After the sweep of the Pirates that fully restored the Cubs to contention in the underwhelming NL Central. Wrigley Field filled up for the weekend series against the Orioles. The holiday helped, and so did the fact that Baltimore fans travel well in both numbers and enthusiasm, but the environment had much to do with the fact that the Cubs are still relevant. It was reminiscent, to fans of a certain age, of another interleague series in June, 20 years ago.
The 2003 Cubs started hotter than the 2023 edition has, but their division was a bit more competitive, too. When the schedule brought the mighty Yankees to town on the second weekend in June, the team was leading the Central, but far from being the heavy favorites. Excitement abounded, but it was a nervous excitement. There was the specter of Sammy Sosa's corked bat to worry about, but there was also a certain level of worry that the Bronx Bombers would come in and make clear that the would-be contending Cubs weren't really up to that standard.
New York did win the opener on Friday in that series, but that would be the high point of the weekend for them. On Saturday, with Roger Clemens going for his 300th career win, the Cubs spoiled the party. The Yanks led 1-0 at the seventh-inning stretch, but after a Sammy Sosa single and a Moises Alou walk, Joe Torre lifted Clemens in favor of Juan Acevedo. On Acevedo's first pitch, Eric Karros cracked a three-run home run, giving the Cubs a lead they would not relinquish. The following half-inning, with the bases loaded and two outs, Mike Remlinger struck out Jason Giambi for the first of two times in the series, helping Chicago lock down the win for Kerry Wood, who struck out 11.
The next night, on ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball, the Cubs won again, snuffing out a ninth-inning visitor rally when Joe Borowski picked off pinch-runner Charles Gipson, who represented the tying run with two outs. It was the first landmark of a near-magical season. It was surprising confirmation that the Cubs were legitimate, even if they also had obvious flaws.
As it turned out, this weekend's series against Baltimore was a similar statement. The Orioles came in as one of the best and most celebrated teams in baseball, and there was every reason to fear that they would thump the Cubs. Instead, the Cubs showed that they can play even with great teams, just as they did against the Rays last month.
Parallels run even deeper. The return of Cody Bellinger brought clarity to the team's first-base situation, after two-plus months of uncertainty. In 2003, a collision between Wood and Hee-Seop Choi delivered a similar (although sad and scary) resolution. Choi was concussed, and would never be the same hitter he'd been to that point in the season. Karros, therefore, became the everyday first baseman. Furthermore, just as Remlinger and Borowski began to cement their credentials as sufficient backend relievers in that series, the Cubs got affirming performances from Julian Merryweather, Mark Leiter, Jr., and Adbert Alzolay during this one. Although they won the last two 20 years ago and the first two this time, the outcome and the galvanic feeling is the same.
None of that means that the 2023 Cubs are exactly like the 2003 team. There are plenty of salient differences. The similarities have begun to accumulate, though, from the strength of the starting rotation to the fact that the race is shaping up to be more than two teams fighting for just one playoff berth. It also looks like the team's offensive weak link will be the same as that one's: third base. In 2003, GM Jim Hendry addressed that weakness by trading for Aramis Ramirez. This season, if the Cubs are going to make a midseason lineup upgrade, it almost has to come at the same position.
Maybe the Rockies, finally ready to reckon with the long road they face back to relevance, will be willing to trade Ryan McMahon. He'd be the long-term acquisition to truly match the Ramirez trade. Former Cubs prospect Jeimer Candelario is having a good bounceback season with the Nationals, and figures to be available as a short-term fix. Either way, though, and even if the team doesn't elect to be as aggressive in July as that one was, this weekend served notice that this team, like that one, marks an overdue return to serious playoff consideration for a franchise that had been adrift over the previous few campaigns.
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