Until We Meet Again ...

Two years ago on Sept. 28, far more joyous times were to be shared when the Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs met at Wrigley Field.

The Cubs were one day removed from capping off an 88-win regular season en route to their first Division title since 1989.

Funny how time slips away.

The Cubs closed out the home portion of their 2005 schedule on Wednesday with the latest in a long line of frustrating, often blundering losses at Wrigley Field this season, falling to the Pirates, 3-2.

Mark Prior (11-7) started and gave up three runs in five innings before departing. The Cubs' bats lacked punch as well, save for a rare Jose Macias home run onto Waveland Avenue, his first of the year, as part of a two-run Cubs sixth inning.

In perhaps what was the perfect microcosm of the season, the Cubs loaded the bases with nobody out in the bottom of the ninth only to come away empty handed. Corey Patterson and Ben Grieve both struck out before Macias popped up to shallow right-center for the game's final out.

The Cubs (77-81) finished the year 38-43 at Wrigley and will finish below .500 barring a four-game sweep against the Wildcard-leading Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park beginning Thursday.

"It's been a constant struggle," Cubs manager Dusty Baker told reporters after the game. "We kept fighting, struggling, clawing and scratching, but just came up short."

Baker, set to wrap up his third year as Cubs skipper, recently suggested that the annual increase in night games running through next season will help the Cubs perform better at home, where they suffered their first losing season since the hideous 2002 campaign under Don Baylor and Bruce Kimm.

After the Chicago City Council approved an ordinance granting the Cubs more night games in February of 2004, the team began adding four additional night games at Wrigley each year, jumping from 18 in 2003 to 30 by 2006. The Cubs are 35-40 in night games this season and 42-41 in day games.

Also with regards to Wrigley, an additional 1,800 bleacher seats will be added beyond the outfield walls in time for the home opener next season. Construction on the expansion project will begin later this week. The Cubs will open 2006 in Cincinnati for the third time since 2002, but have not announced who will come to Wrigley for the home opener.

The Cubs will meet the Astros at 7:05 p.m. CDT Thursday to kick off their final series of the season. Glendon Rusch (8-8, 4.62 ERA) is scheduled to face Wandy Rodriguez (10-9, 5.62 ERA). The game can be seen on Comcast SportsNet Chicago. Saturday's game, originally slated for 6:05 p.m., has been moved up to 3:05 p.m. to accommodate a FOX network broadcast.

The Cubs finished the year hitting .271 as a team at Wrigley. Derrek Lee had the best batting average (minimum 100 at-bats) there at .328. The pitching staff meanwhile had a combined ERA of 4.22 with Will Ohman's 3.06 mark being tops on the staff.

As Harry once put it, "Maybe next year will be the year we've all been waiting for."

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