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An improbable Cubs season comes down to three games at Wrigley Field, where starting pitchers Mark Prior, Matt Clement and Kerry Wood will hold the keys to their postseason dreams.
Whether the weekend winds up in heartache or hysteria remains to be seen, but all leading indicators point to a big-bang finish.
The Cubs squandered an early lead Thursday night in a 9-7 loss to the Cincinnati Reds before 36,963 at Great American Ball Park and dropped back into a first-place tie with Houston as the Astros beat Milwaukee 6-1.
"Back to square one," Cubs manager Dusty Baker said.
The Reds bounced back from an early three-run deficit, scoring six runs in the sixth inning and fending off a late Cubs rally. Sammy Sosa's two home runs couldn't offset a subpar outing by Carlos Zambrano or a bullpen implosion, setting up a do-or-die scenario at Wrigley.
"That's what a pennant race is all about," Baker said. "You know it's going to go down to the end, like we said. If you've noticed with this club, we don't do anything easy. We do more things hard. We know how to deal with that, and we'll deal with that [Friday]."
The postgame clubhouse wasn't as grim as one might have expected. A hazing ritual in which rookies were forced to wear outlandish outfits brought laughter to a room that normally would have been quiet.
Zambrano (13-11) allowed five runs while walking five in five-plus inningshis second straight poor start after eight straight in which he allowed two or fewer runs.
He left with a 4-2 lead and the bases loaded in the sixth, but the bullpen let all three runners score during a six-run inning that turned the game upside down.
Sean Casey's two-run homer off Mark Guthrie was the big blow, handing the Reds an 8-4 lead. It was Casey's first home run in 89 at-bats and déjà vu for Guthrie, who had served up a game-winning homer to Casey in a one-run loss on April 6 in Cincinnati.
"Horrible," Guthrie said. "I don't think it seems to matter what I throw to him anyway. I throw the ball in and he hits it. I throw the ball down at his feet and he hits it. I throw the ball up and away and he hits it. He pretty much has my number this year. I really have no answer for it."
Kenny Lofton's solo homer and Sosa's two-run blast gave the Cubs a 3-0 lead in the third, with Sosa (537) passing Mickey Mantle for 10th place on the all-time home run list.
The Cubs led 4-2 in the sixth when Baker called on Dave Veres after Zambrano loaded the bases with no outs. Stephen Smitherman's run-scoring single, followed by Ryan Freel's sacrifice fly, tied it 4-4.
Then Ray Olmedo's double down the third-base line off Guthrie put the Reds ahead, and after another sacrifice fly by D'Angelo Jimenez, Casey's blow put the game out of reach.
The Cubs managed only one run in the seventh after loading the bases with no outs when Lofton hit into a double play.
Sosa's leadoff homer in the eighth pulled the Cubs to within two and an error by Olmedo on a potential double-play grounder put the tying runs on with one out. But Reds reliever John Riedling induced Ramon Martinez to fly out and struck out pinch-hitter Tom Goodwin.
After Casey's broken-bat single off Mike Remlinger made it 9-6 after eight, Randall Simon's solo homer in the ninth kept hope alive. But after Sosa reached on Olmedo's two-out error, Moises Alou lined out to left to end it.
"Every day it seems to be a different scenario," Guthrie said.