Cubs Crumble With Chance at World Series

Thursday, October 16th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CHICAGO (AP) _ The Chicago Cubs were all set to go to the World Series, ready to end their 58-year drought and hush the talk about how they'd never make it. It looked like such a sure thing. It really did.

They led the Florida Marlins three games to one and even after losing Game 5 had aces Mark Prior and Kerry Wood ready to rock at Wrigley Field.

But now instead of packing for New York or Boston, the Cubs are going their separate ways for a vacation that won't take away the sting of such a near-miss.

They were five outs away Tuesday night, leading 3-0 in the eighth inning with Prior pitching when a souvenir-seeking fan got in the way of Moises Alou as he tried to catch a fly ball. The Marlins went on to score eight runs in a stunning comeback.

So, Chicago turned to Wood, who pitched the deciding game against Atlanta in the opening round and led the majors in strikeouts this season.

This time, he couldn't deliver.

``I felt I let the team down, the organization down and the city of Chicago down,'' Wood said. ``I choked.''

Wood gave up seven hits and seven runs in 5 2-3 innings Wednesday night as the Marlins went on to a 9-6 win.

``We couldn't close the deal in three games. It's definitely not something you can go home and be happy about, having a lead like that,'' Chicago shortstop Alex Gonzalez said.

``We're all taking it hard right now because we were planning on going to New York or Boston or wherever it was going to be played and go to the World Series,'' pitcher Matt Clement said.

Cubs manager Dusty Baker called Josh Beckett's two-hit shutout in Game 5 the turning point of the series.

But still with Prior and Wood _ who hadn't lost on back-to-back days all season _ ready to go, it appeared the Cubs had a great shot to end their reputation as lovable losers.

They'd taken a step in that direction by winning the NL Central on the final weekend and then ousting the Braves.

But after winning two of three in Miami, they couldn't put away the scrappy Marlins, who won three times at Wrigley Field.

``I said coming home here if they beat my two best, Wood and Prior, then they deserve to go,'' Baker said. ``And that's what they did. They beat two of the best in the business.''

The Cubs have counted on Wood for big games all season. He kept Roger Clemens stuck on career victory No. 299 when the Yankees visited Wrigley in June. And in Game 5 against Atlanta, Wood held the NL's top-hitting team to one run as the Cubs won their first postseason series since the 1908 World Series.

But Wednesday night he didn't have his best stuff and his outing was his shortest since Aug. 21.

``They hit the ball. They put the ball in play and made something happen,'' Wood said.

``We were down 3-0 and came back from that and then gave it up late. They didn't give up when they got down by two runs.''

After he'd given up a three-run homer to Miguel Cabrera in the first, Wood used his bat to get the Cubs back in the game.

His two-run homer had Wrigley Field shaking with excitement. He was the first NLCS pitcher to homer since Chicago's Rick Sutcliffe in 1984 against the Padres.

But after Alou put the Cubs ahead 5-3 with a two-run homer, Wood couldn't hold off the Marlins. Two walks in the fifth started Florida's three-run rally and put the Marlins ahead.

It marked just the second Game 7 appearance ever for the Cubs, and this one ended as same as the other. In 1945, in their last World Series appearance, the Cubs lost the final game to the Detroit Tigers.

``Was it disappointing? Yes, it's disappointing because we wanted to go to the World Series,'' Baker said.

``Any lead wasn't a safe lead. They played better than us,'' said Alou, who starred on Florida's 1997 World Series winner.

Alou said the Cubs' long history of letting victory slip away played no part in the team's failure to win the series.

``We have a bunch of new people: new manager, new coaches, new players. We don't care about that, we care about the present,'' he added.

And Alou added that the fan who has been vilified for reaching for a foul fly when he was about to catch it was not to blame.

``I forgot about that. That play didn't cost us the series,'' Alou said. ``Hopefully when we win next year, everybody will forget about it.''