It’s undeniable that some of the fun—nay, a big part of the fun of watching a good baseball team is counting down toward that special day when they clinch their playoff spot. The Cubs have now done it! So pop the champagne bottles and cover your favorite media member from head to toe in plastic.
For months, it’s been inevitable that the Cubs would be celebrating a National League Central division championship this season. As that moment of jubilation arrives, I thought it would be fun to look back on the different celebrations of the past. When, and how, did the Cubs clinch their seat in the postseason tournament? Here’s a look back to the past, beginning in 1984.
September 24th, 1984
The Cubs entered their matchup with the Pittsburgh Pirates in late September of 1984 with a “magic number” of one, needing a victory in Pittsburgh or a New York Mets loss to wrap up their first appearance in the postseason since the 1945 World Series. They sent their ace, Rick Sutcliffe, to the mound that day, and boy would he deliver.
Sutcliffe would allow just two hits that day, both to Pirates leadoff man Joe Orsulak, and he’d end up throwing a complete game with nine strikeouts and just one earned run. The Cubs would win the game 4-1, as Sutcliffe froze the pesky Orsulak on a borderline strike three.
Just over a week later, the postseason would begin and Sutcliffe would again step into the spotlight. Starting game one of the NLCS against the San Diego Padres, the Cubs’ tall right-hander would throw seven shutout innings and hit a home run off Padres starter Eric Show. The Cubs won that game 13-0, and then game two at Wrigley Field, 4-2. That put them within one win of heading to the World Series, being that the NLCS in those days was a five-game series.
But, unfortunately, I don’t remember what happened after that.
September 26th, 1989
In 1989, the Cubs were in a heated battle with the St. Louis Cardinals for the National League East—they were in the East back then—division crown. It was very close, even into September, with the Cubs leading by one and a half games heading into a three-game set with the Cards on September 8th. The Cubs would take two of three, setting them on a run of winning 11 of their next 16 games.
That put the Cubs in Montreal against the Expos on September 26th, needing a win and a Cardinals loss to seal up the division. The Cubs needed to clinch right then, with the final series of the season being an anxiety ridden, head-to-head matchup against the Cards at Busch Stadium. Fortunately, the Pirates obliged by knocking off St. Louis by a score of 4-1, placing the Cubs’ fate in their own hands that evening.
With the game tied in the top of the eighth, and nobody on base with two outs, Ryne Sandberg hit a single to left field. Dwight Smith was next, and he hit a single to Expos right fielder Hubie Brooks—who made a bad throw on the play, allowing Sandberg to come around and score the go-ahead run.
Greg Maddux game out to start the ninth inning, with the score still 3-2, and allowed a single to the first batter he faced. After a bunt moved the potential tying run to second base, Maddux was replaced with closer Mitch Williams. The wild left-hander induced a popup before striking out the final batter of the game, sending the Cubs to the playoffs for the second time in the decade.
In the playoffs, Mark Grace was absolutely on fire, hitting 11-for-17 with three doubles, a triple, and a home run. But I’m unsure of what else may have occurred.
Game 163, 1998
The summer of 1998 was a magical time for baseball fans. Not only for those that love home runs, who were satiated with the Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire race to 62, but for Cubs fans that were hungry for a playoff appearance. Chicago hadn’t made the postseason in nine years and hadn’t really been in the playoff chase at all since 1993. But while Sosa and McGwire traded blasts on the way to historic home run totals, the Cubs were battling the New York Mets and San Francisco Giants for the wild card in the National League.
Despite the efforts of Cubs outfielder Brant Brown to keep it from happening, prompting one of the all-time great calls from Ron Santo, the Cubs ended up tied with the Giants for the wild card. Back in those days, only four teams in each league made the playoffs, so a one-game wild card was played to decide which team would get the opportunity to play the Atlanta Braves in the NLDS.
The Cubs would start Steve Trachsel against Giants left-hander Mark Gardner, and they’d jump ahead early on a two-run homer by 39-year-old third baseman Gary Gaetti. Chicago would take a five-run lead into the ninth inning at Wrigley Field, but the Giants would put one last scare into the hearts of Cubs fans. They’d score three runs and have the potential tying run at the plate in Joe Carter, a future Hall of Famer who would be taking his final career at-bat, but closer Rod Beck would induce a popup that was caught by Grace to end the ballgame.
The Cubs would celebrate and head on to the NLDS against the Braves, but nobody really knows how that ended.
September 27th, 2003
On September 27th, 2003, the Cubs started the day a half-game up on the Houston Astros with just two more days remaining in the regular season. But the Cubs had a double-header against the Pittsburgh Pirates, and Houston lost to the Milwaukee Brewers 5-2 that day. That meant that a sweep of the two games at Wrigley over Pittsburgh would clinch the division for Chicago.
The Cubs took game one, 4-2, behind 6 2/3 innings from Mark Prior—along with 133 pitches, of course. That set up the drama in the second game, which featured Matt Clement against Ryan Vogelsong. The Cubs knocked Vogelsong out of the game early, dropping six runs on him in the first two innings. They took a 7-2 lead to the ninth inning with reliever Dave Veres on the mound.
With one out and a runner on first base, former Cub Jose Hernandez hit a chopper to sure-handed shortstop Alex Gonzalez, who easily turned the double-play to end the ballgame and clinch the division. Chicago would yet again travel to Atlanta for the NLDS, but this time they’d win their first postseason series in approximately a billion years—you’d probably have to ask a Cardinals fan to find out exactly how long it had been.
They’d move on to play the Florida Marlins in the NLCS, and they’d take a 3-1 series lead after four games. I’m pretty sure, with Carlos Zambrano, Mark Prior, and Kerry Wood starting the final three games of the series, that they got the one victory they needed and headed to the World Series. But my memory seems a bit fuzzy.
September 28th, 2007
The 2007 Cubs, much like the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals, were a mediocre team that won a mediocre division. With just an 85-77 record, the Cubs found their way to the NLDS yet again. The Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers were battling it out—if you want to call two nearly .500 teams a “battle”—for division supremacy all summer, with it finally coming down to the last few days of the season.
There really wasn’t a ton of excitement with this one, because with three games left in the season the Cubs entered play on September 28th two-games up on the Brewers. The Cubs sent Carlos Zambrano to the mound that afternoon in Cincinnati, and he’d toss seven shutout innings while Alfonso Soriano and Derrek Lee would crank homers off Reds starter Bronson Arroyo to give the Cubs a 4-0 victory.
But the division wasn’t clinched yet, as the Brewers still had to play that evening. The Cubs would end up sticking around and watching the game in the clubhouse, as the San Diego Padres helped them out with a 6-3 victory. They sprayed champagne in Cincinnati late into the evening, played out the string for the final two games, and headed down to Arizona to take on the NL West champion Diamondbacks.
I have no clue what happened in this series.
September 20th, 2008
The Cubs pretty much ran away with this one, leading by nine games over the Brewers with nine games to go on the schedule. An early game gave the Cubs the opportunity to clinch with a victory over the Cardinals, and they took a 5-4 lead to the ninth inning. That brought Wood, now their closer, out to the mound to shut it down against their most hated rivals.
He’d allow one baserunner, which meant the potential go-ahead run would come up to the plate in the inning. But fittingly, second baseman Aaron Miles would pop up the final pitch to center field, allowing the last out to be recorded by noted Cubs outfielder Jim Edmonds, ending any chance the Brewers had of catching the Cubs in the standings.
Over their final eight games, they’d go 4-4 to finish with a 97-65 record and head into the NLDS with homefield advantage over the Los Angeles Dodgers. The end.
September 25th/26th, 2015
Last year, the Cubs had a somewhat unsatisfying clincher. They went into play on September 25th with a “magic number” of one, needing a victory over the Pirates or a Giants loss to officially grab a wild card berth. The Pirates would take the game at Wrigley Field, 3-2, leaving the Cubs to stay up late to watch the Giants take on the Oakland A’s on the west coast.
The A’s would help the Cubs out in a big way, beating the Giants 5-4 that evening. The Cubs came out the next day with the intention of beating the Pirates and celebrating afterward, but Pittsburgh would ruin the fun again with a 4-0 victory. That didn’t stop Joe Maddon’s Cubs from having fun anyway, as they popped the champagne bottles and hosed down the locker room.
At any rate, that was the last time the Cubs would lose a regular season game in 2015. They’d win their final eight games, beat the Pirates on the road in the wild card game, and trounce the division-winning Cardinals 3-1 in the best-of-five NLDS. They’d draw the Mets in the NLCS, and blah blah blah something happened.
Whether the Cubs clinch with a victory or a loss, on the road or at home, with a ton of games remaining or right at the end, none of it matters. The only important thing is that the Cubs are officially heading to the playoffs in 2016, and we should appreciate it for what it truly is: a whole lot of fun.
Lead photo courtesy Kamil Krzaczynski—USA Today Sports.