BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer
HOUSTON -- If God is a Cub fan, he sure has taken his sweet time in showing it. Ninety years have passed since their last World Series title, a championship so remote it predates Wrigley Field.
A lot of things have happened to Chicago's National League baseball team since then, and the bulk of it involves suffering. For most of this century, the Cubs have played astonishly bad baseball in a counterproductive bandbox ballpark, bedeviled by cruel winds, claustrophobic pitchers and, most recently, Brant Brown.
So when providence delivered a vital victory Saturday afternoon, leaving the Cubs' fate in their own fingers on the final day of the regular season, it was wildly premature to call it a pattern. God may still have something sadistic up his sleeve.
"This game is just like life," Cubs pitcher Terry Mulholland said after Saturday's 3-2 triumph over the Houston Astros. "Just when you think you've got it nailed, it comes up from behind and bites you in the butt."
History has conditioned the Cubs to expect the worst, and for a few chaotic moments Saturday afternoon at the Astrodome, it appeared they had again selected the worst-case scenario.
One out away from a win that would take them to the season's last day tied with the San Francisco Giants for baseball's last playoff spot, the Cubs nearly reverted to calamity.
With two outs in the ninth inning, and Houston's Moises Alou at third base representing the tying run, Cubs reliever Rod Beck induced Astros pinch hitter Dave Clark to tap a meek grounder to the right side. Beck pounced on the ball, swiped his glove at Clark along the first base line, and then plunked him in the back in trying to throw the ball to first baseman Mark Grace.
It had all the makings of a classic Cub collapse until plate umpire Eric Gregg held up his right arm to rule Clark out for running beyond the baseline.
"I touched him on the side and I didn't hear a call," Beck said later. "It didn't look like I was going to get a call on either one of them. I was going to get real upset, but I didn't have to. . . "I still don't know what the call was. All I know is we're in the locker room, I'm undressed, I'm going to get a drink, and we won."
The Cubs rarely make these things look easy, and they have never gone into the season's last day facing so many possible complications.
Both the Cubs and Giants are in position to win the National League's wild-card playoff berth outright, provided one wins and the other loses, but a three-way tie involving the New York Mets remains conceivable. Baseball's most memorable season in decades might require two extra days to sort out the standings.
If the Cubs and Giants should tie, a one-game playoff would be held Monday at Wrigley Field. Should all three teams finish with the same record, the Giants and Mets would meet Monday in New York, with the Cubs awaiting the winner.
The Cubs took the field Saturday knowing the Mets were being blanked by Atlanta's Tom Glavine, and that the Giants were successfully bashing the ball about Coors Field. A loss to the Astros would have left Chicago dependent on the determination of the Rockies to spoil the Giants' season. This was not a very promising predicament.
Worse, Houston pitcher Shane Reynolds stifled Chicago for six innings, striking out 11 with a fierce forkball. Staked to a 1-0 lead in the first inning -- on a hit-and-run single by Jeff Bagwell -- Reynolds was still working on a shutout in the seventh inning. While Mark McGwire was mashing two more home runs in St. Louis, the Cubs' Sammy Sosa was settling for singles.
Gary Gaetti, with more savvy than speed at this stage of his career, led off the Chicago seventh wit h a double down the left-field line and later scored on a shallow sacrifice fly . In the eighth, Gaetti delivered another double -- this one with two outs and two aboard -- to give the Cubs a 3-1 advantage.
Jeff Bagwell sliced the lead to a single run with a leadoff homer in the ninth, and Alou followed with a double. Alou moved to third base on a groundout, but when the dust cleared in the dome, Beck had stranded him there.
"We've got an opportunity to do something special," Grace said later. "Not only for ourselves, but for the city of Chicago. Cub fans don't get something like this very often."
To be specific, almost never.
"If we win, we're going to have all kinds of fun," said Mulholland, the reliever anointed as the Cubs starting pitcher for this afternoon. "If we lose, it's going to be a heart-breaker. All you can ask for this time of year is to play in a game that means that much."
Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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