Now that the pressure is off, the Cubs have played their best ball in two months.
They entered Friday's game against San Francisco at SBC Park with six victories in the first seven games of their 10-game trip, the Cubs' hottest streak since winning eight of nine in mid-July.
Though they were still two games below .500 and 6 1/2 games out of the wild-card playoff lead, manager Dusty Baker dreamed of a miracle finish that would shock the baseball world.
"We still ain't out of this thing," Baker said Friday. "If we can put some more distance [on .500] then we have a chance. But you have to get to [.500] first to have a chance."
Well, the Cubs dropped another game below .500 with Friday night's 2-1 loss to San Francisco. Giants rookie Matt Cain went the distance, allowing two hits and striking out eight to outduel Cubs starter Jerome Williams.
Derrek Lee's 41st homer in the fourth inning provided the Cubs' lone run.
"From the stuff we went through, from different trials, different people, a young bullpen, an injured pitching staff, injured keystone, that still ain't too bad. It's not where we wanted to be, but when was the last time they had three winning records in a row? How long ago was that?"
That would be 1970-72, the final three years of a six-year streak of playing above .500. Baker was satisfied his team had shaken off two losing streaks of seven games, and one of eight, to get close to .500.
"We could have packed it in and said it's over," he said. "That's 23 games in a row, when you add them up. . . . Until you're mathematically eliminated, you have a chance. If not, why would they have the mathematics in the first place?"
Baker denied that the way the Cubs have played of late makes their deficit "harder to stomach."
"We didn't know [Roberto] Novoa was going to be a setup man, or [Ryan Dempster] was going to be a closer," he said. "Sometimes it takes time to find these guys. Did you know that [Will] Ohman was going to do what he's doing?
"There was a time Ohman wasn't doing what Ohman is doing. There was time when [Jerry] Hairston wasn't doing what he's doing. You have to take something positive out of it, or else, what're you going to do? Walk around all winter feeling like a failure? I ain't doing that."
One of the main reasons for the revival has been Nomar Garciaparra, who was batting .337 with 16 RBIs since coming off the disabled list in August and starting to look more comfortable at third base.
"If I seem [more comfortable] then it's good acting," Garciaparra said with a laugh. "The hardest thing is learning on the fly. You kind of learn from your mistakes."
"We'll deal with that when I talk to him," Baker said. "Lesser athletes do that, and there have been some guys who have done that. What about Robin Yount? And he went to center field."
Either way, rumors the Cubs have no intention of bringing Garciaparra back were unfounded.
"You have to get contractual stuff straight," Baker said. "I think he wants to come back. I think he likes Chicago and I think Chicago likes him. There has been only one problem with Nomar from the beginning here, and that's when he got seriously hurt."
Garciaparra wants to return but isn't thinking about the future yet.
"I love it here," he said. "That stuff has a tendency to take care of itself in the off-season."