On the morning of September 7th, life was pretty good for the Chicago Cubs. They had just, essentially, ended the San Francisco Giants season by sweeping them in three games at Wrigley, leaving San Francisco 5.5 games behind the Cubs and 2.5 games out of any wildcard spot. The Cubs meanwhile were only two games behind the Brewers for the NL Central lead and the Phillies for the wildcard lead, either resulting in home games in the Division Round. They were 23-11 in their previous 34, they had a Cy Young finalist in Justin Steele, there were fresh call-ups like Jordan Wicks who slotted right in, and contributed. It was all coming together.
The Cubs have since gone 2-7, and perhaps most galling is that five of those losses have been to the Arizona Diamondbacks, another team the Cubs could have put to the sword, and essentially locked up a wildcard slot with two weeks to go. Instead, they’ve lost five of the six games the two teams have played, and now Arizona is as close to them as the boil on their ass.
Last night’s loss was the kind that fans replay in their minds at closing time for the next decade or two, if fans can get that passionate about wildcard spots. The Cubs took the lead four different times, including three times in extra innings, and still lost in 13. Their major bugaboo of late couldn’t have kicked them harder, which is getting the big hit to break games open. In the 10th they had runners on second and third with no out. They got one run. In the 11th they had two runners on with one out having scored a run. That’s all they would get. In the 13th they had runners at 1st and 3rd with no out. They got one run.
To put it another way:
Lately, the Cubs offense has been whatever Cody Bellinger, Seiya Suzuki, and Nico Hoerner can do, and nothing else. You might be amazed to find out that only one of those hitters is batted in the top three of the lineup by manager/glue-sniffing enthusiast David Ross.
There’s been some bad luck as Jeimer Candelario wasn’t great after coming over from DC and then needed a backiotomy. Which has meant Nick “Make A Wish” Madrigal has taken up most of the ABs from third. He’s slugging .286 in September.
Ross isn’t helping though. Mike Tauchman has been able to parlay his month of May that was built on fiendish BABIP treachery into a regular role, even though he’s been awful for weeks and provides average defense in center at best. The Cubs #1 prospect Pete Crow-Armstrong is just sitting on the bench most nights, even though at worst he would provide gold glove-level defense in center. Alexander Canario, another prime prospect who had torn up the minors, became one with the wood in the dugout as well during his time with the club while various Cubs hitters thrashed about.
That isn’t the only worry, as the bullpen has gotten a little iffy. Closer Adbert Alzolay hit the IL with a forearm strain, which is usually the cue for ominous organ music. Last night the Cubs used two converted starters out of the pen in Drew Smyly and Marcus Stroman, both of whom coughed up leads. As of right now the only reliever they can trust is Julian Merrywether, as everyone else has an ERA of double-bogey, or higher in the past month. And it’s not like the Cubs can count on a ton of length from their starters, which has two rookies in the rotation, and pyrotechnic cataclysm James Taillon as well.
It should still be OK for the Cubs, though they probably thought that before this stretch. And in fact their recent streak of buffoonery could aid them. This week they’ll close out the Wrigley portion of the season against the Pirates and Rockies, which should be welcoming (though they just lost two of three to Colorado). The last week of the season will be to Atlanta to see a team that has everything wrapped up already, and then the close with three in Milwaukee against the Brewers who will probably have the division wrapped up themselves, and will be setting their rotation for the division series…which could very well be against the Cubs. Had the Cubs not swallowed their tongue the past two weeks, those three games up I-94 could have meant a whole lot more, and seen them have to negotiated the Brewers’ best starters. Much less likely now.
It’s going to be tense. Arizona and Cincinnati are a mere half-game back, and the former can overtake them by completing the sweep today. The Marlins are a half-game behind that. Arizona only plays teams dead in the water from here (Giants, Yankees, White Sox) before ending the season against the Astros — who at least might still have to care to wrap up the AL West. The Reds schedule isn’t too much tougher (MIN, PIT, CLE, STL). The Marlins have two series with the Mets interspersed with sets against the Pirates and Brewers. No real advantage there.
This is what MLB wanted by expanding the playoffs, majorly flawed teams stumbling over each other, going off the track, and running the wrong way at times to get to October. But the last two weeks will count for all these teams, so buckle up, and enjoy all the crash-filled finales.
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