Almost everyone in the Cubs' clubhouse expects the wild-card playoff race to come down to the final game of the season, with Greg Maddux facing his former Atlanta teammates in Wrigley Field with a chance to put the club into the postseason.
No one could have asked for a better cliffhanger.
But Maddux has picked a most inopportune time to struggle, sending jittery Cubs fans to the edge of the cliff with only five games remaining.
Maddux served up three two-run homers Tuesday in an 8-3 loss to Cincinnati, tightening up the amazing race as it heads toward its conclusion.
"I'm sure Greg will do better this weekend," manager Dusty Baker said. "We have to put this behind us and smoke 'em [Wednesday]."
The Cubs aren't making things easy on themselves. They are tied with San Francisco for the wild-card lead after the Giants beat the Padres 7-5. And Houston pulled to within a half-game of the Cubs with a 2-1 victory over St. Louis.
Maddux (15-11) put the Cubs in a 6-0 hole, giving up the long ball and suffering from a temporary lapse of control in the Reds' four-run third.
"You have to look in the mirror and realize we got three runs tonight, and that's a lot," Maddux said. "On a night like this, three runs is good. You should be able to win when you get three runs on a night like this. It's not like [the wind] was blowing out at 100 [m.p.h.]. It was blowing in. Three runs should be more than enough, but it wasn't."
Maddux hasn't exactly had a September to remember, going 2-3 with a 5.74 earned-run average in his five starts. On a night when the Cubs established an attendance record with 2,977,803, the ballpark was eerily quiet. There wasn't much to cheer after the third inning, when the Reds took control.
Maddux escaped a bases-loaded jam in the second inning, only to fall on his face in the third. He hit Felipe Lopez leading off the inning, then served up a two-run home run to D'Angelo Jimenez. After hitting Sean Casey with a pitch, Maddux gave up a two-out, two-run center-field homer to Darren Bragg, making it 4-0.
Following a perfect fourth, Maddux walked Casey leading off the fifth and gave up another home run, a two-run blast by Adam Dunn, his 44th of the year. Maddux left after throwing 86 pitches over five innings, his shortest outing since a five-inning stint against San Francisco on Aug. 7, his 300th career victory.
Maddux was upset with himself, especially for hitting both batters on two-strike pitches.
"That's when you're supposed to get guys out," he said. "When you make mistakes and then give up home runs after them it's hard to cover mistakes when you can't keep the ball in the park."
The Cubs' enigmatic offense was missing in action against Josh Hancock after their four-homer game Monday. They are 71-37 when they hit at least one home run and 17-32 when they don't hit a homer. Baker pointed out the Cubs "hit some balls on the nose," but their only hit of any consequence was Corey Patterson's two-run triple in the fifth.
Hancock (5-2) came in with an 8.57 ERA on the road, but held the Cubs to two earned runs on seven hits in eight innings. Playing on their 19th straight day, the Cubs barely made Hancock break a sweat.
"We felt pretty good tonight," second baseman Todd Walker said. "It just wasn't Greg's night and we got beat. We'll come out [Wednesday] and battle. I don't think anybody is playing tired or acting tired."
It's anyone's ballgame in the final five days of the 2004 season, though Baker likes his team's chances. He has been here before, and knows what it takes to outlast the competition.
"To me, this is the position I'm supposed to be in," Baker said. "It's a position I expect to be in."