This article was written by Norm King
It was Deja Brew all over again.
Just a scant two weeks into the 1999 season, the Chicago Cubs were forced to relive one of the worst defeats of the 1998 campaign when, on September 23, they built up a 7-0 lead, only to see the Milwaukee Brewers come back for an 8-7 win.
Depending on whom you ask, this blown opportunity either wasn’t as bad or even worse. On the one hand, the Brewers gave up only a four-run lead and lost, 5-4. On the other hand, they had a 4-0 lead going into the bottom of the ninth and gave up the winning run with two out. Throw in the same final batter, the same starters starting, and the same closer losing and you can almost imagine the paranoia pervading the Cubs’ locker room after the game was over.
Steve Trachsel started for the Cubs, and even if you hate the North Siders, you have to admit the guy deserved a better fate. After going 15-8 in 1998, Trachsel was off to a rough beginning in 1999, having lost his first two starts. His previous outing was close until the first inning, when the Pittsburgh Pirates jumped on him for four runs in the bottom of the first on their way to a 9-6 win. Trachsel allowed six earned runs in five innings in that one, and went into his third appearance with an 8.18 ERA.
Milwaukee starter Rafael Roque wasn’t doing much better. On the same day the Pirates used Trachsel for batting practice, the Astros lit Roque up for five earned runs in five innings. His ERA was a less than impressive 7.71.
The Cubs didn’t waste any time getting out in front in the top of the first. Jose Hernandez hit a one-out double to left and moved to third on a single by Mark Grace. After Sammy Sosa struck out, Glenallen Hill drove in Hernandez with a line-drive single to right and Benito Santiago was on the mark with another single, this time to center, that drove home Grace.
The top of the order struck again for the Cubs in the third. Hernandez walked and, after Grace and Sosa flied out to center, Hill and Santiago again hit back-to-back singles. The old saying about leadoff walks coming back to haunt you proved true, as Hernandez came around to score, making it 3-0 Cubs.
Trachsel, meanwhile, was having his best start of the season. After three innings he had allowed only one baserunner (Geoff Jenkins on a walk), and he didn’t give up a hit until the fourth. His astronomical ERA lowered with each passing inning.
David Weathers took the hill for Milwaukee in the sixth and held the Cubs scoreless for two innings, but gave up an insurance run in the top of the eighth. Grace doubled down the right-field line, moved to third on a wild pitch, and scored on a Sosa fly ball. Now it was 4-0 and with Trachsel pitching as he was, victory for the Cubs seemed assured.
Ah, but Chicago blues hornmen can relate to the Cubs because you have to blow a lot to make music. The Cubs have indeed blown a lot over the years, but for their fans they have hit only sour notes. In Game Four of the 1929 World Series they had an 8-0 lead in the seventh inning over the Philadelphia Athletics when the A’s exploded for 10 runs. On August 16, 1969, they led the New York Mets by nine games only to collapse and wind up eight games back. And if Ebenezer Scrooge were a baseball fan, the ghost of Cubs catastrophes yet to come would have shown him the Steve Bartman game in 2003.1 That’s when the Cubs gave up eight runs in the eighth inning during Game Six of the National League Championship Series, ruining the best chance they had of getting to the World Series since their last appearance there in 1945.
This being an early-season matchup, the impact of losing a game that was theirs to win wasn’t as great as any of those late-season meltdowns. It’s also a credit to the Brewers that they never gave up. Here’s how it happened:
Trachsel came out for the ninth having allowed only two runners reach second and one to make it to third in the first eight innings. Fernando Vina bunted his way on to first, but was out at second when Marquis Grissom hit into a fielder’s choice. Jeff Cirillo then singled to put runners on first and second. At that point Cubs manager Jim Riggleman made the controversial decision to take Trachsel out of the game, replacing him with Terry Mulholland. That didn’t work because Mulholland faced only one batter, Jeromy Burnitz, who singled to load the bases.
Riggleman then called for his closer, Rod Beck. Beck was one of the top closers in the National League, a three-time All-Star who had 51 saves for Chicago in 1998. Alas, this wasn’t his day. Sean Berry worked him to a 2-and-0 count, and then slapped a double to left that scored Grissom and Cirillo and left Burnitz on third. The next batter, Dave Nilsson, tied the score, 4-4, when he drove home Burnitz and Berry with another base hit. Beck gave his mates a smidgen of hope when he induced Mark Loretta to fly to center for the second out. Then Jenkins strode to the plate.
As it was the previous September, it was Jenkins facing Beck with the game on the line. In the 1998 game an error by left fielder Brant Brown on Jenkins’ fly ball allowed the winning run to score; this time Jenkins earned the victory for his team when he doubled to bring home pinch-runner Lou Collier with the winning tally.
“Milwaukee’s sudden 5-4 victory Saturday did not hold the heartbreak of a late-September crisis for the Cubs,” wrote Chicago Tribune reporter Malcolm Moran. “But it was enough to create an unusually subdued clubhouse for an April afternoon.”2
Perhaps the loss could be placed on the bad karma Beck had at County Stadium. The next day he went into the ninth to hold a 5-3 lead only to surrender that one, as well, as the Brewers scored two runs to tie it. His teammates, or, more specifically, Hernandez, bailed him out with a 10th-inning home run. It was clear that Beck was not enamored with County Stadium, which was due for demolition after the 2000 season.
“When they push the plunger, I’ll supply the dynamite,” he said.3
This article appears in “From the Braves to the Brewers: Great Games and Exciting History at Milwaukee’s County Stadium” (SABR, 2016), edited by Gregory H. Wolf. To read more stories from this book at the SABR Games Project, click here.
1 With one out in the eighth inning and the Cubs ahead 3-0, Bartman reached out and deflected a foul ball that left fielder Moises Alou was about to catch. The Cubs fell apart, and lost that game and Game Seven.
2 Malcolm Moran, “Deja Brew: Clubs Blow 4-Run Lead in Bottom Of The 9th,” Pharos-Tribune (Logansport, Indiana), April 18, 1999.
3 Tom Haudricourt, “This Time, the Cubs Save Beck,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, April 19, 1999.