- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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ATLANTA -- The champagne spraying around Turner Field's visiting clubhouse Sunday night was a perfect metaphor for delayed gratification. After 95 years without a postseason series victory, the Cubs would have preferred to break the streak at home rather than in the shadow of a Napa Auto Parts sign, in the House that Leo Mazzone Built. But when your fans and city so clearly ache for good news in October, does it really matter which carpet gets drenched?
After Cubs closer Joe Borowski struck out Andruw Jones to seal a 5-1 victory over Atlanta and a spot in the National League Championship Series against Florida, the Cubs cut loose before their charter flight home. Even former Chicago second baseman Ryne Sandberg got in the spirit, hugging everyone in sight and chewing on a cigar the size of a relay baton.
Cubs pitcher Mark Prior was asked to compare beating the Braves with playing in the College World Series for the University of Southern California in 2001. "When we won at SC, we weren't allowed to have champagne,'' Prior said. "Hey, I'm barely old enough to drink now.''
Near the entrance to the clubhouse, first baseman Eric Karros held a camcorder aloft and took in the scene. Karros, sensing something special was unfolding before him in September, began recording the season in two-minute snippets. First came a Central Division title, and now Karros has one heck of a home-made documentary in the works.
Karros, a former Dodger, loves playing for the Cubs. He rented an apartment near Wrigley Field this season and walked to work each day. He'd mingle with the neighborhood ball fans, hear their pleas and feel their pain. Two months ago Karros told reporters that playing for the Cubs is something every big-leaguer should experience at least once in his professional lifetime. He still feels that way.
"I don't know where they're partying in Chicago tonight, but I can guarantee they're partying,'' Karros said. "Hopefully we'll give them some more things to celebrate.''
Given the franchise history, this is a pretty good start. The Cubs have Prior, Kerry Wood, and all the magic and karma the Tribune Co. hoped manager Dusty Baker would bring with him when he signed a four-year, $15 million contract last offseason. That's a tough combination to beat.
Scouts and stat mavens knew the Cubs, with their dominant starting pitching, were a team worth fearing in the postseason, and that perception proved correct against Atlanta. The Braves, who hit .284 as a team this season and led the National League with 235 home runs, hit .215 and managed just three homers in five games against Chicago's pitching staff. Chipper Jones hit two of them in a span of four innings Saturday.
Wood throws a 98-mph fastball and an 86-mph slider, yet he's never won more than 14 games in a season and is now perceived as a sidekick to Prior, Chicago's preternaturally-composed, relentlessly consistent strike-throwing machine.
But Wood's teammates know that when he's on his game, he's a two-hit shutout waiting to happen. "I talked to him and said, 'Listen my man, take us to the promised land,' '' said outfielder Sammy Sosa. "He was awesome. The way he pitched and we played defense, we didn't need to score too many runs.''
When Wood's emotions get the best of him, he has a tendency to overthrow. He was so smooth and calm in the bullpen before his Game 5 start, pitching coach Larry Rothschild sensed that something special was about to happen. "His deliveries in the first four innings were probably the best I've seen since I've been here,'' Rothschild said.
Wood's only sin was forgetting his glove for the trip to Atlanta, so he had to borrow one from his buddy, Prior. "I had to find a glove, so I figured I'd find one with a lot of strikes in it,'' Wood said.
With an arm like Wood's the glove is irrelevant. He allowed only a single to Gary Sheffield in the first inning and a two-out double to Javy Lopez in the fourth before the Braves finally broke through for a run in a messy sixth. By that point it was 4-0, and there wasn't much tension surging through the Turner Field stands.
The clincher against Atlanta showed that the Cubs, are indeed, a 25-man production. Shortstop Alex Gonzalez, formerly of the Blue Jays, homered in the second. Third baseman Aramis Ramirez, who came over from Pittsburgh in July, hit a two-run shot in the sixth. Ramirez is a Cub because the Pirates didn't think he was worth paying $6 million to next year. If he helps Chicago get to a World Series, Pittsburgh's season-ticket holders might have difficulty buying that argument.
The Chicago lineup is a grab-bag of castoffs and glad-to-be-heres. Randall Simon and Kenny Lofton, like Ramirez, escaped Pittsburgh this summer. Karros and Mark Grudzielanek came over from Los Angeles. Catcher Damian Miller was part of Arizona's World championship team in 2001. And Borowski, Chicago's closer, split a memorable 2000 season between Monterrey in the Mexican League and the Newark Bears of the independent Atlantic League.
"It's been a great mesh,'' Karros said. "I think a lot of it has to do with Dusty and his ability to get everybody on the same page. It's been that way since day one of spring training.''
Playing for the Cubs is a lot like playing for the Red Sox. Even if you don't have a passing acquaintance with history, you're forever burdened by it. As Prior pointed out Sunday, his grandmother wasn't even around in 1908, the last time the Cubs won a World Series.
"I want to win for the city of Chicago more than anybody,'' Prior said. "They're the team that drafted me. I love them and I'm loyal to them. But we have to concentrate on our jobs, and that's to keep everything simple and focus on the task at hand. The only thing that concerns us is what's in front of us, and that's playing games.''
The next game takes place Tuesday night, when the Cubs begin playing for a National League pennant against Florida at Wrigley Field. For purists and fans of lovable losers-turned-winners, that has a pretty nice ring to it.
Jerry Crasnick has covered baseball for the Cincinnati Post, the Denver Post and Bloomberg News Service. He has joined ESPN Insider as a regular contributor and can be reached via e-mail.