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The Cubs started out Game 2 of their National League Division Series on Wednesday as though they were primed to torch Atlanta in three quick-and-easy steps.
Only five batters into the game, they had a two-run lead and the bases loaded with no outs, putting Mike Hampton on the ropes seemingly in the blink of an eye.
But things got murky in a hurry, and the failure to capitalize in the first haunted the Cubs in a 5-3 loss to the Braves that evened the best-of-five series 1-1.
Mark De Rosa's two-out, two-run double off reliever Dave Veres snapped a 3-3 tie in the eighth.
"They had someone warming up in the bullpen real early," Cubs manager Dusty Baker said. "So in a lot of ways it could've been decided in that first inning if we had put the ball in play. We could've had a whole bunch of runs early."
The Cubs weren't exactly satisfied with a split but still feel good about their chances going back to Chicago. After an off-day Thursday, Mark Prior faces Greg Maddux in Game 3 on Friday at Wrigley Field.
"It's a best-case scenario for us," Eric Karros said. "Prior has been our most effective pitcher the last 1½-2 months. We're going home, and that should help us a bit. Obviously you'd like to go 2-0 after you win the first one, but we still feel like we have as good a shot as they do. We have Prior, [Matt] Clement and [Kerry Wood], and those were the three top guns coming out of spring training."
After Hampton walked the first two hitters, Sammy Sosa belted a shot to dead center field that hit the top of the wall before bouncing upwards and back in play. Center fielder Andruw Jones caught the rebound and fired back to the infield, but Mark Grudzielanek had to backtrack to second because it appeared Kenny Lofton would hold at third.
"Why, in that situation, would you go and run like it's a hit when you're not sure?" Lofton said. "If [Jones] catches the ball, you have to go all the way back to tag. The worst-case scenarioif he doesn't catch the ball, I go to third and it's bases loaded, no outs. That's the smart thing to do."
Grudzielanek and Sosa nearly converged at second.
"When I saw Jones' back turned, I took off," Grudzielanek said. "That's when I ran right up on Kenny. I had to make a decision, either go back or force [Lofton] to go home, and he went home anyways and it worked out to where it should have been."
When the throw skipped past the plate, Lofton scored, Grudzielanek advanced to third and Sosa remained on second. When Moises Alou followed with a grounder between third and short, Grudzielanek initially retreated to third before breaking for home. Vinny Castilla made a whirling throw home, where Grudzielanek was ruled safe in a bang-bang play, making it 2-0.
Aramis Ramirez then singled to load the bases with no outs, but Hampton promptly struck out the next three hitters to get out of the inning with minor damage. He went on to strike out three more in a row, tying a postseason record of six.
The Braves scored one off Carlos Zambrano in the first and tied it in the fourth with three straight singles. With two on and two out in the sixth, the Braves took a 3-2 lead when pinch-hitter Marcus Giles, who sat out with a bruised thigh, delivered a first-pitch RBI single to left.
John Smoltz came on in relief in the eighth and gave up back-to-back one-out singles to Karros and Randall Simon before Tom Goodwin's sacrifice fly tied it again.
But Simon inexplicably tried to advance on the throw home and was thrown out easily at second to end the inning.
"They executed the relay throw perfectly," Baker said.
Dave Veres issued a one-out walk to Castilla in the eighth. Then, after fouling off two bunt attempts, Smoltz laid down a perfect bunt to send pinch-runner Jesse Garcia to second. Baker ordered an intentional walk to Rafael Furcal and Veres got ahead of De Rosa 1-2 before the second baseman launched one into the gap in left-center that scored both runners.
"It was a ball," Veres said. "[Bako] went down to block it in the dirt. Sometimes you make a good pitch and you get beat on it."
The Cubs had plenty of opportunities but neglecting to cash in during the first may have cost them the game.
"Nobody said Atlanta is a bad team," Sosa said. "They're a very good team. When you have a chance to beat a team like that, you have to make sure you don't lose those chances. You have to take advantage."