske, pinch-hitting for Rodriguez with the bases loaded, lined a shot off first baseman J.T. Snow that scored two more runs, including a hustling Sosa from second base. Though Gaetti subsequently grounded into a double play, the damage was done.

San Francisco responded immediately in the top of the seventh, loading the bases with two outs and Bonds coming to the plate. Considered the National League's best player over the past decade, Bonds had been eclipsed in 1998 by the sensational seasons of Sosa and McGwire. This was his chance at redemption. Instead, he grounded weakly to first, ending the threat.

Chicago added a run in the bottom of the eighth as Sosa came home on a wild pitch. Leading 5-0 entering the top of the ninth, the game seemed well in hand.

But the Giants had made their late-season run largely because of their explosive offense, and they weren't going away quietly. The first three batters for the Giants hit singles, the third one cutting the lead to 5-1. A walk loaded the bases with nobody out ... and with Bonds coming to the plate. Given another opportunity at hitting a game-tying grand slam, Bonds got into one, lifting one to deep right field. The ball died at the warning track, falling into Sosa's glove for a sacrifice fly. Though a run scored, it seemed like the biggest threat was over. The Cubs were very willing to trade runs for outs at this point in the game, and they did so again when Kent grounded into a force play in the next at bat. Though another run scored to make it 5-3, the Giants were down to their last out.

Joe Carter was the Giants' last hope, standing at the plate representing the tying run. In 1993, Carter had hit the World Series-ending home run, so he was familiar with clutch at bats. This time, though, there would be no joy in San Francisco. Carter popped harmlessly to foul territory, where Mark Grace caught the final out that sent the Cubs to the postseason for the first time since 1989.

For the Cubs, half the battle had been merely getting to the postseason, and it showed in a three-game sweep to Atlanta that ended their season. The Cubs had hoped that their 1998 season would be a springboard to a string of playoff seasons, but Wood kept getting hurt, and the lineup kept deteriorating around Sosa. Chicago didn't make it back to the postseason until 2003.

San Francisco stayed in contention for the next handful of years. They made it to the postseason in 2000, 2002, and 2003, each time riding the hitting of Bonds, who kept growing and growing while the balls he hit traveled farther and farther. Some say that Bonds started using steroids after the 1998 season. It's (somewhat) noble to think that he was simply trying to atone for his failures in the two late-game bases-loaded at bats in the tiebreaker game against Chicago. More likely, he knew that Sosa and McGwire were using steroids and saw that nobody seemed to care and figured he would get in on that, too.

Either way, the 1998 season, and the seasons immediately thereafter, look quite different when viewed from historical perspective. The 1998 tiebreaker game, featuring stars Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds, certainly fits into that category.

The Rundown

20. Chicago 5, San Francisco 3 (1998 NL Wild Card tiebreaker)
21. N.Y. Yankees 7, Oakland 5 (2000 ALDS)
22. Los Angeles 4, Houston 0 (1981 NL West Division Series)
23. Montreal 3, Philadelphia 0 (1981 NL East Division Series)
24. N.Y. Yankees 7, Milwaukee 3 (1981 AL East Division Series)
25. Seattle 9, California 1 (1995 AL West tiebreaker)
26. Chicago 5, Atlanta 1 (2003 NLDS)
27. Houston 12, Atlanta 3 (2004 NLDS)
28. N.Y. Mets 5, Cincinnati 0 (1999 NL Wild Card tiebreaker)
29. Cleveland 8, Boston 3 (1948 AL tiebreaker)
30. Houston 7, Los Angeles 1 (1980 NL West tiebreaker)

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