Lucky No. 7? Cubs 0-6 since '45 in potential NLCS clinchers
By Daniel Kramer and David Adler
The Cubs are on the verge of claiming their first National League pennant in 71 years. With a win tonight against the Dodgers in Game 6 of the NL Championship Series, the Cubs would be four wins away from their first World Series championship since 1908 -- eight years before they moved into historic Wrigley Field. But they've been in this position before, only to come up short.
Six times since their last trip to the World Series in 1945, they were one win away.
All six games manifested through the Cubs taking a two-game advantage in the NLCS -- in 1984 against the Padres and in 2003 against the Marlins. Here is a historical snapshot of each of those games:
1984 NLCS Game 3: Padres 7, Cubs 1
The Cubs rolled into Game 3 with a 2-0 lead in the last best-of-five NLCS (the LCS round moved to a best-of-seven format in 1985). They'd won the first two games of the series at Wrigley Field and needed to win just one of the final three in San Diego to advance to the World Series. Not only that, they boasted both the NL's Most Valuable Player, Ryne Sandberg, and the Cy Young Award winner, Rick Sutcliffe.
Dennis Eckersley, in his first season with Chicago, was on the mound for Game 3. But after shutting down the Padres for the first four innings, he was tagged for five runs in the fifth and sixth. The Padres' Kevin McReynolds capped the scoring with a three-run homer off reliever George Frazier, Tony Gwynn went 3-for-4 and San Diego cruised to a 7-1 win.
"You need some breaks, and I didn't get any," Eckersley told The Chicago Tribune. "I don't think the team is depressed, but I am. I could've done something about it, but didn't."
1984 NLCS Game 4: Padres 7, Cubs 5
This one was tough. Game 4 moved into the bottom of the ninth inning tied, 5-5, and the Cubs had star reliever Lee Smith on the mound. But after striking out the first batter of the inning, Smith allowed a single to Gwynn and then surrendered a walk-off two-run homer to eventual NLCS MVP Steve Garvey to even the series.
The Cubs twice rallied from a two-run deficit during the game. The Padres took a 2-0 lead in the third inning, but the Cubs responded with three runs in the fourth on back-to-back home runs by Jody Davis and Leon Durham. After San Diego retook the lead in the seventh, the Cubs again fought back, scoring twice in the eighth off All-Star Goose Gossage to tie the game.
But Garvey's heroics against Smith rendered it all for naught, and the NLCS moved to a winner-take-all Game 5.
Even in 1984, the Cubs felt the burden of their World Series drought. Ron Cey, who had won the 1981 World Series with the Dodgers, told The Chicago Tribune before Game 4: "In Los Angeles, they expected us to win. In Chicago, they only hoped we could. We had to live out somebody else's past. We had to put up with something that wasn't our fault."
1984 NLCS Game 5: Padres 6, Cubs 3
With a World Series berth on the line, the Cubs handed the ball to Sutcliffe, who led the Major Leagues with 20 wins that season. Sutcliffe had already beaten the Padres once in the series, throwing seven shutout innings in Game 1.
Sutcliffe's dominance continued for much of Game 5. For the first five innings, he held San Diego scoreless as the Cubs jumped out to a 3-0 lead, again on home runs by Durham and Davis. But in the sixth inning, the Padres started to chip away, scoring twice on sacrifice flies. And in the bottom of the seventh, they broke through in a big way, scoring four times to knock Sutcliffe out of the game.
Gwynn and Garvey once again had the big hits. Gwynn knocked a two-run double to give the Padres the lead, and Garvey singled him home to add an insurance run. Gossage shut down the Cubs for the final two innings, and just like that, it was over. The Cubs, who had held a commanding lead days before, were going home. They became the only team to blow a 2-0 series lead in a best-of-five NLCS.
"They're going to the World Series and we're going home," Sutcliffe said to The Chicago Tribune. "This will hurt me for a long, long time. It will stay with all of us for a long time. It's hard to deal with. Very hard."
2003 NLCS Game 5: Marlins 4, Cubs 0
After falling in Game 1, the Cubs reeled off three wins in a row, outscoring the Marlins by 13 runs to take a commanding series lead. But their bats fell quiet in Game 5 to the tune of just two hits in a 4-0 shutout at the hands of eventual World Series MVP Josh Beckett.
"We needed a good outing from a starter. I knew that going in," Beckett said at the time, per The Associated Press. "They had roughed us up pretty good. We needed to pitch better."
Beckett carried a no-hitter into the fifth inning, when Alex Gonzalez laced a two-out single, but the game remained tied until a half-inning later, when Mike Lowell lifted a two-out, two-run homer that pushed the Marlins ahead. Ivan Rodriguez and Jeff Conine each homered in the later innings to send the series back to Chicago.
2003 NLCS Game 6: Marlins 8, Cubs 3
This one evoked arguably the most heartbreak for Cubs fans in the 141-year history of the franchise: "The Bartman Game."
The Cubs were confident with a 3-2 lead as the series shifted back to Chicago. And with a roaring Wrigley crowd behind them, they took a 3-0 lead into the eighth inning of Game 6 behind a masterful outing from NL Cy Young candidate Mark Prior. Then an onslaught ensued.
It began with one out when Luis Castillo lifted a foul ball down the left-field line just beyond the outstretched glove of Moises Alou, who tangled with fan Steve Bartman while trying to haul it in. Alou's visible angst led to backlash at the Friendly Confines -- all while the Marlins began a miraculous comeback.
"I timed it perfectly; I jumped perfectly," Alou said, per The AP. "I'm almost 100 percent that I had a clean shot to catch the ball. All of a sudden, there's a hand on my glove.
"Hopefully, [Bartman] won't have to regret it for the rest of his life," Alou added, perhaps with no inclination of the infamy Bartman faces even to this day.
Though the Cubs had plenty of chances to recover.
Castillo's at-bat ended in a walk, then Rodriguez laced an RBI single to left to cut the Cubs' lead to 3-1. Miguel Cabrera hit a routine ground ball to shortstop that would have been an inning-ending double play, but Alex Gonzalez bobbled it and the bases were loaded. Derrek Lee then tied the game with a two-run double to left, Conine pushed the Marlins ahead on a sacrifice fly and Mike Mordecai cleared the bases with a three-run double as the team batted through the order. Juan Pierre poured salt on the Cubs' wound with an RBI single to cap an eight-run frame.
In one half-inning, a potential pennant-clinching victory was a shocking 8-3 loss.
2003 NLCS Game 7: Marlins 9, Cubs 6
On the heels of their deflating Game 6 defeat, the Cubs fell behind, 3-0, in the first inning the following day in the face of elimination.
But they responded by scoring five unanswered runs -- including a two-run homer from pitcher Kerry Wood. Then, in a brilliant act of desperation, the Marlins turned to Beckett out of the bullpen, who twirled four masterful innings, giving up just one hit, a Troy O'Leary homer in the seventh, while the Marlins scored six more runs to reclaim the lead and win the series.
A disappointed Wood put the weight of the loss on himself.
"I felt I let the team down, the organization down and the city of Chicago down," Wood said, according to The AP. "I choked."