For the second time in as many years the Cubs have advanced to the National League Championship Series. Since that round of playoffs was introduced in 1969—a year that haunts the franchise for a different reason, but that's a story for another day—Chicago has made it that far four times, but it is still searching for its first National League pennant since '45. In each of those NLCS trips, the Cubs were felled by a team that deserved to win, but that has sometimes been lost amid the memories of how Chicago lost. There are no billy goats here, but there are enough subspecies of Capra aegagrus to fill a petting zoo.
What follows here is a look back at those four series, not only at those well-known moments but also some that may have been forgotten but were just as consequential to sealing the Cubs' fate. With apologies to the team's loyal fans, this won't be a pleasant ride. For the rest of America taking interest in their plight, here's what you need to know.
1984: Padres 3, Cubs 2
What you might know: Leon Durham’s through-the-wickets error
What you might have forgotten: Durham’s home runs, Rick Sutcliffe’s late hook
Under new manager Jim Frey, the Cubs went 96-65 en route to their first NL East flag, led by MVP-winning second baseman Ryne Sandberg, Cy Young-winning starter Rick Sutcliffe and closer Lee Smith. Facing a 92-win Padres squad led by batting champ Tony Gwynn and laden with heroes of Octobers past (ex-Yankees Rich Gossage and Graig Nettles and former Dodgers star Steve Garvey), Chicago won the first two games in the best-of-five series at Wrigley Field, rolling to a 13–0 rout in Game 1 and a 4–2 win the next day.
When the series shifted to San Diego, the Cubs were trounced, 7–1, in Game 3 and fell behind twice in Game 4. A Durham homer gave Chicago a short-lived lead in the fourth inning, but the Padres led 5-3 heading to the bottom of the eighth with Gossage, a future Hall of Famer, on the mound. Keith Moreland and Jody Davis delivered run-scoring hits to tie the game, but the Cubs left two runners stranded in the eighth and left the bases loaded in the ninth. In the bottom of the ninth, Smith served up a one-out, two-run, walk-off homer to Garvey.
Back in those days, the LCS was in a 2–3 format, with home-field advantage determined not by the team with the better record but simply by even- or odd-numbered year, with the NL West and AL East teams having the advantage in even-numbered years. Thus Game 5 was played at Jack Murphy Stadium the next day instead of at Wrigley Field. Behind a two-run homer by Durham in the first and a solo shot by Davis in the second, the Cubs carried a 3–0 lead into the bottom of the sixth inning, but a flagging Sutcliffe gave up two runs on sacrifice flies.
Frey kept Sutcliffe on the mound for the seventh. Carmelo Martinez drew a four-pitch leadoff walk and then went to second on a sacrifice bunt, setting up the series' most memorable play: Pinch-hitter Tim Flannery hit a ground ball to first that went right through Durham's legs and into rightfield. Martinez scored, but that merely tied the game. Sutcliffe stayed in and allowed three more hits and three runs, two on a double by Gwynn and the third on a Garvey single. Only then did Frey finally remove his ace. Chicago put two on in the eighth to bring the tying run to the plate against Gossage, but the Goose struck out Gary Matthews, and he worked around a one-out single in the ninth to seal the Padres' first NL pennant.
1989: Giants 4, Cubs 1
What you might know: Will Clark’s demolition of Cubs pitching, blown leads
What you might have forgotten: Greg Maddux’s struggles, Ryne Sandberg’s anticlimactic finish
A year after the Cubs finally installed lights in Wrigley Field to avoid MLB's threat of moving postseason games to an alternate, lighted site, the Don Zimmer-managed squad won 52 of its final 84 games to finish 93–69. For this best-of-seven, the Cubs had homefield advantage against the 92-win Giants not on the basis of record but because of the dumb alternate-year rule still in effect.
In Game 1 at Wrigley Field, Chicago's ace, 23-year-old Greg Maddux, was lit up for eight runs in four innings, with Will Clark driving in six of them. Clark had an RBI double in the first, a solo homer in the third and a grand slam in the fourth to lead San Francisco to an 11–3 win. In Game 2 Chicago jumped all over Giants starter Rick Reuschel (a former Cub) for six first-inning runs and held on for a 9–5 win to even the series.
The Cubs would take lead in each of the next three games, only to lose all three. In Game 3, they led 2-0 in the first inning and 4-3 in the seventh, but reliever Les Lancaster served up a two-run homer in the bottom of the that frame to the Giants' Robby Thompson, and base runners in the eighth and ninth went for naught in San Francisco's 5-4 win. In Game 4, Maddux couldn't hold early leads of 1–0 and 2–1 and was chased in the fourth, having thrown just 56 pitches. Chicago tied the game at 4–4 in the top of the fifth but in the bottom half, Clark doubled and Matt Williams hit a two-run homer that put the Giants in front for good. Still down 6-4 in the ninth, the Cubs loaded the bases for Andre Dawson, but Steve Bedroisan struck out the future Hall of Famer to end it.
In Game 5 Chicago carried a 1-0 lead into the seventh, when Clark hit a triple and scored the tying run on a sacrifice fly by NL MVP Kevin Mitchell. Cubs starter Mike Bielecki, still in the game, got the first two outs of the eighth before walking the bases loaded on a total of 21 pitches, running his pitch count to 131. Zimmer called upon All-Star closer Mitch Williams—yes, him—but he allowed a two-run single to Clark, his record-setting 13th hit of the series (in 20 at-bats). Protecting a 3–1 lead, Bedrosian got two quick outs to start the ninth before allowing a trio of singles and a run to bring up Sandberg. Alas, Ryno, another future Hall of Famer, merely tapped Bedrosian's first-pitch breaking ball to second base for a weak, series-ending groundout.
2003: Marlins 4, Cubs 3
What you might know: Steve Bartman’s interference, Dusty Baker’s late hook of Mark Prior
What you might have forgotten: Alex Gonzalez’s error, Baker’s late hook of Kerry Wood
Managed by Dusty Baker, with a rotation led by phenoms Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, the Cubs won 88 games and the NL Central, then beat the Braves in a five-game Division Series, their first postseason series win in 95 years. Facing the 91-win, wild-card Marlins in the NLCS, Chicago tied Game 1 at Wrigley Field on a two-out, two-run homer in the ninth by Sammy Sosa only to lose in 11 innings. The Cubs rebounded with a 12–3 rout in Game 2, won Game 3 in Miami on Doug Glanville's 11th-inning triple and took a 3-games-to-1 lead by rolling up six early runs against former Cubs draft pick Dontrelle Willis in Game 4 en route to an 8–3 win.
The franchise's first pennant since 1945 was in sight, but in Game 5, 23-year-old Marlins rookie Josh Beckett spun a two-hit shutout in a 4-0 Florida win. The series returned to Wrigley Field for Game 6. All seemed to be going to plan for Chicago, as the Cubs took a 3-0 lead into the bottom of the eighth. They were six outs from champagne.
Prior, who entered the eighth inning at 95 pitches, got the first of those outs by retiring Mike Mordecai on a fly ball to leftfield, but he then allowed a double to Juan Pierre. On a full count, Luis Castillo hit a foul ball down the leftfield line, where a fan named Steve Bartman interfered with Moises Alou's attempt to catch the ball. Castillo, granted a reprieve, worked a walk; the rest was a car crash in slow motion. Baker stuck with Prior, now at 114 pitches; Ivan Rodriguez hit an 0–2 pitch for an RBI single, scoring Pierre to cut the lead to 3–1. Miguel Cabrera then hit a potential double-play grounder to shortstop Alex Gonzalez (not to be confused with the Marlins shortstop of the same name), who failed to glove it, loading the bases. Prior, now at 118 pitches, was allowed to throw one more to Derrek Lee, who ripped it to left for a game-tying double. Baker finally pulled Prior, but Jeff Conine greeted Kyle Farnsworth with a go-ahead sacrifice fly, and Mordecai smashed a three-run double to stretch Florida's lead to 7-3. Mike Remlinger came in but gave up an RBI single to Juan Pierre, and by the time the fire was put out, the Marlins led 8–3.
The Cubs still had Game 7, with Wood on the mound. He served up a three-run, first-inning homer to Cabrera, but his own two-run homer off Mark Redman in the second knotted the score, and a two-run shot by Alou off Redman in the third put Chicago in front 5–3. But Wood ran out of gas in the fifth, as Baker sat on his hands; Florida used two walks, a double and a single to take a 6–5 lead and then tacked on another as Baker let Wood get into trouble again in the seventh. Beckett gave the Marlins four innings of stellar relief work to help preserve the advantage, and the Cubs finished off a collapse for the ages with a 9–6 defeat.
2015: Mets 4, Cubs 0
What you might know: Daniel Murphy’s home run streak
What you might have forgotten: the Cubs never led
After winning 97 games—including all seven during the regular season against the Mets—then taking the NL wild-card game in Pittsburgh and knocking off the top-seeded Cardinals in the Division Series, the Cubs seemed poised for a pennant at long last. Instead, they rank into a buzzsaw named Daniel Murphy. Fresh off a three-homer Division Series against the Dodgers, including the decisive shot in Game 5 off Zack Greinke, the Mets' second baseman ran his home run streak to a record six games by going deep in each game of the NLCS. He hit a solo homer off Jon Lester in the first inning of Game 1 at Citi Field, padded a 1–0 lead with a two-run shot in the first inning of Game 2 off Jake Arrieta, broke a 1–1 tie with his solo homer off Kyle Hendricks in the third inning of Game 3 at Wrigley and sealed the sweep with an eighth-inning shot off Fernando Rodney in Game 4.
The series was so lopsided that Chicago never had a lead and was held to a grand total of eight runs by New York staff chockfull of young arms. Only three times did the Cubs even tie the score, never after the fifth inning. Better than a groundball through the legs? We'll leave that one for Cubs fans to decide.