The Cubs came home to die last week. Having already lost five in a row on the road, including a three-game sweep in New York at the hands of the hated Mets, they returned to Wrigley Field three games under .500 and fading in the wild-card race. The first team they faced was the Cincinnati Reds, the generally woeful division rivals who’d crushed the Cubs’ playoff hopes a year ago by beating them three straight the last week of the season. History repeated itself this season, only earlier.

A festive crowd of 39,965 welcomed the Cubs on a steamy Monday night, but starter Jerome Williams, the promising if frustrating pitching phenom, gave up two runs in the second and two more in the third on a homer by Adam Dunn, which drew the first boos. When the top of the Cubs’ order went three up, three down in the bottom of the inning, the boos increased. Williams righted himself for a couple innings but then gave up three more runs in the sixth. Fans booed manager Dusty Baker when he came out to remove Williams from the game, and they booed Williams going to the dugout. When reliever Glendon Rusch finally ended the inning, after surrendering a homer to Ken Griffey Jr., the boos rained down. Rusch gave up another run in the next frame, and that made the score 9-0–a skunking. The four runs the Cubs scored in the bottom of the ninth to make the game “respectable” didn’t begin to air out the stench.

The next day Mark Prior squandered leads of 2-1 and 3-2 by surrendering solo homers. The second came after the skies had brightened for the Cubs when the oft-disabled Nomar Garciaparra, freshly returned from a leg injury sustained in April, hit his first homer of the season. Prior left the game tied at three, but reliever Will Ohman gave up a homer to the first man he faced, and after that it got ugly as the bullpen imploded. The same thing happened the next day, but only after rookie starter Rich Hill had done plenty of damage on his own–as a woman in a black tube top and sunglasses (the fully grown incarnation of Faulkner’s Little Sister Death) stood in the grandstand holding a sign that said “Dear Cubs, please stop losing.”

They were powerless to obey. Their skid had reached eight games, they were six games under .500 at 54-60, and they were 19 games behind the first-place Saint Louis Cardinals in the National League Central Division and seven and a half games behind the Houston Astros in the race for the wild-card playoff spot, with five teams between them. The Cubs, by any objective medical opinion, were a hopeless case.

Yet the Cubs and their fans moved beyond anything charted by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross to a sixth stage of dying. Having come within five outs of reaching the World Series two years ago, the team and its followers had nursed high expectations ever since, which made this season’s mediocre demise even harder to process, with the unusual booing the sharpest sign of dissatisfaction. Once death had been accepted, however–as it had to be after Greg Maddux gave up a two-run homer to the Cards’ fearsome Albert Pujols in the first inning of last Thursday’s series opener–the Cubs and their fans could return to their traditional state of innocence, expecting to lose and hoping to win nonetheless. The Cubs weren’t dead, they were merely dormant, like Sleeping Beauty. Suddenly, it was as if Steve Bartman had never existed.

The aging Maddux had been as responsible for the Cubs’ struggles as anyone else this season, but he performed courageously during the recent skid. He pitched well against the Mets in New York, and with the Cubs straining to mount any sort of offense he slapped a single and immediately stole second. (A tip of the hat to my buddy Brian for reminding me of that quixotic exploit.) The Cubs lost that game 2-0, but after falling behind the Cards by the same score, Maddux didn’t need to do everything himself. The Cubs scored in almost every inning, and Maddux went on to a complete-game 11-4 victory. Was it a last gasp?

They looked even better the next day. They scored early, and starter Carlos Zambrano pitched a shutout through six innings. The Cubs added a few insurance runs while Roberto Novoa and Kerry Wood–shifted to short stints out of the bullpen to preserve his tender arm–extended the shutout. Ryan Dempster made things interesting in the ninth, giving up a run with the help of Jeromy Burnitz, who fell down on a fly to right, but the final was 4-1.

Asked how a team could lose eight in a row, then convincingly beat the best team in the league twice, Zambrano shrugged his shoulders and said, “I can’t explain. It’s weird. . . . Baseball’s like that. Baseball’s weird.”

“Baseball’s funny that way,” added catcher Michael Barrett. Outside the park, Ronnie “Woo Woo” Wickers was swinging a rubber cardinal over his head from a string, as a Cubs fan in a “Flip the Birds” T-shirt watched admiringly. It was mass amnesia, as if no one remembered the Cubs were still 17 games behind the Cardinals, as if–as so often happens with the Bears and the Green Bay Packers–hatred of the archrivals and glee at beating them superseded that minor detail.

The Cards saved face for themselves and for their abundant fans in the stands with a win Saturday behind their ace, Chris Carpenter, but the Cubs, again inexplicably, won the series finale Sunday. Prior again squandered a 3-1 lead, but before he departed the Cubs went back in front on a two-run pinch-hit single by Jose Macias, Wood pitched two great innings of relief, and Dempster again gave up a run but preserved the win, 5-4.

Keep in mind the victory still left the Cubs four games under .500, 17 games behind the Cards, and six and a half behind the Astros in the wild-card race. Yet Cubs fans exulted, engorged by the retreat of the red-clad Saint Louis fans (many headed home before the Sunday-night finale). In truth, the series was like a dying patient’s last lucid smile, all the more poignant for its demonstration of the season that might have been.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jamie Squire–Getty Images.