ATLANTA — Ninety-five years of frustration. Ninety-five years of ridicule. Put it all to rest. The Chicago Cubs are postseason winners.
Kerry Wood pitched another dominating game and Aramis Ramirez began the celebration with a mammoth home run, pushing the Cubs past Atlanta 5-1 last night for their first postseason victory since the 1908 World Series.
The franchise that endured the College of Coaches and the curse of a goat moves on to play Florida in the National League Championship Series. Game 1 is tomorrow night at Wrigley Field.
The Braves suffered another heartbreaking loss in the postseason, going down for the second year in a row in Game 5 of the division series.
Twelve straight division titles have produced only one World Series championship, and the Braves face an uncertain future. Gary Sheffield, Greg Maddux, Javy Lopez and Vinny Castilla are all in the last year of their contracts.
A couple of ex-Pirates helped the Cubs break through in the postseason. Kenny Lofton led off the game with a double and came around to score the first run. Ramirez put the Cubs up 4-0 with a two-run homer in the sixth — a massive, 439-foot shot over the center-field wall.
Braves pitcher Mike Hampton didn’t even turn around after Ramirez connected. With Wood on the mound, the Cubs could have popped the champagne right then and there.
Wood won for the second time in the best-of-5 series with a performance that matched his effort in Game 1.
A disputed call by the umpires — is that becoming a theme of this postseason? — led to the only Atlanta run.
The big Texan went eight innings, giving up just five hits before giving way to Joe Borowski, an ex-Brave who finished off Atlanta in the ninth.
Chipper Jones led off the Atlanta with a long drive to right field and — in a further sign that the Cubs’ fortunes have changed — Sammy Sosa jumped and caught it at the wall.
The Braves were a dominant hitting team during the regular season, leading the NL in all major categories. But the lineup that produced six 20-homer players and four guys with 100 RBI couldn’t do anything against Chicago’s young guns.
Twenty-three-year-old Mark Prior pitched a two-hitter in Game 3, a 3-1 victory for the Cubs. Wood, 26, gave up seven hits and three runs in 15⅓ innings.
The grand total for Atlanta’s offense in those three games: four runs, 10 hits and 28 strikeouts.
Once again, thousands of Cubs fans were on hand to cheer their beloved team, ignoring years of heartache to provide some Chicago hope. The crowd of 54,357 was a Braves franchise record, eclipsing the turnout of 53,775 that watched Hank Aaron break Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1974.
For the Cubs, this all started on the first day of spring training.
First-year manager Dusty Baker told the team in spring training to forget about the past — he was only worried about the future. The Cubs took his words to heart, winning a three-way battle with Houston and St. Louis in the NL Central, their first division title since 1989.
Just as they did in Game 2, the Cubs jumped on Hampton right away. Lofton lined his double off the right-field wall, Sosa walked and Moises Alou golfed a single to left, scoring Lofton.
Leading off the second, Alex Gonzalez drove a high fastball over the wall in center for a 415-foot homer, pushing the Cubs ahead 2-0.
Gonzalez didn’t even start Game 2 because of his career record against Hampton: seven at-bats, one hit.
The quick start mirrored Wednesday’s game, when the Cubs were on the verge of chasing Hampton in the very first inning. They scored two runs and loaded the bases with no out, stirring the Braves’ bullpen.
Hampton fought back to strike out the side, didn’t allow any more runs in his six-inning stint and the Braves rallied for a 5-3 victory that even the series at one game apiece.
This time, there would be no miracle rally, no Sid Bream sliding across home with the winning run. In fact, there haven’t been too many magical postseason moments since the Braves moved to Turner Field in 1997. For the sixth time in seven years, Atlanta’s season ended in front of the home folks.
The Braves’ lone run was a gift. With two on and no outs, Gary Sheffield sent a liner to center and Rafael Furcal ran as soon as the ball was hit. Lofton slid for the ball and came up with it in his glove — and TV replays clearly showed he made the catch.
Furcal had already touched home at that point, but Marcus Giles turned back to first — apparently thinking the catch was made. After conferring the umpires ruled Giles was out on a force at second, while allowing Furcal to score and Sheffield to stay at first.
It didn’t matter. Jones grounded into a double play to end the inning.
This was the Cubs’ night, which was readily apparent the next inning. With a runner at second, Castilla sent a liner to shortstop that ricocheted off Gonzalez — and right to second baseman Mark Grudzielanek, who easily threw out Castilla at first.
Hampton, who pitched on three days’ rest for the first time this season, lasted 6⅔ innings. He surrendered seven hits and all four runs, while striking out seven.
The Cubs added an unearned run off Will Cunnane in the ninth.