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CHICAGO -- Just another day at Wrigley Field: Forty thousand fans come to see a trophy and a baseball game breaks out. And a good one at that.
Baseball in Chicago is kind of like the weather -- you can't predict it.
After two-plus months of being nothing more than a consistently annoying blip on the city's sporting radar, the Cubs and White Sox stole the show back from the good-time Blackhawks, who stopped their citywide pub crawl long enough to bring the Stanley Cup to Wrigley Field, parading it around the field and callously ripping attention from the BP Cup.
Both teams were visibly fired up to see their champion peers before the game, and after that, both starting pitchers put on a show that even Finnish goaltender Antti Niemi could appreciate, if he knew what was going on.
|Cubs pitcher Ted Lilly took a no-hitter into the ninth inning Sunday, but gave up a leadoff single.|
All sarcasm suspended for a few paragraphs, this was a really good baseball game. The kind you expect in a city rivalry of two teams with $100 million payrolls. It was almost a historic one.
Ted Lilly and Gavin Floyd both took no-hitters into the seventh, giving Chicago baseball fans a rare treat this spring.
Floyd lost his bid first, on an Alfonso Soriano two-out double, followed by Chad Tracy's RBI single. Lilly took his no-hitter into the ninth, where pinch-hitter Juan Pierre broke it up with a leadoff single.
With neither team able to break through at the plate, Blackhawks scoring whiz Patrick Kane was probably ready to pick up a bat and try to create something.
As it turned out, a one-run lead was enough for the Cubs. Carlos Marmol held on for the save with runners in scoring position and the Cubs won 1-0, keeping the White Sox's magic BP number at two.
"We're still in it," Marlon Byrd said of the incredibly intense mutual rivalry for the now world-famous BP Cup, which was created this year as a marketing gimmick gone awry. The "winner" of this series gets it, though neither side really wants much to do with it. Mark Buehrle said facetiously that they should use it "to plug the leak" in the Gulf of Mexico. Players were jokingly describing what they'll do with it when they get "their day." Buehrle said "leave it in the clubhouse," while Gordon Beckham, ever the southern gentleman, outlined to me a classic dinner-and-a-movie scenario.
Because of the Hawks, and only because of the Hawks, the pregame atmosphere for Game 3 of this series belonged in a World Series. Dressed in red jerseys, the Blackhawks walked in through the right-field gate, across the outfield, carrying the Cup to cheering throngs. They shook hands with the grounds crew, slapped high-fives with fans and exchanged hugs and handshakes with both teams. Both managers took pictures holding up the Cup and both teams joined the Hawks on the mound for a picture with the Cup.
"It's funny because we've been watching FIFA stuff, the World Cup and all that, and I kind of made a comment to Ted that it felt like one of those soccer games with all the buzz in the air," Cubs catcher Koyie Hill said. "Having those guys out were great. It's exciting to see the pure joy and energy they brought."
Lou Piniella hoisted the real Cup and said he realized he might need to have a session or two with the team's strength coach, Tim Buss.
"It was wonderful with the Hawks here, that they got their due at Wrigley," he said. "It made it very exciting for the fans and it got them in the mood for a baseball game, and they watched a really good game tonight."
Neither pitcher took a perfect game very far. Floyd walked Byrd with two outs in the first and Lilly hit A.J. Pierzynski with two down in the second. Tracy made a spectacular stop in the sixth on a hard-hit ball by Andruw Jones.
Floyd had two out in the seventh when Soriano laced a double to left. Lee walked but was thrown out trying to take second on a ball that bounced in the dirt. Pierzynski threw him out and pumped his fist so hard you would have thought this was a World Series game, or a night out with the "Jersey Shore" crew.
Lilly said Pierre hit a weak slider up the middle to break it up.
"I was definitely aware of what was going on and determined to get it done," said Lilly, who was battling a hoarse voice. "And unfortunately, I made a bad pitch. In a situation like that there's a tendency to second-guess my pitch selection. I can do that, but also it wasn't a very good pitch, either. No question there's a little bit of a letdown."
"It was a pitch he probably wants back," Pierre said. "But I did put a good swing on it and ended up breaking it up."
Piniella called Lilly's outing "brilliant," but knew he was tired, so he brought in Marmol. And then the game got interesting. He walked Jones and was then called for a balk. With the game hanging in the balance, Marmol struck out Alexei Ramirez and intentionally walked Alex Rios.
Paul Konerko grounded to first and Derrek Lee threw out Pierre at home. Carlos Quentin flew out to shallow center to end the game.
"I don't know how many times we've seen Marmol in those situations where he walks a guy and falls behind in the count and finds a way to get out of it," Lilly said. "We talk about his slider so much and how good that is, the guy's got very big you-know-what."
I think he meant heart, but no one followed up for clarification.
"Any time you make decisions in one-run games, they're not the easiest ones," Piniella said. "Fortunately for us this time it worked out. The walk to Jones and then the balk, I said, 'Oh [expletive].'"
For once, it wasn't an "oh [expletive]" type of night. The Sox might have lost, but for once, baseball fans in Chicago won.
"The matchup was very, very nice," Ozzie Guillen said. "Whoever paid this ticket to watch the last three games in this ballpark, it was worth it. Every penny, it was worth it because they watched some pretty good baseball."
Despite the historic implications of this pitching duel, fans were still pretty keyed up about the Hawks. After Lilly retired the side in the seventh, flashbulbs lit up in the crowd as several Hawks readied to sing the seventh-inning stretch. (Even some reporters ignored the game for a bit to take pictures with the Cup in the press box.)
Still, all the Hawks love was a good thing for two teams looking for an edge in mutually disappointing starts. Lilly said the atmosphere charged him up.
"There was so much energy," he said. "I can't remember that much energy. I guess I'd have to go back to 2001 in the World Series, with some of the big game-winning homers, to get that kind of a feeling. It was awesome, really, really special. "
Notice Lilly left out the three playoff games at Wrigley he's attended since being part of the team.
"I would've really loved to have gotten this accomplished for my team and the city," Lilly said of his failed no-hitter. "It's a fun thing. I remember so much about [Carlos Zambrano's] and how exciting it was. All in all, it was still a really, really nice win."
And more importantly, it got the Cubs that much closer to winning the BP Cup. Should they pull off a sweep at U.S. Cellular later this month, will the Cubs get to return the favor and take their Cup to the United Center next winter?
"What's that?" Hill said, before getting the joke. "No, I don't know what we'll do with it."
A Cubs official, trying to stifle laughter, could neither confirm nor deny the possibility. But thousands of sports fans in Chicago wait with bated breath to find out.Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.