Mike Nadel: Cubs soak up triumph -- and want more
The Florida flop? Barely a footnote. Ditto, the Cubs' relatively modest victory total. Getting into the playoffs -- anyway, anyhow, sneaking in, taking advantage of a defective division, whatever -- is all that matters.
Those already dismissing the team's postseason chances must be the same folks who gave the 83-win Cardinals no prayer a year ago, the same people who doubted the 2005 White Sox could recover after almost blowing a 15-game lead.
There isn't one great team in the National League, perhaps not even a very good one. No NL ballclub is assured of winning one playoff game, let alone of reaching the World Series.
It's a grab bag ... and now that the Cubs earned the right to be the league's first champagne sprayers -- who'd have guessed that on June 2, when they were 22-31 and 7 1/2 games back? -- they are as grabbable as anyone.
That's right, I said "earned."
With their 84th victory, a 6-0 beatdown of the Cincinnati Reds (combined with Milwaukee's 6-3 loss to the San Diego Padres), the Cubs very much earned the NL Central title in Lou Piniella's first season as manager.
They earned it by going 62-45 since their rough start. They earned it by making numerous outstanding personnel moves following their last-place 2006 season. They earned it by laughing in the face of negativity and waving off those who loved saying, "Same old Cubs." Mostly, they earned it by pitching, hitting and fielding better than the division's other five teams.
"I'm so glad to be cold right now!" screamed reliever Scott Eyre as he blinked away the sting of champagne. "Early on, there were times we didn't think we would win every day we went to the park. We were pretty bad. But the last few months, there wasn't one day we didn't expect to win. Every time we faced adversity, somebody did something big. Damnright, we earned this."
The goal is to win your division and then see what happens. In 2006, what happened was a championship for the Cardinals. In 1987, what happened was a title for a Minnesota team that won 85 regular-season games.
Call those results "fluky" or "undeserved" if it makes you feel better, but it doesn't change the fact that those teams got to celebrate in the end.
Are these Cubs good enough to celebrate the last out of the 2007 World Series? At this point I'd have to say no, but I certainly wasn't touting St. Louis' chances going into the postseason last year.
Just as the Miami Massacre earlier in the week displayed the Cubs' vulnerability, Friday's victory showed how dangerous Lou's lads can be.
For the fourth time in his final five regular-season outings, Carlos Zambrano allowed one run or fewer. If he harnesses his emotions and hits his spots, he'll be as good as any pitcher in October. Big ifs? Sure, but that's life with Big Z.
Alfonso Soriano hit his 13th home run of September, and a hot Soriano is bad news for any opponent. There were big hits by Derrek Lee, Mark DeRosa, Aramis Ramirez and Jacque Jones – regular contributors in a pretty good lineup.
Bob Howry and Ryan Dempster, part of a bullpen most teams envy, closed the deal.
"We're as good as anybody," DeRosa said. "I don't see anybody with more talent than we have. It's been a strange season but a fun one so far. And I really believe the best is yet to come."
Fittingly, Friday was a strange evening at Great American Ball Park. Well over half of the 32,193 people in attendance wore Cubbie blue. They cheered every Cubs hit, every Zambrano strikeout and every run the Padres scored. About once an inning, thousands of fans would start chanting, "Let's Go, Cubbies!"
Because the Milwaukee game was only in the sixth inning (with San Diego ahead 4-3) when the Cubs finished off the Reds, the fans were left in the dark -- literally.
Hundreds hung around for awhile, standing behind the Cubs' dugout. They waved their white-and-blue "W" flags. They chanted: "Let's Go, Padres!" Finally, the ballpark lights dimmed and the fans were told to leave. As they filed out, they started singing Steve Goodman's ode to his beloved ballclub, "Go, Cubs, Go!"
Yes, be they on the North Side of Chicago, in Cincinnati and everywhere else Cubbieland stretches, fans are ready to party.
And why the heck not?
In some cities -- New York and Boston leap to mind -- qualifying for the playoffs isn't enough for the fans. In Chicago, where the two teams aren't exactly postseason regulars, this will be only the Cubs' fifth appearance in six gut-wrenching decades.
"It never gets old," said starter Jason Marquis, a postseason veteran from his years with Atlanta and St. Louis. "For guys who have been there, they know this is not the end. Guys who haven't been in this position might be a little more excited, but they have to realize this is not the celebration we're looking for. We're working for the celebration at the end of October."
I wouldn't bet on it. But you know what? I wouldn't bet against it, either.
Mike Nadel (email@example.com) is the Chicago sports columnist for GateHouse News Service. Read his blog, The Baldest Truth, at www.thebaldesttruth.com.