CHICAGO – The sky fell in the fifth inning. It fell hard and fast, like it always does on the North Side of Chicago, where panic gets passed down through the generations like a bad genetic trait.
All season long, the Chicago Cubs had been in control. It was an unusual feeling, the comfort this team had forged, and it subverted a lesson so many previous generations of Cubs had taught: comfort does not exist, at least not here.
So, yeah, of course the breath was sucked out of Wrigley Field en masse Wednesday night when James Loney's bat connected with Ryan Dempster's hanging splitter, and the ball kept going and going, and it landed over the center-field wall, and four men touched home plate. This was supposed to be the first game of the rest of everyone's lives. The Los Angeles Dodgers were ruining it.
By the end of the night, the Dodgers, led by Loney's grand slam and two other home runs, had spoiled everything with their 7-2 victory to take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-five National League Division Series. Any sense of Cubs supremacy went in a clockwise motion down the commode, mimicking their spiral in a game they once led 2-0. Gone, too, was the home-field advantage they spent all season working for.
Worst of all, they looked eerily similar to the Cubs team swept out of the first round last season, and to the 98 other teams prior to them that had ended the season without a championship.
"It's just a loss," first baseman Derrek Lee said. "We aren't even thinking about last year. They did the job tonight and we didn't. So we need to find a way to get it done tomorrow. It's a short series. You don't want to go down 0-2."
Since the wild card began in 1995, only three teams have recovered from 0-2 division-series deficits: the 1999 Red Sox, 2001 Yankees and 2003 Red Sox. Even more harrowing: 23 of 26 NL teams that have won the first game in a division series have advanced, the '99 Braves the lone exception for teams that lost Game 1 at home.
As if the Cubs didn't have enough history working against them.
"We're not worried about 100 years," Cubs utilityman Mark DeRosa said, and he brought up the (black) magic number unprompted. The Cubs may not worry, but they do recognize that the drought stands over them like a pergola, keeping sunlight out of a season that was so bright.
Granted, this wasn't a performance that deserved any illumination. After DeRosa's wind-aided home run staked them to the 2-0 lead, the Cubs' evening uglied in a hurry. Dempster, who had mingled in and out of the strike zone all night, lost his command in the fifth inning. He walked the bases loaded with two outs, which prompted pitching coach Larry Rothschild to visit him on the mound and urge him to get through the inning.
Dempster's first two pitches to Loney were swinging strikes on split-fingered fastballs. On the third pitch, another splitter, a sliver of Loney's bat nicked the ball. After a head-high fastball, Dempster returned to the splitter, only this one didn't dive out of the strike zone like the previous three. It bisected the plate, belt-high, the closest thing anyone would get to a batting-practice pitch.
And Loney, who had toiled in the minor leagues despite hitting .380 at Triple-A, who watched Nomar Garciaparra get moved to first base ahead of him – all because the Dodgers worried he would never hit for power – launched the ball that could change the Cubs' season. It could be the latest Cubs catastrophe, a lesser version of the Bartman moment and the black cat.
"As bad as it was, and as erratic as I was tonight, I had a chance to get out of there," Dempster said. "And I didn't do it."
Dempster walked seven over 4 2/3 innings. The last time his control failed him so was Aug. 20, 1999. He was 22. And he looked nothing like the prime starter he had proven himself this season.
Actually, Derek Lowe took that mantel on Wednesday. Over the last six weeks, Lowe has been the best pitcher in baseball, his 1.27 earned-run average better than CC Sabathia's, Johan Santana's, everyone's. His pitches cut and sunk and slid through the chill, and after the DeRosa home run, the Cubs mustered nothing.
The Dodgers, meanwhile, kept swinging, their offense refreshed again by Manny Ramirez. Somehow he drove an at-his-ankles curveball from Sean Marshall over the wall in left field – the sort of thing only Ramirez can do – to give the Dodgers an insurance run and another huge return on their minimal investment.
“I'm just being Manny.”
– Manny Ramirez on his 25th home run in the postseason.
"I'm just being Manny," explained Ramirez, more savant, in this case, than idiot.
It was his 25th career postseason home run and a dagger. The Dodgers tacked on two more runs, the final one on a ninth-inning Russell Martin home run, and fist bumps abounded as the Cubs slinked back to their clubhouse.
The gravity of their situation wasn't lost. Earlier in the day, the streets were filled with excitement, and homes more than a mile away heard the cheers emanating from Wrigley, and this was it, dammit, because this has to be it.
"We need to win," Marshall said. "We need to bring a championship to this city. We have a team in this locker room that can do it."
The locker room had almost emptied, players hurrying out of their uniforms, into their street clothes and off to lament the evening. One player lingered. Carlos Zambrano, the Cubs' Game 2 starter, brilliant one moment, combustible the next, was pacing. He stopped back at his locker long enough to speculate how he would fare in the biggest game of the season.
"I'll tell you tomorrow," Zambrano said.
He didn't exude confidence. Though neither did anyone surrounding him. The sky had fallen. Again. And no one knew quite what to say.