- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 4, 2001

SAN DIEGO — The Chicago Cubs long have been baseball's lovable losers. So even the staunchest San Diego Padres supporter was laughing Thursday when comedian/Cubs fan Bill Murray introduced the teams at Qualcomm Stadium as "the 1908 and 2001 world champion Chicago Cubs" and "a local team assembled to play the Cubs."
After all, the Cubs usually are finished by the All-Star break and, as Murray noted, haven't won the World Series in 93 years. Chicago also hasn't captured a pennant since 1945 and has had just seven winning seasons in the past 30 years.
Nonetheless, that track record hasn't been overly troubling to the infamous "Bleacher Bums," Murray and the rest of the faithful who pack Wrigley Field's "Friendly Confines" more than 2 million strong every summer.
This season has been different, however. Fans are still streaming into the 85-year-old ballpark, but they've been leaving happier than usual. The Cubs have been atop the National League Central since Memorial Day weekend and if not for an eight-game losing streak in early May would have enjoyed at least a share of the division lead since April 14.
At 62-45 before last night's late game in Los Angeles, Chicago led second-place Houston by four games. And after playing eight of the next 14 games on the road, the Cubs will finish with 24 of the final 39 at Wrigley, where they're a wonderful 32-18 (.640).
But coming a day after losing a late 3-1 lead to a mediocre San Diego team, Thursday's game had to leave one wondering if that old Cubs tradition is back. Chicago led San Diego 3-0 after seven innings thanks to a three-hit, 12-strikeout performance by starter Jason Bere and three RBI two on his 437th career homer and first as a Cub by newly acquired first baseman Fred McGriff. Then manager Don Baylor took Bere out and went to the bullpen.
However, light-hitting Padres shortstop D'Angelo Jiminez greeted left-hander Jeff Fassero with a single. Alex Arias, pinch hitting for pitcher Junior Herndon also singled. Fassero, who had allowed just five runs (four earned) in 38? innings since April 26, struck out veteran Rickey Henderson but walked Mark Kotsay to load the bases. With a 1-2 count on slugging first baseman Ryan Klesko, Fassero sailed his next pitch a little and Klesko clobbered it over the right-field wall for a grand slam. Padres 4-3. Ballgame.
"Everything was in our favor," Baylor said. "Klesko was hitting .227 against left-handers. Kotsay was hitting .205 against left-handers. Jeff has made so many good pitches this year, but Ryan made him pay for a bad one today."
Fassero was kicking himself for not throwing a forkball or a slider.
"It was just a bad pitch," Fassero said after Chicago fell to 11-10 since the All-Star break. "It was inevitable that I was going to give up some runs at some point. We've been pitching well all year. We've just got to get back in the groove we were in from the end of May through July [41-23]. We're mostly veterans in here. We're not panicking."
Indeed, the Chicago clubhouse, while not jovial, wasn't like a morgue either. The Cubs haven't been together long only superstar outfielder Sammy Sosa, starting pitchers Kerry Wood and Kevin Tapani and reliever Felix Heredia remain from Chicago's 1998 wild-card team but eight other Cubs have postseason experience, as do Baylor and four of his six coaches.
The July 27 addition of McGriff should be a boon to an offense that other than Sosa had no player with more than 13 homers or 41 RBI. McGriff's 20th homer of the year also scored Sosa, who had walked. And after Sosa reached second on an error in the eighth, McGriff drove him home with a sharp single up the middle for RBI No. 66.
Still, if the Cubs are going to hold off the charging Astros, they'll have their pitching to thank. Chicago's five starters have taken all but one of their turns and have combined with the bullpen for 8.6 strikeouts per nine innings. That projects to 1,377 for the season, 132 more than the major league record. Five of the relievers, led by stopper Tom Gordon, are averaging better than a strikeout per inning, as is Wood. Bere was close.
"Jon Lieber was the only guy in the rotation who was healthy all last year," Tapani said. "We used 14 starters. It was like, 'Who's available to pitch today?' When the starter gets knocked out in the third inning and the bullpen has to go the rest of the way, that affects the whole team This year, the starters have been pitching into the sixth, and the bullpen has remained fresh. Everybody looks better."
And despite the stunning loss in San Diego, the Cubs are still looking good.
"Chicago's a Cubs town, but we haven't won in so long, it's like it has never been done," Tapani said. "I can't imagine what the city will be like if we do win it all."
He and his teammates would love to find out.

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