CHICAGO — During the Chicago Cubs’ 108-year World Series drought, the team developed a reputation as the lovable loser. The 100-loss seasons and crushing playoff losses hurt, but there was something endearing about the franchise. The diehard Cubs fan may not have seen it that way, but would still lean on the phrase “there’s always next year” after the dust had settled.
But 2016 changed all that. By breaking through and finally winning it all, the Cubs proved there was nothing supernatural preventing them from winning a title. They won the same way every other team won, with good players and some luck.
That’s what makes Friday’s 2-1 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals all the more frustrating. While the Cubs aren’t out of it, the loss punctuated a week in which their playoff hopes took a dive.
“Obviously, we are running out of time,” manager Joe Maddon said after the game. “To catch them is becoming more difficult, but there’s still a solid opportunity to be a playoff team, but you have to keep playing the game as if you’re going to catch St. Louis. You have to go out there with that attitude.”
Many of the players who led the team to a World Series win are still here. Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber still hit in the middle of the order, Jason Heyward still patrols the outfield and Willson Contreras still has control of the pitching staff. Even Anthony Rizzo, who miraculously returned from what should have been a season-ending ankle injury, drew a start at first base.
But that group hasn’t collectively experienced the same success. The team regressed in 2017, losing in the National League Championship Series. They dropped even further last season, falling in the wild-card game.
This year stands to be even worse. With Friday’s loss, the Cubs have fallen to five games back of the Cardinals in the division. The loss also drops them a game and a half behind the surging Milwaukee Brewers for the final wild-card spot in the National League.
Getting to the postseason won’t be easy, but it’s still possible. With eight games remaining, the Cubs still play the Cardinals five more times. If they can’t take those five games from the Cardinals, they just have to be a game and a half better than the Brewers.
Hoping the Brewers falter might be the easier route. While the Cubs didn’t rule out the division, the players know the odds are against them.
“We have to beat the Cardinals every game from here on out, which can be done, but if we want to get to the playoffs, we’ve got to win games,” Rizzo said after the contest.
When asked whether the team was focusing on the wild card now, Rizzo reiterated that last point, saying the Cubs just have to win.
The team faces an uphill battle, but they still show flashes of promise. Even in Friday’s loss, there were moments where the team threatened. Pitcher Alec Mills held the Cardinals scoreless over 4 2/3 innings in his spot start, Rizzo reached base in his first two plate appearances and Schwarber singled to put the game-tying run on first base to open the eighth inning.
All of those moments ended in disappointment. David Phelps allowed two runs to score in the sixth inning, Rizzo was taken out of the game to preserve his ankle and Schwarber was erased after Willson Contreras hit into a double play on the next pitch.
That pattern has been present lately. The Cubs have had chances to capitalize, but haven’t been able to get the job done. On top of Friday’s tease, the team managed to pull off a dramatic, ninth-inning comeback against the Cardinals on Thursday only to fall in extra innings.
Maddon stressed that point after the game, saying, “When the opportunities come up, we have to take advantage of them.”
Those failures aren’t just on the players. The front office could have supplemented the team’s core with a significant addition in the offseason, but mostly laid low. Instead, the club held out until June to bring in closer Craig Kimbrel. The 31-year-old Kimbrel has a 5.95 ERA over 19 2/3 innings, leaving the team to wonder whether things would have been different if Kimbrel was signed in the offseason.
The team’s struggles would be disappointing in any season, but the specter of 2016 looms large. Without a late surge, 2019 will be the first season since that World Series win that the Cubs will miss the playoffs.
These days, that’s unacceptable. With a World Series championship came altered expectations. The Cubs have to win it all now. They can’t simply post a winning record and provide hope that next year will be better.
That’s even more crucial this season, because waiting until next year comes with a lot of unknowns. Maddon is in the final year of his contract, and could be out if the team fails to make it to the postseason. The Boston Red Sox should have some front office positions open after firing Dave Dombrowski, and the Cubs’ front office has plenty of ties to Boston — including Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer. While the Cubs aren’t set to lose any major on-field contributors other than Cole Hamels and second-half star Nicholas Castellanos, the core will be a year older.
Should the Cubs fail to make it to the postseason, 2019 will feel like the end of an era. Sure, many of the players from that World Series team will still remain, but the fans won’t look at them with the same level of optimism. Not after the Cubs proved they can be beaten.
The Cubs can’t turn to their lovable loser persona so shortly after a World Series win. What the team is going through now is much more painful than that.
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