- Wayne Drehs
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CHICAGO -- The tombstone officially will read Oct. 2 or Oct. 3, whatever day the final nail gets slammed into the coffin and the 2004 Cubs are mathematically eliminated from the postseason.
When the Braves showed up at Wrigley Field for a Friday matinee, the Cubs found their backs firmly planted against their ivy-covered brick walls, likely needing a sweep and an Astros or Giants loss to keep their season alive.
Yet instead of it being a day of atonement, the Cubs' day was fit for a funeral, an official burial of the team that Sports Illustrated and so many other publications picked to win the World Series.
Because the Cubs wouldn't have it any other way, Friday's loss transpired in the cruelest of ways. For 8½ innings, the Cubs showed little life, falling behind 5-1 after Dewayne Wise and Mike Hampton -- the Braves' No. 8 and 9 hitters -- belted two-run homers. Then the Cubs scored three times in the bottom of the ninth, giving their Prozac-desperate fans a glimmer of hope, only to strand the game-tying run at first base and lose the game 5-4.
Afterward, the Cubs all but admitted they are done. Sure, they sit just 1½ games back with two days left in the regular season, but one had to look no further than Friday's starter, Kerry Wood, to get a sense of the disconsolate mood that permeates the clubhouse.
"I expected to be back in the playoffs, going for a World Series," Wood said after allowing five runs on 10 hits in seven innings. "But we came up short -- it is what it is."
Just like that, the team that nobody wants to face in the playoffs all but clinched its fate and won't even be in the playoffs. Nobody has a clear-cut explanation why.
"On paper, we're much better than the Astros, than the Giants," Todd Walker said. "It's just incredibly unbelievable with the team we have to lose six out of seven. I've never seen anything like it. It's just a freak deal. This whole year has been a freak deal."
Before the game, inside the Cubs clubhouse, the coaches had written a simple message in bright red ink on the dry erase board: "Expect to win." Afterward, the message was still there -- with Saturday's starting time written alongside it.
But miracles at this point will be hard to come by. Chicago played "the biggest game of the season" each of the last four days -- and lost them all. In the span of one week, the Cubs went from 1½ games ahead in the wild card, with their next seven games against sub-.500 opponents, to 1½ behind in the wild card, with two games left against the Braves.
It won't go down as the worst collapse in franchise history, given the heartbreak of '69 (blowing an 8½ game lead in the NL East), '84 (blowing a 2-0 NLCS series lead against the Padres) and of course last season (blowing a 3-1 NLCS lead on the Marlins), but it might be the one that hurts the most.
In no other season did Peter Gammons, Sports Illustrated and so many others jump on the Cubs bandwagon, with SI putting the Cubs on the cover with the headline, "Hell Freezes Over." In no other season did the Cubs snag a mid-season acquisition like two-time AL batting champion Nomar Garciaparra. In no other season did the Cubs have a 300-game winner as their fifth starter. And in no other team did Cub fans believe in more.
So on Friday, when their season-long fate drew closer to being sealed, Cub fans lost it, booing anything and everything their team did wrong.
Bobble a potential double-play ball? Booooo.
Strike out looking? Booooo.
Give up a two-run homer to Hampton on a 3-2 pitch? Boooo.
The Friendly Confines? This was more like throwing a Gibson's steak into the lion's den at the Lincoln Park Zoo. Only in the ninth inning, when the Cubs strung together three straight hits and had the tying run on first, did they start to believe. And then, again, they were crushed.
One fan, sitting behind the dugout, constantly referred to Cubs players as "Jean Van de Velde."
"It's like playing a 72-hole golf tournament and triple-bogeying the last hole to lose," he said. "I hate it."
Corey Patterson. Michael Barrett. Mark Grudzielanek. Wood. They all felt the wrath. It boiled over in the bottom of the eighth inning, when former Cub Antonio Alfonseca entered the game and fans in the right field bleachers littered the outfield with garbage. The umpires warned the Cubs that if such activity continued, the Cubs would forfeit.
Whoever thought they'd see it -- Cubs fans, who haven't made the postseason in back-to-back seasons since 1908, who haven't had back-to-back winning seasons since 1972 -- greedy.
"It's a lot different than last year, that's for sure," said Grudzielanek, whose bobbling of a potential double-play ball in the fifth led to a Braves run and led to one round of catcalls. "They're frustrated. They expected more out of this team. What they don't understand is so did we."
One fan's sign said everything you needed to know about the team's struggles over the last week: "Will Cheer for Runs." In their last six crucial late-season losses, the Cubs have scored a combined 13 runs. And five of those six losses have come by one run.
"This is the third or fourth time I've been in the race and this is by far the most frustrating it's ever been," Grudzielanek said. "It's the weirdest thing. I've never seen a team hit the ball hard more times right at somebody. It's the toughest thing I've been a part of."
Even the Cubs announcing team has jumped on the anti-Cub bandwagon. Friday's pregame onfield buzz centered on the scathing comments of Cubs television analyst Steve Stone, who ripped into the team for everything from failing to advance runners to refusing to accept blame. He called out everyone from manager Dusty Baker ("I think he's had a hit and run at some point in my life, I just don't remember it") to Moises Alou ("Never in 35 years of baseball have I heard someone say there's a conspiracy against him when it comes to balls and strikes.") Stone, who is employed by the Cubs, concluded his WGN Radio segment by comparing the team's "blame everyone else" attitude to Jack Nicholson's famous line in "A Few Good Men."
"The Cubs can't handle the truth," Stone said.
It was all part of the ugly season-ending burial. Two straight 12-inning losses to the Reds and then a failed ninth-inning comeback against the Braves. And just for added drama, the sunny, 75-degree afternoon came to an end with a brutal cold front sweeping through the city, bringing fierce winds, heavy rain and a forecast with overnight lows in the 30s.
In other words, Bear weather.
If only the city's football team still had its starting quarterback. Instead, this city's Cubs fans were left with just one prevailing thought on this disappointing afternoon -- the same finger-pointing mantra they've been repeating for 96 years.
Wait 'til next year.
Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Wayne.Drehs@espn3.com.
The Cubs are close to elimination now, but they really lost the wild card when they couldn't beat the Mets and Reds.