It's only July. So went the refrain sung in the Brewers and Cubs clubhouses at Miller Park leading up to Game 1 of the four-game NL. Central showdown between Milwaukee and Chicago. But on Monday night a roar rang out in the ballpark after Alfonso Soriano waltzed home for the game-winning run in the ninth inning -- a roar that could be heard all the way back in Wicker Park -- and by then it was more than clear that this wasn't just another game in July.
Here was a midsummer game (in Milwaukee!) dripping with the drama of September. Mets-Phillies, move over. As an electric night in Beer City showed us, Brewers-Cubs has officially arrived as the best rivalry in the National League.
"The players were into it," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said moments after his team's 6-4 win. "It was well played. From a fan's standpoint, it was a playoff atmosphere. Pretty good way to start a July series."
Said Cubs reliever Chad Gaudin: "The atmosphere was great. Every pitch everyone was into it. You could feel the excitement."
All four games of the series had been sold out -- before tonight's game ticket scalpers were demanding a cool $1,000 for seats behind home plate, $100 for a spot in the outfield bleachers. The series was being hailed by longtime locals as the biggest since the Yankees came to town in September of '82. A preview of the four-game set was plastered all over the hometown paper's Monday edition. And Monday night's game shattered a record for number of fan posts at the popular blog, Bleed Cubbie Blue.
The nomadic Cubs fans that made the 90-mile sojourn up I-94 were already out in full force three hours before first the pitch. Fat guys in Fukudome jerseys chanted as each of their beloved Cubbies emerged from the dugout. ("Sori! Sori!" "Kerry! Kerry!" "Z! "Z!" "Louuuuuu!") The ballpark was abuzz and already just about packed by first pitch at 7:10 p.m., stuffed with grown men in Sabathia unis and screaming teenage girls in J.J. Hardy t-shirts. A man in the stands waved a sign, WELCOME TO WRIGLEY FIELD NORTH, as the Chi-town fans roared after Soriano slammed a double off the wall in left-center on the game's second pitch. Here in Big 10 country, the night had raucousness of a Badger-Wolverine football game. "The atmosphere was great," said J.J. Hardy, "though there were more Cubs fans than I would have liked."
For one more night, at least, Miller Park remained Wrigley North, where the Cubs are 32-26 since the ballpark's opening. Losers of seven of their last 11 entering the series, the Cubs rediscovered their mojo on Monday behind Soriano (he homered, doubled, and stole a base in his fifth game back from the DL), and Derrek Lee, who swatted a tie-breaking RBI double with one out in the ninth inning to bring Soriano home with the winning score. During their slump, the Cubs lost the plate discipline that had feuled their great first half. Tonight was different. "They were patient," says Milwaukee's CC Sabathia, whose run of three straight complete games ended after an uneven outing in which he allowed nine hits and four runs over 6 2/3 innings. "I took the Dave Burba approach," he said. "If you don't got it, fake it. I feel fortunate that I put us in a position to win."
Even after a night like this, the Sabathia trade still stands, by far, as Milwaukee's biggest swap since Rollie Fingers and Ted Simmons arrived from St. Louis 28 years ago. Sabathia is a big reason why, on Monday, the Brewers hosted their eighth straight sellout crowd, a franchise record. By week's end, they likely will have sold enough tickets to break the club's single-season attendance record. "He's a horse," says Piniella. "You saw how much confidence they have in him when they kept him to face the meat of our lineup [in the seventh with the Brewers ahead 3-2]."
The Brewers fell to two games back in the Central -- though the margin is still closer than anyone would have imagined less than two months ago: On June 6 the Brewers were 8 ½ games behind the Cubs and as lifeless as a headstone. The schedule the rest of the way favors Milwaukee; the Brewers have just 19 games against teams with records over .500 left on their calendar. The two teams will meet again in Chicago in mid-September, then reconnect in Miller Park for the last series of the season. As good as Monday night's game was, Tuesday could be better: Carlos Zambrano and Ben Sheets duel in Game 2.
"You look at their club, and it looks like we're going to have to play well to win the division," said Cubs starter Ted Lilly. "Tonight was fun. It's fun to play in this environment, especially in July. It was a big win for us."
As big as a win in July can get.