CHICAGO (AP) -- It's almost over for the Chicago Cubs. A
late-season collapse when they needed to play their best baseball
has left them on the verge of wild-card elimination.
The Cubs' schedule down the stretch wasn't hardly daunting, but Aramis Ramirez & Co. have wilted in the last 10 days.
Four straight losses and six defeats in the last seven games had
manager Dusty Baker almost in disbelief Friday after the Cubs'
ninth-inning rally came up short in a 5-4 loss to the NL East
champion Atlanta Braves."We're due to win one of these. Geez, man. I can't explain
it," Baker said. "It's a bad period right now."I don't see tightness. If anything, looseness rather than
tightness. We're not hitting the ball the way we're capable of
hitting it. And when the eighth and ninth hitters hit two-run
homers, it's not going to make for a good day."Pitcher Mike Hampton hit a two-run homer off Kerry Wood and so
did No. 8 hitter Dewayne Wise as the Braves wrapped up the NL's
second seed in the playoffs.Wood gave up 10 hits and five runs in seven innings. The Cubs
rallied with three runs in the ninth before Corey Patterson struck
out and Derrek Lee grounded out to end the game.Chicago began the day one game behind San Francisco and Houston
for the wild card.Frustrated fans at Wrigley Field littered the outfield with
debris just before the bottom of the eighth and the grounds crew
had to run on the field and clean it up, delaying the game for a
couple of minutes.The players are frustrated, too."We all know what is at stake and we all know what the
expectations were for us and the expectations for ourselves," said
Wood, who helped the Cubs make the NLCS a year ago, where they lost
in seven games."Definitely we have a good enough team to be there."But the Cubs lost two of three to the New York Mets and then
three of four to the Cincinnati Reds in what was considered the
easiest path to the wild card. Now they must beat the 13-time
division champion Braves on Saturday and Sunday and hope for help."You ask the guys in the clubhouse and it's going to be a
disappointing season" if the Cubs don't get in, Wood said."In my opinion it is because I expected to be back in the
postseason with a chance to go to the World Series this year.
Again, we came up short."The Cubs scored three times in the ninth inning, but their rally
fizzled.In the ninth, pinch-hitter Ben Grieve hit a two-run double off
Chris Reitsma that made it 5-3. Pinch-hitter Jose Macias greeted
Kevin Gryboski with an RBI single.But after Patterson struck out, Lee hit a hard comebacker that
glanced off Gryboski's glove to shortstop Rafael Furcal, who made
the throw to first for the final out. Gryboski got his second save.Atlanta ensured home-field advantage in the first round of the
playoffs with its 95th win. The Braves have three more wins than
Los Angeles -- if the teams finish even, Atlanta wins the tiebreaker
because it went 4-3 against the Dodgers this season."We're happy about that. We know at least we're going to open
at home," Braves manager Bobby Cox said."We're going to keep trying to win. We have to, we owe it to
the other teams. The Cubs aren't out of it. Things happen. You
gotta keep going hard."Hampton (13-9), who tore cartilage in his knee three weeks ago,
allowed four hits in six innings and is 12-2 in his last 16 starts."I know that if this is as bad as it gets, it will be fine
throughout the playoffs," Hampton said.Hampton's 14th career homer, a two-out, two-run shot, made it
4-1 in the fourth and the Braves added a run in the fifth when J.D.
Drew was hit by a pitch, second baseman Mark Grudzielanek bobbled a
double-play grounder and Johnny Estrada had an RBI single. Wise's
two-run shot came in the second.The normally sure-handed Grudzielanek also had two errors,
that's how bad it's gotten for the Cubs.
^Notes:@ Braves RHP Jaret Wright, hit in the right ankle by a line
drive last Tuesday, threw in the bullpen before Friday's game and
is expected to make his start in the playoffs next week. ... Cox,
who earlier this week became the ninth manager to get 2,000 wins,
said he no plans to retire soon. "It's kind of year to year. I
really, really enjoy the game and still love it and I don't know
what the heck I'd do if I weren't a part of the game of baseball,"
he said before the game. ... Wood entered the game with a 3-0
career record and 1.99 ERA against the Braves in the regular
season. He also beat them twice in the divisional playoffs last