Cubs 8, Reds 0
CINCINNATI (AP)—The television screens went blank, and the Chicago Cubs went out and won.
Sammy Sosa tied Mickey Mantle for 10th place on the career home run list Wednesday night, and Shawn Estes pitched a four-hit shutout as the Cubs beat the Reds 8-0 and preserved their one-game lead in the NL Central.
“You want to play in October, you’ve got to win,” said Sosa, who started the decisive rally with his 536th career homer. “We don’t have that much room.”
Before the first pitch, Cubs players were engrossed in the bank of television sets in the visitors’ clubhouse. They muttered curses when second-place Houston rallied for a 2-1 victory over San Francisco, meaning Chicago would have to win again to remain one game ahead.
Pressure? Not with thousands of Cubs fans in the stands and the major leagues’ most generous defense on the field.
Chicago fulfilled the first requirement for a playoff contender—beat up on the downtrodden. The Cubs finish with one more game in Cincinnati, and three at Wrigley Field against the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates.
“Especially after seeing Houston win today, we didn’t want to get back into a dead heat with them,” said Estes (8-11), who pitched his eighth career shutout. “Everything’s a playoff atmosphere.
“(Manager) Dusty (Baker) has said all along that our hot streak hasn’t even hit yet. Hopefully we’re in the middle of it right now, and we can continue to play this way through the playoffs.”
The Cubs haven’t been alone in first place this late in the season since 1989, the last time they won a division title. They haven’t been to the playoffs since they went as the NL wild card in 1998.
If they can hold on for four more games, they’re headed back.
Estes returned from a bullpen banishment and shut out Cincinnati for the second straight game. His spot start allowed Baker to push his more formidable starters back for a needed day of rest.
The Cubs have outscored the Reds 14-0 in the two games, allowing only six hits.
“Down the stretch here, you’re going to win with pitching,” Baker said. “The last two days have been awesome. You rarely see back-to-back shutouts.”
They’ve become common in Cincinnati. The Reds have been shut out eight times since Aug. 8, including consecutive shutouts last month against San Diego and Arizona.
“He’s not the only pitcher to come in here in the last four weeks and shut us down,” said Russell Branyan, who had a single. “We’re struggling.”
Sosa led off the third inning with another noteworthy homer in the Reds’ new ballpark. He did his signature hop as his 37th homer headed for the left-field stands.
Baker mentioned beforehand that Sosa seemed to be trying too hard, resulting in a 3-for-22 slump. He broke out against right-hander Josh Hall (0-2), a 22-year-old rookie promoted from Double-A.
The homer landed in a group of Cubs fans—no surprise, as the majority of the approximately 30,000 fans wore blue jackets and rooted for the visitors. The Cubs then had their way against a progression of nondescript pitchers who wore numbers 58, 70, 71 and 50.
The Reds helped them along by committing two errors in the third inning, raising their total to 137, the most in the majors. Paul Bako’s three-run double broke the game open.
Sosa, the 10th batter in the inning, got a frightening flashback as he made the third out. Reliever Matt Belisle, a 23-year-old rookie who also skipped Triple-A, threw a fastball that darted just over Sosa’s helmet.
Sosa tumbled to the ground, losing his helmet, and got up without dusting himself off. He then struck out to end the inning and flipped his bat away angrily.
It was reminiscent of one of his worst moments this season. The Pirates’ Salomon Torres hit him in the head on April 20, taking a gash out of his left earflap.
Sosa has had more memorable moments in Great American Ball Park’s inaugural season than the entire Reds’ roster. He hit his 500th homer in Cincinnati on April 4, and homered on June 18 in his return from a seven-game suspension forusing a corked bat.
The Cubs are a season-high 14 games over .500 (85-72). They’re 17-6 in September. … CF Kenny Lofton had two hits, leaving him 9-for-20 in the last five games. … The Reds have been shut out 10 times in all. … SS Barry Larkin had a lengthy and animated discussion on the field before the game with Bill Reik, one of the limited partners in Reds ownership. Larkin is upset at the way the club offered him a take-it-or-leave-it contract extension for 2004. He turned it down, but is hoping the club changes its stance and agrees tonegotiate.