It was around this time ten years ago that the 2007 Chicago Cubs reached one of their most pivotal moments of the season, so now would be a good time to look back on what was one of the more eventful seasons in recent memory (before last year, of course).
General manager Jim Hendry, known for his aggressiveness in adding big names to the major league roster while he ran the team, had perhaps his most active offseason prior to the 2007 campaign. Sensing that the whole Kerry Wood and Mark Prior thing just wasn’t working, Hendry added Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis to the rotation. He also added super-utility player Mark DeRosa and outfielder Cliff Floyd. But the biggest acquisition – one that would set the tone for the franchise for years to come – was Alfonso Soriano, who signed a massive eight-year contract with the team. To lead this new-look Cubs squad, they brought in veteran firebrand manager Lou Piniella to replace Dusty Baker.
There was optimism that Piniella would light a fire under this underachieving team – they hadn’t returned to the playoffs since their magical 2003 run – and at least guide them to a significant improvement over their 66-96 finish in 2006. But it didn’t go well for the first two months of the season. It was on June 1 and 2, at home against the Braves, that the 2007 Cubs reached their low point. On Friday, during an 8-5 loss, Carlos Zambrano and Michael Barrett got into a fight in the Cubs’ dugout. It was caught on camera and replayed over and over on sports channels everywhere as a symbol of how this team was in disarray. The next day, the Cubs lost again, 5-3. It was their sixth straight loss and sent them to a 22-31 record for the season.
During that game, Piniella threw a huge tantrum on the field when the Cubs’ Angel Pagan was thrown out at third trying to advance on a wild pitch. It was a close play, but most people later admitted that umpire Mark Wegner made the right call. It led many fans to speculate that Piniella, frustrated with the team’s play, planned this out and just waited for the right moment to try to inspire his team.
Did it work? Well, we can’t argue with the results. On August 1, with a win over the Phillies, the Cubs completed a 35-18 run and moved into a tie with the Brewers for first place. The most important win during that stretch was on June 29, when the Cubs overcame an early five-run deficit and beat the Brewers at Wrigley, 6-5, with a walk-off, two-run home run from Aramis Ramirez off Brewers closer Francisco Cordero. The Cubs were still 6.5 games behind Milwaukee at that point, but it sent a message to the young Brewers that they would not go away easily.
After reaching first place on August 1, the Cubs didn’t exactly play great baseball the rest of the way, going 28-28 over the final 56 games. But the Brewers didn’t play any better and neither team was able to run away with the division. Finally, during their final home series on the second-to-last weekend of the regular season, the Cubs created a little separation, sweeping the lowly Pirates to move 3.5 games up with a week to play. On the verge of wrapping up the division, the Cubs then went to Miami and got swept by the Florida Marlins – another punch to the gut from a team that had already devastated Cubs fans just a few years ago. But the Brewers were also losing during that final week, and on the final Friday of the season, the Cubs clinched the division by virtue of their win over the Reds combined with a Brewers loss.
One big difference from the 2003 team is that the Cubs got little contribution from their midseason acquisitions. That year, Kenny Lofton, Aramis Ramirez, and Randall Simon all came over in the middle of the year and played a big role in carrying the team to within one game of the pennant. In 2007, their biggest midseason pickup was Jason Kendall, who they acquired to replace Michael Barrett after they traded him following conflicts with his teammates, including the fight with Zambrano. But Kendall hit .270 with just one home run for the Cubs, eventually losing playing time to the up-and-coming Geovany Soto, who would win NL Rookie of the Year in 2008. Outfielder Craig Monroe and pitcher Steve Trachsel, the latter returning after being a staple of the Cubs’ starting rotation in the late 1990s, also were ineffective after the Cubs brought them in via trade.
Ironically, two of the Cubs’ most maligned players at the time ended up being perhaps the two biggest reasons the team was able to do just enough to win the division. In the wake of his massive contract, Soriano was the biggest subject of fans’ anger when the team got off to a rough start and he struggled mightily, collecting a grand total of one RBI by the end of April. But he caught fire late, hitting 14 home runs during the final month and finishing with a .299 batting average and 33 homers despite missing three weeks in August due to injury. Meanwhile, outfielder Jacque Jones struggled so badly in the first half that it looked certain he would be traded. But he somehow recovered and batted .332 with an incredible 46 RBIs in the second half. The Cubs likely would not have won the division had Jones not stepped up.
Another player who would later become one of the most vilified Cubs in recent memory was critical to the team’s 2007 success. After failing to stick as a starter the previous year, the Cubs brought right-handed pitcher Carlos Marmol back to the big leagues in May and tried him as a reliever. Right away, he wowed Cubs fans with his ability to blow hitters away late in games, and he quickly became Piniella’s go-to seventh and eighth inning option. At the end of the year, he had pitched in 59 games, allowing just 41 hits and 11 earned runs while striking out a whopping 96 batters in 69.1 innings. Ryan Dempster was technically the closer, but more often than not it was Marmol who saved the game out of the Cubs’ bullpen.
In most years, the Cubs’ final record of 85-77 wouldn’t have been good enough to reach the postseason. But while they were fortunate to be in a weak division, the entire National League was pretty mediocre. The 2007 NL Playoff field has to be among the worst in league history. In the Division Series, the Cubs were matched up with the Arizona Diamondbacks, who had the best record in the league despite allowing more runs than they scored during the season. Even though the Cubs weren’t exactly a great team, there was hope that with all the parity they could find a way to at least win the pennant.
As we all know, that didn’t happen. The pesky Diamondbacks beat the Cubs three in a row, dominating both on the mound and at the plate. Arizona completed the sweep in Game 3 at Wrigley Field, as Rich Hill – yes, THAT Rich Hill, the one that dominated the Cubs in Game 3 of the 2016 NLCS with the Dodgers – took the loss for the Cubs. Even though the season ended with a thud, I still thought it was a great year and cherish the memories from 2007 to this day.
Brian Johnston is the author of the book The Art of Being a Baseball Fan, his story of following the 2015 Chicago Cubs, available on Amazon. He lives in St. Joseph, Michigan with his wife and two children.