Friday, September 17, 1999

CUBS 7, REDS 6


Blown lead may haunt Reds in race

BY CHRIS HAFT
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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Jason LaRue falls into the first base photo well after trying to catch a pop foul.
(Ernest Coleman photos)
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        Should the Reds fail to reach the postseason, they can easily identify lapses to dwell on, if they're so inclined.

        Last month's back-to-back 8-6 losses at Montreal, in which they blew six- and five-run leads, will leap to mind. So will their 1-8 sleepwalking against the Atlanta Braves.

        They also might lament Thursday night's 7-6 loss to the Chicago Cubs at Cinergy Field, which seriously dented their playoff hopes.

        Presented with a chance to gain a half-game against idle Houston and New York, the Reds instead lost ground to their immediate rivals for a postseason berth. Cincinnati (87-60) trails first-place Houston by 31/2 games in the National League Central and New York by three games in the wild-card race.

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Sean Casey holds his cracked bat after hitting a pop fly to end the game.
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        “As frustrating as it is, we have 15 games to go,” third baseman Aaron Boone said. “You have to put it behind you and we have to win (tonight). Simple as that. Each day becomes more important.”

        The Reds kept Sammy Sosa in the ballpark but couldn't prevent the Chicago slugger from beating them. Sosa's two-run double against reliever Danny Graves (8-7) erased Cincinnati's 5-4 lead with one out in the ninth inning.

        What galled Reds manager Jack McKeon most was Graves' four-pitch walk to Shane Andrews, a .186 hitter, immediately before Sosa batted.

        “You're playing with dynamite,” McKeon said. “You don't keep putting him in situations where he can hurt you.”

        That wasn't all that haunted the Reds. They led 5-1 through four innings behind Juan Guzman, their steadiest pitcher in recent weeks. But center fielder Mike Cameron muffed a two-out fly ball that generated the Cubs' three unearned runs in the fifth.

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Mike Cameron misses the catch.
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        Reds first baseman Sean Casey admitted that with a four-run lead and Guzman on the mound, “You're feeling pretty good. That's why this game's weird. When you think you've got something, you don't.”

        The Reds compiled a 9-3 mark against last-place Chicago and Florida, including 5-2 on this homestand. Given the challenges of the pennant race, they couldn't afford much less than perfection.

        Cubs first baseman Mark Grace, vividly recalling Cincinnati's three-game sweep at Wrigley Field last September 18-20 when Chicago pursued the wild-card berth, knew how the Reds felt after losing this series, two games to one.

        “I have to admit I got a little satisfaction out of it,” said Grace, who doubled in Sosa with a run that proved essential when the Reds scored in the bottom of the ninth. “When we were chasing this thing last year, the Reds knocked us for a loop. It took us a year but we got a little payback.”

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Mickey Morandini can't make the tag in time to get Sean Casey.
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        Cincinnati's bullpen had converted 10 consecutive save opportunities before the Cubs rose in the ninth.

        After Graves struck out Gary Gaetti to open the inning, the scene became bizarre as a pair of male fans leapt from the field-level seats down the right-field line and ran across the outfield, pinwheeling their arms.

        “I don't know why people would do that,” Graves said. “It didn't bother me, but you're thinking, it's a 5-4 ballgame in the top of the ninth with a chance to win the game here and what are these clowns doing?”

        That interruption preceded the Cubs' eruption. Lance Johnson singled to right before Andrews walked.

        “I just lost all feeling for what I was doing out there,” said Graves, who notched saves in his previous five outings. “I can't handle the fact that I walked Shane Andrews on four straight pitches. I'm not saying he's not a good hitter, but he's been struggling. With Sosa on deck, you have to go right after him.”

        That brought up Sosa, the major leagues' home-run leader who was 0-for-4 in the game, 2-for-12 in the series and 5-for-27 since his last round-tripper, a Sept. 9 shot against Reds right-hander Pete Harnisch.

        Sosa came about 5 feet from becoming history's first player to hit 60 homers in back-to-back seasons, rifling Graves' 1-0 fastball off the right-center field wall as Johnson and Andrews scored.

        During last week's five-game series at Chicago, Graves struck out Sosa twice.

        “I got in trouble trying to trick him,” said Graves, explaining that he reversed his pitching pattern by throwing Sosa a breaking pitch before his sinking fastball. “Why? I just felt like I was way out of whack today.”



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