At exactly 9:15 local time, with the Chicago Cubs leading the Cincinnati Reds, 4-0, in the top of the eighth inning, a roar moved across the Great American Ball Park stands Friday evening.
Reds rookie Norris Hopper stood in center field and began to look around nervously. Cubs first baseman Derrek Lee, who was in the middle of an at-bat, must have wondered why all the sudden noise.
And then the reason became obvious.
Just left of the 379-foot marker on the outfield wall scoreboard was the latest update from Milwaukee: San Diego Padres 3, Brewers 2. It didn't matter that the game was only in the fourth inning. To the predominantly pro-Cubs crowd at Wrigley Field East, it was another piece of welcome magic-number news.
But it wasn't until an hour and 49 minutes later, when the only people left in the stadium were the grounds crew, a clean-up crew, media members, and -- camped in front of the visitor's clubhouse TVs -- the Cubs, that the National League Central at last had a winner. It took 160 games (and a Brewers collapse), but the Cubs are going to the playoffs.
A 6-0 win against the Reds, combined with the Padres' 6-3 win against the Brewers reduced Chicago's magic number (and heart rate) to zero. They're in, and will open the divisional playoffs on the road next Wednesday, likely in Arizona against the Diamondbacks. It will be their first postseason appearance in four years.
"Seems like 15 years ago," said reliever Kerry Wood, happily soaked in Korbel and beer.
Only three active players -- Wood, Carlos Zambrano and Aramis Ramirez -- remain from the 2003 Cubs playoff roster, a team that came within five tantilizing outs of reaching the World Series. (OK, four, if you count Derrek Lee, who played for the team that beat the Cubs that year, the Florida Marlins.) And not one starting position player for the '03 Cubs Opening Day lineup was part of Friday night's celebratory champagne showers.
These Cubs are better. And worse. They are capable of the bizarre (Zambrano using soon-to-be-traded catcher Michael Barrett as a punching bag), the financially perplexing (nine games below .500 in early June, 8½ games back in late June -- all with a near-$100-million payroll), and the impressive (the NL's best record since June 23). They are exactly as their record indicates: a team with flaws, but not enough of them to gag away the division lead like the Brewers did.
"You get in the playoffs and anything can happen," said Wood.
This is true. Just ask the St. Louis Cardinals, who were afterthoughts as the 2006 playoffs began. They ended up winning the World Series.
Are the Cubs good enough to do the same? It depends if you believe in lineup cards or fate. The Cubs won't be the best team in the playoffs, but they'll be a tough out, if for no other reason than they survived a difficult race.
"It's been ... a long summer; it really has," said Cubs manager Lou Piniella, shortly before the Padres' victory became final. "We've been at it hot and heavy for a long, long time. You get off to a bad start. Then you got to fight like heck to get to .500. Then you got to fight to get above .500. Then we've been in a pennant race since about the middle of August that's really been separated by a couple of games one way or another the whole summer. It's a long experience."