By the time the Cubs and Atlanta ended their 15-inning marathon early Saturday morning at Turner Field, one thing was glaringly apparent.
The 2004 season looks like it's going to be just as wacky as 2003.
They may have taken a circuitous route to the victory, but after the four-hour, 32-minute game concluded, no one was in the mood to complain.
Time to exhale.
"Phew, boy," manager Dusty Baker said. "It's a little early in the year for 15-innings." Carlos Zambrano pitched seven brilliant two-hit innings, Todd Hollandsworth's pinch-hit, game-tying home run off John Smoltz with two outs in the ninth sent it to extra innings, and Baker used his entire, seven-man bullpen to keep the Braves off the board during the final eight innings.
"I think we needed to win that game," Hollandsworth said. "We came off a couple bad games in Cincinnati and we got an outstanding pitching performance from 'Z.' He kept them at bay all night. You can't say anything more than that."
Former Braves reliever Kent Mercker earned the decision over ex-Cubs Will Cunnane, while ex-Brave Joe Borowski notched his second save in typically scary fashion, inducing Andruw Jones to ground out with two on in the 15th.
The Cubs pitching staff has lived up to the hype thus far. After four games, they've held opposing hitters to a paltry .179 average, and the bullpen has allowed only one run in 18 innings, an 0,50 earned-run average.
"Like Yogi (Berra) said, if you don't have a bullpen, you don't have nothing," Baker said.
The Cubs stranded 17 runners and were 0-for-14 with runners in scoring position, and the offense was practically non-existent with the exception of Hollandworth's seismic, 422-foot shot in the ninth on Smoltz's splitter. Baker said it "would've been a downer" had the Cubs not won after Hollandsworth's heroics.
It was only the ninth blown save in 110 career chances for Smoltz.
"His repertoire and track record speaks for itself," Hollandsworth said. "Even a a pinch-hitter, you're like 'Huh?' I just got 'Smoltzie.'"
Little did anyone know that the craziness was only just beginning.
The Cubs failed in the 11th against ex-Cub Antonio Alfonseca after having two on with no outs. Alfonseca, to no one's surprise, went into his familiar celebratory routine, with his protruding stomach jiggling like a bowl of Jello-O as he waved his right arm up and down on his way to the dugout.
The Cubs threatened again in the 12th, putting runners on first and third against ex-Cub Juan Cruz. But Moises Alou popped to center on the first pitch, taking the air out of the Cubs. Cruz then stranded the go-ahead run on second in the 13th by striking out Ramon Martinez and Michael Barrett, and left two men on in the 14th when he got Paul Bako to pop to center.
The Braves blew some opportunities themselves. They loaded the bases on three walks in both the 12th and 13th, but Todd Wellemeyer escaped the 12th by striking out Eddie Perez, and the 13th by inducing Jones to fly to right.
Lost in the extra-inning madness was the sterling effort of Zambrano, who was dominant in his first outing, allowing only two hits in seven innings- Jones' leadoff home run in the second. Zambrano didn't allow another hit to the next 19 batters he faced before being removed after 110 pitches.
Despite the offensive woes, the Cubs feel Friday's win could be the one to get them back on the straight and narrow road.
"We just haven't found our 'click' yet on offense," Hollandsworth said. "I know we're working towards that. We had a lot of hits, a lot of baserunners. It was a huge win for us no matter what it looks like or how many innings it took."