Brewers get last laugh, outlast rival Cubs
Originally Published: March 31, 2008By Amy K. Nelson | ESPN.com
CHICAGO -- The morning began with pockets of heavy rain and a thick fog that enveloped the buildings on Waveland Avenue. For a time, it looked as if Opening Day at Wrigley Field would have to wait.Slowly the rain dissipated and the fog lifted, and two rain delays later, the Cubs' season was under way, the 100th since its last World Series championship. On a day the Cubs unveiled an Ernie Banks statue outside their ballpark, the fans who outlasted the rain were rewarded with a strong pitchers' duel and an electric debut by Japanese outfielder Kosuke Fukudome, the team's biggest offseason acquisition. Unfortunately for Cubs fans, their day ended how it began: gloomy. Tony Gwynn's sacrifice fly in the 10th inning gave the Brewers a 4-3 win, Milwaukee's fifth straight Opening Day victory. It also renewed the NL Central division rivalry and put everyone on notice that the Brewers believe they are a different -- and better -- team this year. "It's definitely huge to beat your archrival in your division," said David Riske, who got the save for the Brewers by pitching a 1-2-3 10th inning, "especially on Opening Day."
In what started as a pitchers' duel and turned into a battle of the bullpens, it was Fukudome's three-run homer off closer Eric Gagne -- tying the game in the bottom of the ninth -- that eventually sparked Milwaukee. Ryan Braun said he got excited as he came off the field that inning with the score tied 3-3. "It's not supposed to be easy!" he screamed to his teammates in the dugout over and over. Braun, last year's National League Rookie of the Year, sensed enthusiasm instead of dejection and capitalized on the emotion. The left fielder, who hit cleanup behind Prince Fielder and finished the game 1-for-5 with an RBI, said he feels a bit more comfortable being vocal this year and decided to seize the moment. Pinch-hitter Craig Counsell led off the 10th inning for the Brewers by doubling off Cubs reliever Bob Howry. Counsell moved to third on a sacrifice bunt by Jason Kendall. After Rickie Weeks was hit by a pitch, Gwynn drove Counsell home with a sacrifice fly. "I was excited," said Braun, who maintained the team wouldn't have won this game last year. "I think everybody has more experience now dealing with a situation like that. Especially a lot of us who are young, we hadn't dealt with the rivalry as much." It capped a special day for Gwynn, who started because center fielder Mike Cameron was suspended 25 games for testing positive for a banned stimulant. So the son of the Hall of Famer approached his first career Opening Day start with nervousness and energy. Batting second in the Brewers' lineup, he singled in the first inning, moved to second on a groundout and stole third before being stranded. And later in the fourth inning, he robbed Mark DeRosa of extra bases. Gwynn finished the game 2-for-3. "I'm a do-it-all type of dude," Gwynn said when asked to describe his play. "I feel like I can do a lot of the things they need me to do. I'm not going to hit a lot of home runs, but I'm going to give you a good at-bat and put the ball in play." For a time, it looked as if Fukudome, not Gwynn, would be the story of the day. The 30-year-old right fielder, who signed a four-year, $48 million deal in the offseason, finished 3-for-3 with a walk in his first major league game. But it was his three-run shot that sent the Wrigley Field crowd into delirium and prompted a Japanese broadcaster to repeatedly yell "home run!" at the top of his lungs in the press box. "It was a pretty good day for me," Fukudome said. "But we lost the game." Fukudome got a standing ovation when he first went up to bat (he doubled on the first pitch he saw in the second inning) and later got a curtain call after his homer. His standout day overshadowed the excellence of the starters,Carlos Zambrano and Ben Sheets. Zambrano, in his fourth Opening Day start for the Cubs, and Sheets, making his sixth for the Brewers, nearly mimicked each other on the mound. Each had to weather a 49-minute rain delay in the third inning but still pitched scoreless ball into the seventh, and they allowed five hits combined. Zambrano, who had been 0-1 with an 8.16 ERA on Opening Day with the Cubs, left the game to a standing ovation after a forearm strain forced him out after 6 2/3 innings. That left it to the bullpens -- and before Monday's game, Brewers manager Ned Yost said this is his best bullpen ever. The Cubs' pen isn't so shabby, either, and sensation Carlos Marmol set it off by striking out three and throwing nine pitches to get four outs. Then it all went haywire. Kerry Wood, the Cubs' new closer, allowed three runs in the ninth. Gagne, the Brewers' new closer, promptly returned the favor in the bottom half. That's when Braun took over as a leader, and the Brewers took control. They led the NL Central for 133 days last year, yet ended the season out of the playoffs. The disappointment and frustration, players said, motivated them for this year. With all the hype around the Cubs and predictions for a possible World Series run, Milwaukee players are quietly forming their own thoughts about how this NL Central race will go. "I can guarantee you," one Brewers player said before the game, "that the Cubs don't enjoy playing us." Certainly not on Monday, when the rain let up enough to play a game, but eventually left a pall on the North side. Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.
AP Photo/M. Spencer GreenTony Gwynn had two hits and drove in the game-winning run for the Brewers with a sacrifice fly in the 10th inning in their 4-3 win over the Cubs.