The Chicago Cubs’ season ended last night.
The Cubs had a very good season. They had the third best record during the regular season behind talented young hitters and a couple of dominant starting pitchers. Of course, the two teams with better records were Pittsburgh and St. Louis, both of whom are in the Cubs’ division, which meant that 97 wins only got the Cubs a wild card spot in the playoffs. But the Cubs kept going, beating Pittsburgh in the wild card play-in game and then winning three out of four against St. Louis in the divisional round. Their regular season formula had continued, as they rode solid pitching and timely hitting to dispatch their opponents and set up a matchup against the NL East winners, the New York Mets.
Then, somehow, everything just stopped. The bats that had scored so many runs suddenly fell silent. The Cubs barely managed two runs in the first game and only scored one in the second. The young Cubs, whose raw talent had been able to feast on lesser pitching throughout the regular season, were stymied by the Mets’ starters. They looked lost at the plate and often struggled to even make contact, let alone string together a rally to score enough runs to make a difference.
The Cubs pitchers, meanwhile, were not exactly bad, but they weren’t amazing, either. Jon Lester took the loss in game one and Jake Arrieta, who had thrown a no-hitter earlier in the year, became human and allowed three runs in the first inning of game two. Kyle Hendricks and Jason Hammel, who had been somewhat unpredictable during the regular season, were still serviceable in games three and four, despite being the losing pitchers. The Mets hitters, particularly Curtis Granderson and Daniel “What-is-he-on-and-where-can-I-get-some?” Murphy, never seemed to get out and the runs kept coming.1
As I watched the end of game four, with the Cubs down 8-3 in the bottom of the ninth and the writing having been on the wall since they were in a 6-0 deficit in the second inning, I was somewhat surprised to realize that I was not even so sad about the result. I was disappointed, to be sure, but I wasn’t heartbroken. The Cubs had a fantastic season. They were an extremely young team that was hoping to be competitive and maybe make the playoffs. The fact that they made it all the way to the National League Championship Series is a credit to their talent and to their manager, Joe Maddon, who, as far as I’m concerned, earned every penny of the first year of his 5-year, $25 million dollar contract.
The difference with this Cubs team, as opposed to the teams of past years, is that this team didn’t lose because of a black cat or a billy goat. They didn’t lose because a devoted fan tried to catch a ball and a player’s subsequent tantrum. They didn’t lose because of an error at first base or because of reverse jinx put on them by a movie that came out 26 years ago.
They didn’t lose because of a curse.
The difference, this year, was that the Cubs were playing a better team. The Mets had better depth among their starting pitchers and more consistency among their hitters. When a team relies so heavily on the home run to score, as the Cubs did this year, there are going to be times when the offense has trouble. As it turns out, it’s quite difficult to hit home runs when you have trouble making contact, and the Cubs learned that lesson the hard way.
As opposed to past Cubs teams, the future is still full of promise. Their core batters – Bryant, Rizzo, Schwarber, Soler, Baez, Russell, etc. etc. – is under team control for at least the next six years. They’re very young, as I keep mentioning, and I have to assume that they’re just going to get better. I read an article earlier in the season that essentially predicted that, if things go according to plan and everyone stays relatively healthy, this year should be the Cubs’ worst of the next five or six years.
So yes, the Cubs lost. Their season is over and I’m left counting down the days until spring training. But this time, the slogans “Ya gotta believe,” “It’s gonna happen” and “We are good” don’t seem quite as laughable as they have in the past. I can be optimistic about future teams without feeling, deep down, that I’m kidding myself.
There’s always next year.
1. Murphy, who had a .281 batting average and hit only 14 home runs during the regular season, set a record by hitting a home run in six straight playoff games. He hit one in games four and five against Los Angeles and then had one in each of the four games against the Cubs.↩