- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 28, 2003

CHICAGO — The taste of victory was so sweet Sammy Sosa wanted to share it with his loyal followers in the right-field bleachers.

So, he sprayed them with celebratory champagne.

Many of his Chicago Cubs teammates jogged around the perimeter of the outfield, followed by manager Dusty Baker, saluting the fans and soaking up the delirious atmosphere at Wrigley Field.

“It’s beautiful,” Sosa said after his 40th homer helped the Cubs sweep a doubleheader from the Pittsburgh Pirates 4-2 and 7-2 yesterday and win the NL Central.

The Cubs — 67-95 a year ago — advanced to meet Atlanta in the first round.

“The city of Chicago has been yearning for this and it’s awesome,” center fielder Kenny Lofton said. “We’re in the playoffs and that’s a start. The fans haven’t seen it in a while.”

Baker’s mission when he arrived as manager in November was to change the Cubs, convert them from years of losing.

“I just said ‘Why not us?’” Baker said. “This is only the first step in a four-step process. We’ve got three steps to climb and this club is willing and ready.”

Sosa homered in the first and Matt Clement pitched 7⅔ strong innings as the Cubs earned their first division championship since Don Zimmer led them to the NL East crown in 1989.

They are 19-7 in September.

The victory touched off a raucous celebration at Wrigley Field where 40,121 fans, many wearing coats on a chilly 60-degree day, began to chant “Let’s Go Cubs” in the seventh inning.

Fans stayed in their seats for more than an hour after the game ended as players in championship T-shirts and caps mingled on the field.

“They have been supporting us the whole year,” Sosa said. “This is the year. We are going to surprise a lot of people.”

Pirates manager Lloyd McClendon saluted the Cubs.

“They had a remarkable second-half run. I wanted my young guys to see this tonight, this celebration, to see what they’re playing for,” he said.

The Cubs are in the postseason for the first time since 1998 when they beat Baker and the San Francisco Giants in a one-game playoff for the NL wild card.

Thanks to a Friday rainout, the Wrigley fans got to see two memorable victories on the same afternoon. The Cubs got their chance to clinch because of second-place Houston’s 5-2 loss to Milwaukee earlier in the day.

In the opener, Mark Prior pitched 6⅔ impressive innings and Damian Miller homered to spark a 4-2 victory in the opener.

Sosa became the first NL player to reach 40 homers six straight times with a 450-foot blast in the first off Ryan Vogelsong.

Chicago added five more in the second, highlighted by Mark Grudzielanek’s two-run, bases-loaded single. Moises Alou homered later.

Clement (14-12) did the rest, allowing seven hits. He lost his shutout and chance for a complete game when Abraham Nunez hit an RBI triple and scored on a passed ball in the eighth.

The Cubs’ long history of futility has been well-documented — no World Series appearances since 1945 and no World Series championships since 1908.

“You have to think about leaving whatever has happened bad in the past,” Baker said on the day he was introduced as manager.

“You can’t bring it forward with you. It’s a new time, a new day, a new era, starting over from zero.”

Behind a young pitching staff headed by Prior and Kerry Wood, the Cubs went to the top of their division.

In the first game, Prior (18-6) allowed seven hits and two runs, striking out 10 and improving his record to 10-1 since coming off the disabled list Aug.4.

Prior wasn’t watching the scoreboard, but the crowd certainly was all during the first game as the Brewers helped the Cubs by beating Houston for a second straight game.

They let out a collective cheer when the Brewers’ early edge was posted on the old scoreboard in center field. The roar got even louder when Milwaukee increased the lead, and then it became deafening when the final score was shown while the Pirates batted in the eighth.

The Cubs overcame their share of distractions and injuries along the way. Sosa was suspended for seven games for using a corked bat and also went to the disabled list after surgery to remove a bad toenail. He also survived an early-season beaning and regrouped to reach 100 RBI for a ninth straight year.

The Cubs also lost center fielder Corey Patterson, who was having breakout season, to a knee injury in July.

But general manager Jim Hendry went to work and the Pirates played a huge role, making two trades with Chicago that produced one-third of the Cubs’ starting lineup down the stretch — center fielder Kenny Lofton, third baseman Aramis Ramirez and first baseman Randall Simon.

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