The Cubs seemed to approach this year’s home-and-home city series with the White Sox as more of a nuisance than a cause for excitement. That was in part because of the team’s newfound stature and high expectations–as no less than Sports Illustrated’s pick to win the World Series, they considered their National League games, especially in the Central Division, more “important”–but also because of the schedule. The Cubs prepped for their first meeting with the Sox by playing a critical three-game set in Saint Louis, then sandwiched three home games against their other top division rivals, the Houston Astros, between the two Sox weekend series.

The Sox, by contrast, seemed to relish the opportunity to play in front of unusually spirited crowds at White Sox Park and steal some of the Cubs’ thunder. After embarrassing the Cubs in that first series, they maintained their momentum with a three-game sweep of the Twins, their own AL Central Division rivals, in Minnesota. But the Cubs regained their focus by narrowly winning the series against the Astros and returned to form against the Sox in last weekend’s rematch at Wrigley Field. Bolstered by the home crowd–which was much more one-sided at Wrigley than it had been at Sox Park–they showed the Sox who was top dog in town by sweeping the three games.

The south-side games were much the more enjoyable of the two series, perhaps because the crowds were more evenly divided. From the moment Jon Garland was being cheered all down the left-field grandstand as he trudged in from the bullpen Friday following his pregame warm-up, while his Cubs counterpart, Mark Prior, was being equally applauded along the right-field line, the games had the feel of a tribal competition. The Cubs entered as the more talented and better balanced squad, and Prior–the epitome of the Cubs’ newfound pride–had it all over Garland on this afternoon, though he continued to struggle to regain his full mastery. Making only his fifth start of the year, Prior couldn’t seem to cut loose with his fastball without losing control of it, and the Sox and Garland were remarkably gracious even after several pitches sailed high and tight to right-handed batters. Prior uncharacteristically walked two in the first, but amid chants of “Paulie! Paulie!” worked out of a bases-loaded jam by retiring Paul Konerko. He fell behind in the fourth on a walk, a stolen base, an infield hit, and a wild pitch, but the Cubs, helped by some patchy Sox defense, staked him to a big lead in the fifth.

Going into the frame, Garland had given up only one hit. But Todd Hollandsworth led off with a single to left, and when Garland threw wildly trying to pick him off he scurried all the way to third base and scored on an infield out by Michael Barrett. Then Sox second baseman Juan Uribe fell victim to the high sky and capricious winds (just as right fielder Ross Gload had the previous inning) when he dropped a pop fly to put Corey Patterson on second. Garland committed the cardinal sin of walking the last hitter in the order, weak-hitting sub Ramon Martinez, and leadoff man Mark Grudzielanek came up looking for a first-pitch fastball. “I was definitely sitting on red,” he said afterward, and he found a seat for the pitch in the left-field bleachers for a three-run homer. The Cubs added two more runs in the next inning with the help of a Hollandsworth triple, and Prior retired for the day to watch the bullpen mop up. Kyle Farnsworth almost spilled the bucket by giving up a pair of walks to begin the eighth and then a three-run homer to Konerko. (“Fastball, fastball,” I kept thinking, but Farnsworth threw him a slider, and Konerko yanked it into the left-field seats.) But the Cubs got a run back when Mike Jackson grooved a fastball to none other than Martinez, who drilled it into the left-field bleachers, and LaTroy Hawkins claimed the save with a one-two-three ninth for a 7-4 victory.

The Cubs seemed ready to ride roughshod over the Sox. They had Carlos Zambrano set up to face rookie Felix Diaz–recalled from the minors when Scott Schoeneweis went on the disabled list with a tender elbow–and Greg Maddux to face Esteban Loaiza in the series finale. Yet the unfamiliar Diaz confounded the Cubs Saturday while Zambrano had a rare off day. The Sox won 6-3, then pounded lumps on Maddux Sunday in a 9-4 victory that sent the Cubs yelping home to Wrigley.

The series looked like one of those karmic shifts in fortune that are reminiscent of Henry James’s The Tragic Muse and have typified the two teams’ encounters since interleague play was instituted in 1997. While the Sox were sweeping the Twins to take over first place and open a two-game lead in the AL Central–and picking up Freddy Garcia in the bargain for the very dear price of catcher Miguel Olivo and minor-league phenom Jeremy Reed–the Cubs were gasping for air against the Astros. They won a 7-5 slugfest but lost the second game 3-2, a contest decided by bullpen closers Hawkins and the Astros’ Brad Lidge. At that point the Cubs had lost five of seven going back through their last two games in Saint Louis and had fallen into a tie for second, three and a half games behind the Cardinals. The rubber game again came down to the bullpens. The Cubs blew a 4-1 lead for Prior when Kent Mercker surrendered a three-run homer, but this time Sammy Sosa got the best of Lidge with a sayonara to lead off the bottom of the tenth.

That win seemed to reinvigorate the Cubs, like the bucket of water thrown in the face of a cowboy decked in a fistfight in a John Wayne western. They might have been in second place, but as they welcomed the first-place Sox to the Friendly Confines last Friday they were 43-35 to the Sox’ 42-33. The question this time was whether they’d be too pumped up for the rivalry, especially with Zambrano pitching the opener and eager for revenge. “We’re wanting to pay them back,” he admitted afterward.

From the mound Zambrano projects an oversize, excitable persona, and he began this game looking like someone struggling to gain control over himself. He walked leadoff man Timo Perez with nothing but errant fastballs, then Uribe reached base on a sacrifice bunt booted by the Cubs’ first baseman, Derrek Lee. Zambrano seemed about to work out of it, striking out Carlos Lee on a sinker and Jose Valentin on a fastball, but he walked Konerko to load the bases. That brought up Gload, the left-handed sub filling in for the injured Magglio Ordonez in right field, and after he worked a full count he fouled off fastball after fastball until he pulled one down the right-field line and into the seats. The hit was signaled a home run, but the umps got together and decided–rightfully so, from the replays–that it had curled foul just short of the pole. But Gload poked the next pitch, yet another fastball, into the left-center gap, scoring two to give Loaiza the lead.

With his deliberate, almost laconic cool, Loaiza is almost the polar opposite of Zambrano. He retired the Cubs in order in the bottom of the first but ran into trouble in the second when Aramis Ramirez doubled and Gload, staggering under Lee’s deep fly, dropped it on the warning track for a run-scoring error. In the third Loaiza needed no help to self-destruct, giving up four straight hits to Grudzie, Patterson, Sosa, and Moises Alou as the Cubs scored two more. In the fourth he gave up a leadoff double to Barrett, who moved around to score on a pair of fly balls, the second by Zambrano himself, who slapped the ball just deep enough to Lee in left. Loaiza walked Ramirez leading off the sixth, and Ramirez came around to score to make it 5-2, as Zambrano didn’t allow a hit after the second inning until he left the game with a cramp in his right forearm in the seventh. The Cubs tacked on another run in the eighth when Uribe failed to cover first on a sacrifice bunt, making the final 6-2.

Maddux wanted his own revenge on Saturday, and–greeted by what might best be called polite applause as he walked down the left-field line from the bullpen–he went about serving it up cold. He gave up a harmless single to Aaron Rowand in the first, then retired 12 straight batters. By the time he walked Perez with one out in the fifth, the Cubs were up 3-0, and the only question was whether Maddux would get the last outs in the top of the fifth to make the game official. There had already been two rain delays over a total of 45 minutes, and the dark clouds forecast for 3 PM (the Western Open at Cog Hill’s Dubsdread had moved up its tee times to get the third round completed) were closing in. Maddux got Crede to fly to Alou, but gave up a single to Sandy Alomar Jr., and Sox manager Ozzie Guillen–assuming rain–called on Frank Thomas to pinch-hit for the pitcher. Maddux threw a fastball for a called strike, a changeup for another, wasted a pitch, then–with the partisan crowd on its feet and yelling–fanned the Big Hurt on another change to end the inning and make the game official.

This time the Sox had the excitable youngster going against the calm veteran. Like Zambrano, Diaz ran into trouble right away, but his troubles were more serious–Todd Walker’s leadoff triple was followed by homers by light-hitting Rey Ordonez and, one out later, Alou, all on fastballs. And Maddux proved more dependable than Loaiza in protecting the lead. Diaz was impressive, with a compact yet explosive motion–he throws straight over the top with a short stride–that suggests a converted shortstop, which he isn’t. Once he remembered to change speeds he tamed the Cubs, but by that time the damage was done. After Diaz was removed for Thomas, Jon Adkins came on, fell behind Sosa 3-0, and with the rain coming down threw a high, outside fastball that Sosa rifled into the right-field seats. By the time Sosa had hopped, rounded the bases, and returned to the dugout, the umpires were calling for the grounds crew once again.

After the rain stopped it took 40 minutes just to get the field ready for play, and I finished the novel I’d brought along for the bus ride (The Pure and the Impure, making me probably the first person ever to read Colette in the Wrigley Field press box). By that time the clouds were closing in again, but the umps felt they had to give the Sox one last chance, especially after they’d touched Maddux for three hits in the sixth. Mike Wuertz came on and slowly got a grip on things, giving up a run-scoring single, a sacrifice fly, and then an inning-ending pop fly caught by a hard-charging Sosa in the rain. At the end of the inning the umps stopped play again, this time for good, allowing the Cubs to claim a 4-2 victory and Maddux to move a mere four wins away from 300 for his career.

The Cubs completed the three-game sweep Sunday, though the Sox saved face just as Cubs fans were getting ready to wave the brooms they’d brought for the occasion. Derrek Lee homered off Mark Buehrle in the second, and the Cubs’ journeyman starter Glendon Rusch clamped down on the lead. He gave the ball to Hawkins in the ninth, but Hawkins gave up a homer to Carlos Lee, and the Sox seemed ready to, at the very least, stretch things out. But the Cubs loaded the bases in the bottom of the ninth against soft-tossing Shingo Takatsu, who was replaced by left-handed Damaso Marte. Cubs manager Dusty Baker left Walker in as a pinch hitter for Ordonez, despite the lefty-lefty percentages. He worked the count full by fouling off three two-strike pitches and walked on Marte’s low fastball to force in the winning run.

The series was a reminder that although the Sox are to be commended for their fine, scrappy play, which has moved them to the top of a bad division, the Cubs remain the contenders of Chicago baseball this summer. Chicago fans can hold out hope that the two teams meet again when it counts, in October, but that would require a major upset of the Yankees in the AL playoffs–and also that the Sox make the playoffs in the first place, no sure thing after last year’s late-season flop. Last year is something the Cubs, who came up five outs short of the World Series, can still lord over their crosstown rivals, even if Sox fans try to throw that so-close-yet-so-far Bartman moment back in the Cubs’ faces.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Stephen Green.