on October 1, 2007 by in Uncategorized, Comments (0)

Soriano hits record homer, NL Central champion Cubs head into playoffs with 8-4 loss to Reds

CINCINNATI (AP) _ With their leadoff hitter playing like Mr. September, the Chicago Cubs feel good about the month that comes next — the one where they’ve failed for the last 98 years.

Could this finally be a team for October?

Alfonso Soriano set a club record with his 14th homer in September, and the NL Central champions headed into the playoffs following an 8-4 loss to the Cincinnati Reds on Sunday that amounted to a light workout.

Now, the quest for a World Series begins again.

The Cubs will open their first playoffs since 2003 in Arizona on Wednesday, with Carlos Zambrano and Ted Lilly pitching the first two games. The Cubs went 2-4 against the Diamondbacks this season.

“This is a game where if a team gets hot at the right time and gets on a roll, anything can happen,” said Lilly, who threw 21 pitches Sunday in two perfect innings. “I feel if we play our baseball, we can win the Series.”

After clinching the division title on Friday, the Cubs used the last two games to rest and stay sharp. They used eight pitchers on Sunday, treating it like the final game of spring training.

Joey Votto drove in a career-high five runs and hit a three-run homer off closer Ryan Dempster (2-7) in the fourth inning. The Reds ended a seven-game losing streak on the final day of their losing season.

Cincinnati hoped to contend in baseball’s weakest division, but got off to the worst start in the majors and fired manager Jerry Narron. The Reds went 41-39 under interim manager Pete Mackanin, whose status will be one of the team’s first major decisions in the offseason.

“It’s always nice to go out a winner, but I don’t think it’s going to impact whether I get the job,” Mackanin said.

Rookie Homer Bailey (4-2), the franchise’s most promising pitching prospect, settled down once the Cubs got their regulars out of the game. Soriano went 3-for-3 off Bailey, who gave up four runs, eight hits and four walks in 5 2-3 innings.

Chicago didn’t much care.

The Cubs left town with frothy memories of what they hope will be the first of several champagne celebrations in 2007. They also had another year in mind: 1908, the last time they won a World Series.

After a near-century of suffering, they’ve got a manager who has a collection of championship rings and knows a thing or two about what it takes to get them. Lou Piniella won two World Series as a Yankees player and another as manager of the 1990 Reds.

He’s got a good feeling about this team.

“We’ve got as good a chance as anybody else,” Piniella said. “We’re built for the short-term as well as the long haul.

“We’ve got a veteran team, basically. We’ve got some pitchers in the rotation that can keep you in the ballgame, and a strong bullpen that can close you out. Basically, what it amounts to is how well you hit.”

No one is doing that better these days than Soriano.

The cornerstone of the Cubs’ $300 million offseason overhaul, Soriano has been at his best down the stretch. The left fielder opened Sunday’s game with his 14th homer of September, eclipsing Ernie Banks’ previous mark from 1957.

“I’m very happy to have the record,” Soriano said. “Everybody knows who Ernie Banks is. But I’m really excited to be back in the playoffs.”

His seventh leadoff homer in September also was the most by any major league player in any month. Soriano singled home a pair of runs in the second, then got a standing ovation from the thousands of Cubs fans when he left after his fourth-inning double.

“September is a big month, and he stepped up,” first baseman Derrek Lee said. “He ignites our offense.”

Right-hander Jason Marquis, under consideration as a fourth starter in the playoffs, gave up a run-scoring single to Ryan Hanigan in the third that ended Cincinnati’s streak of 20 innings without a run. Votto followed with a two-run double.

When it ended, the Cubs were thinking about how far they’ve come and how it will help with what comes next.

“We’ve been in a lot of situations that you don’t want to be in, but we were,” outfielder Cliff Floyd said, referring to Chicago’s 8½-game deficit in June. “Fortunately, I think that does help you. We went through a lot of adversity, but we stuck together. We’ve come together.”

Notes:@ Three Cubs remain from their 2003 playoff team: 3B Aramis Ramirez and pitchers Zambrano and Kerry Wood. … The Cubs hit 43 homers in September, tied for the fifth-most in any month in franchise history. … Soriano is batting .383 in his last 14 games. … The Reds won their final game of the season for the first time since 1998. … The Reds finished with their third 90-loss season in the last seven years. They haven’t had a winning record since 2000, the year Ken Griffey Jr. joined the team. … The 21-year-old Bailey made nine starts and had a 5.76 ERA.