CHICAGO — There was a time when the sight of rain at a Chicago Cubs game would elicit a smile and bring back a happy memory. After all, rain is associated with the team’s 2016 World Series championship, as much as anything that went down in their Game 7 victory over the Cleveland Indians.
On that night, the Cubs rallied around each other during a late-inning rain delay, famously led by right fielder Jason Heyward.
Fast-forward to Sunday. At Wrigley Field. With rain falling once again, just as it did on that November night nearly three years ago, the Cubs were again trying to rally. This time, around starter Yu Darvish, as well as their own legacy. For the second straight day, they had a ninth-inning lead against their archrivals, the St. Louis Cardinals. And again, they lost it.
And in doing so, they lost who they were. The Cubs who won that championship are gone forever — leaving behind only the memory of a dominant team. Some players will remain — though likely not the manager — but the vibe won’t ever be the same.
And that’s a good thing.
As these things go, the Cubs need a shakeup of epic proportions. The math says they still have a chance at the playoffs, but no one really believes that. Not after losing five consecutive one-run games and six overall at home.
At Wrigley Field. In the hunt for the playoffs.
The Cubs folded.
Using a twist of a Joe Maddon saying, there is little doubt they let the pressure of the moment exceed the pleasure of the game.
“No matter what the end results end up being, the character is not determined by the final results,” veteran Ben Zobrist said as philosophically as possible. “It’s determined by how you go about the process. We do believe in the process here.”
But that process might be broken. It’s possible that it began to break the day the Cubs won that World Series, but first, it started to bend. And then bend some more, in 2018, and slowly but surely, the team — and its players — lost what set them apart in 2016.
“It’s hard to pinpoint anything,” Maddon said of the breakdowns this season. “Lot of guys are having really good seasons. We’ve lost a lot of one-run games. Is that the lack of a hit or is that lack of a pitch? I don’t know.”
It’s a lack of everything, including the fundamentals of the game. Some numbers lie, but some don’t: The Cubs lead the majors in outs made on the bases, are third in the NL in errors and have the worst save rate in the NL in the ninth inning or later, blowing an MLB-worst 15 of 50 opportunities. They do some things well, such as hitting home runs and shutting down the opponent during blowout wins.
In perhaps the most misleading statistic of any team, the Cubs actually rank third in bullpen ERA in the NL. But take a shovel and dig just below the surface — not very far at all — and you see the underbelly of a bullpen that has been a mess. In high-leverage situations — you know, close games — the Cubs’ relief crew is last in the NL in walk rate (13.6%) and K/BB ratio (1.6), 12th in WHIP (1.50) and opponents’ OPS (.856). Talk about the pressure exceeding the pleasure.
It happened over and over again to the Cubs this season. Not good enough to run away from teams, they also weren’t good enough to grind their way to a better season.
Then came the injuries. Baseball has a cruel way of revealing who you really are over the course of 162 games. And so do the baseball gods. What they told the Cubs over and over again — including Maddon — was that they weren’t good enough or deep enough to play sloppy baseball and still win enough games. The team fought back on that notion, reinforcing the roster by calling up hot-shot Double-A prospect Nico Hoerner to fill in for the ailing Javier Baez. And before that, the front office traded for doubles machine Nick Castellanos. We’re deep enough now, they thought.
Still, it wasn’t enough.
Neither was a heroic return to the field for their ailing captain, first baseman Anthony Rizzo. Days after spraining an ankle, he was back to lead the team to greatness.
They haven’t won since his return.
Of course, there is nothing they can do about injuries, but the issues facing the team came long before anyone got hurt. A lot of them came when the front office didn’t properly equip itself with a closer to start the season. And either Craig Kimbrel is simply struggling because he got a late start or this is who he is. Either way, it’s a problem for the Cubs. That’s what happens when you mess with the baseball gods. Signing a pitcher midseason who had been struggling at the end of the previous year is a recipe for disaster. That is, unless, you’re sure those workouts at a local high school have proven his readiness.
The manager isn’t off the hook, either. How many more runs do the Cubs score if they don’t lead the league in outs on the bases? How many runs do they save — as well as pitches they subsequently wouldn’t have to throw — if not for being at the top of the league in errors? Does a manager have no influence in these areas? Does he not affect young players? When shortstop Addison Russell came up from the minors, in 2015, Maddon was praised for the environment he set for him to succeed. Is criticism unfair when that player regresses? When several others do, as well?
Perhaps no single person is emblematic of the Cubs’ regression than center fielder Albert Almora Jr. The very first draft pick of the Theo Epstein regime — No. 6 overall — is a shell of himself. Once an up-and-coming gold glover who could at least mash lefties, he has been relegated to backup to the backup duty. On Sunday, he entered the game in the ninth inning only to misplay the very first ball he saw. It led to the Cardinals’ win and the Cubs’ collapse.
Pressure. Exceeding. Pleasure.
“We want to win the World Series,” a dejected Almora said after that play. “The chances of that are getting slim.”
Slim has left the building. Miracles are the only thing left, for this season and perhaps for Almora as a Cub. But make no mistake, he isn’t the only player who has regressed.
As for Maddon, he’ll go out as the Cubs’ manager confused about several things, but he really shouldn’t be. When you’re not good enough and you’re not playing sharp, strange things occur. Maddon has wondered: Why is the Cubs’ record in road night games (19-35) so bad? It’s simple, because the team isn’t good enough, and those losses have to show up somewhere, right? It means nothing that it has happened more at night and on the road. It’s an oddity, not the big reason for the Cubs’ woes. There’s more.
“Statistically, if you look at all of the numbers, it doesn’t correspond to where we’re at,” Maddon said. “We’ve had a lot of good individual years offensively. We’ve had starting-pitching issues recently. And then the bullpen has been maligned, but look at the overall numbers with the bullpen, they’re actually really, really good.”
It’s inconceivable, with all the metrics available to the team and manager, that anyone would look at those high-leverage numbers and believe the bullpen has been “really, really good.” But Maddon is right about individual performances. They’ve had some good ones, before the injuries hit. But it’s a further indictment on the group that they haven’t played better as a team.
“It’s hard to cull it down to one particular event or moment or thought,” Maddon said. “It’s difficult.”
On that, Maddon could not have been more right. Not just about this season, but about the Cubs since that November night in 2016. It’s not any one thing that has gone wrong. In fact, it’s possible, everything that has happened since that moment was going to happen. Living in a post-Cubs-World Series-winning world was been nothing like anyone in baseball — even Theo Epstein — could have imagined. Sorry Boston, the Red Sox can’t touch the Cubs in the rags-to-riches narrative — and the adulation that comes with winning it all as a Cub.
“It’s the big leagues of the big leagues,” Zobrist said. “That’s the way fans make you feel here. The front office, the organization, the way everything is run. It’s hard to beat the experience of being a Chicago Cubs player.”
And so the time has come for change. To create something new without having to start over. It’s upon us. And the next six games won’t do anything to change that.
“You would like to have a season where things go your way, but that hasn’t been our path this year,” Epstein said.