Dempster wins 17th as Cubs cruise
Starter pitches five efficient innings to earn victory in finale
CHICAGO -- Ryan Dempster's goal at the start of the season was to total 200 innings and be able to pitch every fifth day. He's done that and more.
The right-hander won his 17th game Sunday as the Cubs posted a 5-1 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals in the regular-season home finale.
With the win, the Cubs finished 55-26 at home, the most wins at Wrigley Field since 1935, when they had a club-record 56. The final attendance total for 81 games was 3,300,200, and there are still more games to be played.
One day after clinching the National League Central for the second straight year, the Cubs' regulars got the day off as Lou Piniella went with a lineup primarily of September callups and bench players. Felix Pie had two hits and scored two runs, and Casey McGehee had two RBIs in the win.
"It was just fun to see some guys out there who haven't had a chance to play a lot do some things and get some first hits and get some RBIs," Dempster said.
Everyone took part in Saturday's division-clinching party. The clubhouse had been cleaned up, but there was the lingering odor of champagne and beer. The carpet was damp after being washed. New gray sweatshirts hung in each player's locker, announcing the Cubs in the "2008 MLB Playoffs." An unopened bottle of Segura Viudas Brut Reserve, left over from the festivities, was on the shelf of Micah Hoffpauir's locker.
There is some unfinished business. The Cubs' magic number to secure home-field advantage in the postseason is now one.
Dempster (17-6), making his next-to-last start of the regular season, gave up one run on six hits over five innings to lower his ERA to 2.99, which ranks among the top five in the league. He notched his 14th win at home, the most by a Cubs pitcher since Fergie Jenkins won a franchise-leading 15 in 1967. The right-hander has reached 201 2/3 innings and hasn't missed a start all season because of injury.
"Things have gone probably better than a lot of people expected," Dempster said. "Wins and losses, sometimes they don't really make up the whole story. It's great to have those kind of numbers and that kind of success, but more importantly, I'm glad I've been healthy and able to go out there every fifth day, and the team knows I'm prepared and giving them a chance to win."
Dempster has come a long way from last year's 28-save season to now leading the team in wins.
"It was obvious when he came to Spring Training that he was up to the challenge," Piniella said. "He was in great shape, he had a fantastic frame of mind. He worked hard in Spring Training to earn a spot in the rotation, it wasn't given. He became our third starter, and I think he's going to be our biggest winner. ... It says a lot for his work ethic and basically his competitiveness and his stuff."
Dempster was lifted after throwing 67 pitches and could've gone longer, but it's part of the Cubs' plan to shorten up their starters in the final week heading into the postseason.
There is still the matter of finalizing the playoff roster and deciding how many pitchers and/or position players to take. Rookie reliever Jeff Samardzija made a good case for being included with a 1-2-3 sixth.
"When you get the chance to go out there and pitch, you go out there and pitch," Samardzija said. "You're always auditioning, no matter whether you're here 10 years or 10 days."
If he can keep throwing that 89-mph split-finger pitch that fooled Felipe Lopez in the sixth, the right-hander will be there in October.
Albert Pujols hit a sacrifice fly in the Cardinals' first, but the Cubs tied the game in the third when Kosuke Fukudome singled, advanced on a base hit by Ronny Cedeno, and scored on Lopez's throwing error. Pie tripled and tagged on McGehee's sacrifice fly in the fourth to go ahead, 2-1. McGehee also hit an RBI single in the sixth, and pinch-hitter Jim Edmonds added a sacrifice fly.
Fukudome showed why he's needed in the lineup, when he fired a perfect strike home to throw out Cesar Izturis, who was trying to score from second on Skip Schumaker's single in the fifth. The outfielder had two hits for his first multi-hit game since Aug. 25.
For McGehee, it was his first big league start and hit.
"Pujols was teasing me over there and said, 'I'll trade you,'" McGehee said of his infield hit in the second, "and I said, 'No chance.'"
Sunday's crowd of 40,551 gave the players a rousing ovation as they took the field. They didn't care that Koyie Hill was behind the plate and not Geovany Soto, or that McGehee was at third and not Aramis Ramirez.
"I think they would've cheered just anybody going out there," McGehee said. "It was nice to scratch a couple runs across and be able to get a win."
"I don't think I've been at a game yet this year where it hasn't been sold out," said Samardzija, who is used to playing in front of 80,000-plus at Notre Dame. "You wouldn't want to play anywhere else."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.