“Adversity,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon pronounced before they played their first home game this season, “is good for the soul, brother.” Did Maddon and the Cubs absolutely have to make it a self-fulfilling prophecy?
You want adversity? This year’s Cubs laid it on themselves good and thick. This weekend and this month. Right down to the moment Maddon decided it was a good idea with a 2-1 lead to send a gallant but past his single-game sell-by date Yu Darvish out to pitch the top of the ninth Sunday afternoon.
He probably did it because when everything else was said and done Brother Joe couldn’t or wouldn’t trust practically his whole bullpen as far as he could throw any home run pitch surrendered by Cardiac Kimbrel this weekend without the benefit of the ball flying off the end of someone else’s bat.
But pinch hitter Jose Martinez led off hitting a 1-0 cutter to the back of center field that just did elude a diving Albert Almora, Jr. for a triple. Former Cub Dexter Fowler sent pinch-runner Tyler O’Neill home promptly with a sacrifice fly. Then Tommy Edman singled to right, Paul Goldschmidt doubled him home, and then Maddon reached for Pedro Strop, who followed a prompt walk with two swinging strikeouts.
And the Cubs had nothing left against even a less-than-his-old-self Andrew Miller in the bottom of the ninth beyond Jason Heyward’s two-out single. The home side of their 2019 ended in four whimpers. Obviously, ending 118 years worth of adversity three years ago just wasn’t good enough for the soul, brother.
“If you just play back the tape,” Maddon said after Sunday’s game, “it’s almost unbelievable that it turned out this way.” The problem is that it’s only too believable. On a weekend when the Cubs needed to play like their 2016 selves in the worst way possible, they played like their 1909-2015 selves—in the worst ways possible.
The Cardinals, though, had just enough left. “There was a time when we could have mailed it in,” said shortstop Paul DeJong after Saturday night’s survival. “But we kept pushing. We’re at a point in the year where we smell blood and we’re trying to take what’s ours.”
Thus did the Cardinals clinch at least a postseason trip. Their magic number for a division clinch is two. The Cubs’ tragic number for even wild card elimination is five. They may get to regroup against what’s left of the Pirates for three in PNC Park, but guess who they end the regular season against and where next weekend?
Does Kris Bryant still think St. Louis is a boring town? I’ve never been there but I know this much about their Cardinals: They have been and they are a good many things. Boring isn’t one of them. Even the best baseball fans on earth, which is the reputation Cardinal fans do have, won’t be able to resist letting the Cubs have it but good next weekend.
The problem is, the Cubs are many things except boring, too, but their kind of excitement did the Cardinals the biggest favour of their month and, just maybe, their season. And if you want to talk about karma, be reminded that Bryant had to leave Sunday’s game after spraining his ankle trying to beat a third inning-ending double play.
Now it’s almost impossible to believe the Cubs began the four-game set against the Cardinals with a clean shot at overthrowing the NL Central leaders. And all four losses were by a single run, making for the longest streak of one-run losses (five) the Cubs have had since 1947, the last time they’d lost four straight one-run games.
How much it would have kept the Cubs’ almost-dissipated postseason hopes alive can’t be known now, but in a season during which he’s been second guessed frequently enough one more won’t kill Maddon.
If he wasn’t even going to think about Kimbrel Sunday, and he probably would have been executed on the spot if he did, why didn’t he give Darvish a pat on the fanny and thanks for a job done well above and beyond the call, and send Strop out to open the top of the ninth?
It’s not that that was the single decision above all that sank the Cubs this year. They were done in by a combination of factors, especially their terrible road results. Yet if Strop had a season to forget for the most part his September’s been plenty strong. He has only one earned run surrendered in six and a third innings’ September work, including five strikeouts now in two and a third innings against the Cardinals this weekend.
But the Cardinals had their own issues. They looked pitiful enough at the All-Star break, their shutdown closer Jordan Hicks went down to Tommy John surgery in June, and even the best fans on earth couldn’t resist the itch to demand president John Mozeliak’s head on the proverbial plate.
Then they picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and went 44-23 after the break so far, against the Cubs’ post-break 35-30. Mozeliak is presumed safe from the guillotine. The Cardinals don’t necessarily see adversity as good for the soul so much as they see it means time to see what they’re really made of. It looks like they’re made of a lot stronger stuff than even their own fans thought.
Some Cub heads may roll soon enough. A few of those heads may remain Chicago icons for their parts in the 2016 conquest, but a team whose fans too long lamented, “This year is next year,” isn’t really in the mood to go forward saying, “Ahhhh, wait till three years ago.”
Maddon wasn’t offered a contract extension and he’s liable to finish the season as another ex-Cub manager, never mind the one who finally led them to their first World Series conquest since the Roosevelt Administration. (Theodore’s.)
President Theo Epstein’s most recent signings weighed against the net results this year could have him placed on probation, figuratively speaking. This year’s Cubs “were done as soon as ‘urgency’ and ‘October starts in March’ became the alternatives to actually fixing a lineup the front office said ‘broke’ and a bullpen that was an obvious weak link coming out of spring training,” wrote Chicago Sun-Times columnist Rick Morrissey Saturday.
Strop plus trade deadline find Nicholas Castellanos, Cole Hamels, Steve Cishek, and others face free agency this winter. Ben Zobrist—whose season was disrupted sadly by his difficult divorce, which prompted him to leave the team for a spell to tend his children through it—may or may not retire after it’s over.
And Chicago Tribune columnist Paul Sullivan thinks aloud that, if Epstein’s recent talk about days of reckoning can be believed, it’s not impossible that Bryant, Almora, Jose Quintana, and the should-have-been-purged Addison Russell (it wasn’t a great look when the Cubs stood by him despite his too-much-proven domestic violence) will find new uniforms to wear next year.
Adversity may be good for the soul, but not everybody turns it into postseason possibilities. The Yankees and the Astros underwent a lot more adversity this year, but now the Yankees have an American League East clinch, the Astros have a postseason berth clinched at minimum, and those two are battling to see who finishes with baseball’s best record on the season.
This year’s Cubs were a good, not great team, as Morrissey notes. Maybe Maddon should get a re-consideration considering the Cubs managed to get to within a fortnight of securing just the second wild card at all. Maybe. Maybe not.
But Maddon didn’t help his cause or his case Sunday afternoon. The much-maligned, oft-struggling Darvish has been the Cubs’ best pitcher in this year’s second half: a .194 batting average against him; a .605 opposition OPS; a 2.70 ERA; a 0.81 walks/hits per inning pitched rate. He gave the Cubs everything he had Sunday until Maddon asked him for what wasn’t left. And failed to see Darvish’s tank on fumes.
Maybe Epstein should get just a little more than mere probation especially since the promised player development machine over the last eight years has been a broken promise except for Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, David Bote, and this stretch drive’s pleasant-surprise emergency call-up Nico Hoerner. As Morrissey reminds, not one homegrown Cub has thrown a postseason pitch or stuck around for more than a full season.
If adversity’s good for the soul, it should be better for a top down rethinking. There won’t be any more baseball at Wrigley Field this year, barring divine intervention. The angels have only so much kindness to spread around.