CHICAGO - There was an undercurrent of understandable angst at Wrigley Field last night, with the Chicago Cubs facing the possibility of losing the first two home games of the National League Championship Series.
It took only one game for Cub Fever to turn into Cub fatalism, but it took only a few innings to push that feeling back into the Second City's collective subconscious.
The Cubs erupted for eight runs in the first three innings and made things easy for youthful pitching ace Mark Prior on the way to a 12-3 victory over the Florida Marlins that evened the best-of-seven series at a game apiece.
Game 2 started much like Game 1, when the Cubs scored four times in the first inning, but they left no doubt this time, hammering Marlins pitcher Brad Penny for a record-tying seven runs before he was sent to the training room after just two innings to ice his arm and his bruised ego.
Sammy Sosa delivered the biggest blow, wowing the sellout crowd of 39,562 with a mammoth two-run homer in the second inning that cleared the grass hitting background in center field and landed in the upper bleachers under the scoreboard.
Maybe he also delivered a message. Sosa had managed only a three hits in 16 at-bats in the NL Division Series, but he hammered a dramatic ninth-inning homer on Tuesday night to emerge from a postseason slump that dated back to his soft 2-for-11 performance in the 1998 NLDS.
"I was just happy to have a chance to produce and to help this team," Sosa said. "It feels good. I've been lucky to see two good pitches and have been able to hit them out of the ballpark, but they'll see that and they'll make adjustments, and I'll have to make an adjustment myself going back to Florida."
If Sosa is anything, he's a streak hitter, which could bode well for the rest of the postseason, especially if cleanup hitter Moises Alou and No. 5 hitter Aramis Ramirez also continue to deliver intimidating swings.
Alou hit a ball onto Waveland Avenue in Game 1, and Ramirez punctuated Penny's final inning last night with a line drive into the left-field bleachers for his second home run of the postseason. Shortstop Alex Gonzalez added two towering shots in the fifth and sixth innings and now has homered in three straight postseason games.
"Our guys are feeling good," Cubs manager Dusty Baker said. "Sooner or later, your offense is going to get together. I'm not surprised. We have quality hitters, and we haven't had a streak where we were all hitting at the same time."
Prior didn't need that much help, but it was appreciated nonetheless. He shut the Marlins out through the first five innings, but he did not look nearly as overpowering as he had in his impressive Division Series start against the Atlanta Braves.
He allowed two base runners in the first and had runners at first and third with no one out in the second before working his way out of trouble. The Marlins couldn't make anything stick until Derrek Lee and Miguel Cabrera opened the sixth with back-to-back homers.
Baker raised some eyebrows by letting Prior pitch into the eighth inning, when it might have been prudent to pull him early and keep him fresh for a possible sixth game. The Cubs had a huge lead, but Baker learned in Game 6 of last year's World Series how quickly a one-sided game can turn around.
"We discussed [pulling Prior]," Baker said. "That's why we had someone warming up in the eighth with him. The way the ball has been flying out of here today and yesterday, we didn't want to take any chance of them putting up a bunch of crooked numbers and them coming back in the ballgame at all.
"We knew how many pitches he had. Our number was 115. He went one over that and we got him out of there."
Prior said afterward that the extra innings didn't go to waste. He used them to work on his changeup and, presumably, to changes things up so the Marlins don't lock in on him if he has to start a Game 6.
"I went to the changeup more, to see their reaction to it," Prior said. "It's a pitch I have but don't usually use a lot. I threw it a lot in the later innings to increase my familiarity with it."
Everybody in the Cubs' locker room knew what might be at stake last night - nothing less than the dream of a World Series at Wrigley for the first time since 1945 - but Baker was careful to cast Game 2 in much less climactic terms during his pre-game news conference.
"It's not critical," he said. "If you say critical, that means that panic is right behind critical. That's the one thing you don't want to happen. I've been on teams, even World Series teams, that lost the first two and came back and won four in a row. I was on a World Series team that won the first two and lost four in a row.
"You saw Boston [in the American League Division Series]. Now that's critical when you lose two and you've got one to go, and they came back and won three in a row."