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MILWAUKEE — A high-scoring affair at American Family Field on Saturday saw the Cubs pull out a 10-6 win over the National League Central champion Brewers. A win that ended up not meaning much of anything.
If the Cubs had any real control left over their postseason fate with one game left in the regular season, this win would’ve felt huge. It might’ve galvanized the team a bit more, or at least let them breathe a sigh of relief after four straight frustrating losses on the road.
But inside the clubhouse after the victory, there was no celebration. No talking about coming back out for the regular season finale and giving themselves another shot. It was obvious that the reality of their situation had sunk in.
Entering Saturday, the only scenario in which the Cubs could make the playoffs was this: They needed to win both of their last two games in Milwaukee, the Reds needed to at least split their last two in St. Louis, and the Marlins needed to drop both of their last two in Pittsburgh plus their suspended game against the Mets that was scheduled to be resumed Monday, if necessary.
Cincinnati held up its end of the bargain, losing 15-6 to the Cardinals. But Miami wasn’t about to let the Cubs’ playoff hopes stay alive for another day. The Marlins beat the Pirates, 7-3, completing their ‘W’ as the Cubs were grabbing their bats for the top of the eighth.
No wonder Miguel Amaya pinch-hit for Yan Gomes that inning and Pete Crow-Armstrong replaced Cody Bellinger in center field the next frame. There wasn’t really a reason for Cubs manager David Ross to keep all of “the guys that got us here” in the game, because Miami’s victory clinched its wild card spot and officially eliminated the Cubs from postseason contention.
“It stinks,” said Jameson Taillon, who pitched four scoreless innings out of the bullpen and earned the save in his first big league relief appearance. “I was just thinking this would be a really fun team to compete with in the playoffs and pop champagne with. This is a great group. That was probably the most challenging year in my career, and just showing up every day was so much fun here. This is a great crew, from the clubhouse staff to the coaches to the players — all the way through. It definitely hurts, but we made our bed, and we have to lie in it.”
“Definitely hurts to come up short, which is what we did,” said Nico Hoerner, who was out of the lineup after fouling a ball off his left knee during the Cubs’ loss Friday. “We were in a really strong place to go to the postseason recently and did not play our best in the final two weeks — which obviously left us short. That part is really real and stings.”
The Cubs only have themselves to blame. They’ve gone 7-14 over their last 21 games with just one left to play. Before that stretch, on Sept. 6, they sat 1 1/2 games back of the Brewers in the division and 1 1/2 back of the Phillies for the top wild card spot. FanGraphs’ playoff odds gave them a 92.4 percent chance to make the playoffs that day as they were on a 50-28 run. They legitimately looked like a playoff team with potential to make noise.
So, how does a team playing that way ultimately lose out on a playoff spot?
“You earn your right to go to the postseason,” Ross said. “We have not played postseason-caliber baseball for a team that deserves to be in the postseason as of late. That’s just a fact. To get into the big dance, you’ve got to play well, and you’ve got to play well when it matters. We haven’t.”
Obviously, there’s a strong belief in that clubhouse that the team took a step forward.
Not only will they end with their best record in a 162-game season since 2019 (which they can tie at 84-78 with a win Sunday), but they responded to adversity time and time again this year. From climbing back to respectability after falling 10 games below .500 in June to winning eight games in a row to convince the front office to not sell at the deadline, this group showed it had the ability to at least fight like a winner — which is part of building a solid foundation for a winning culture.
But there’s also the fact that, by getting themselves in those holes in the first place, this season showed why stacking wins early in the season can be just as crucial as doing it at the end.
“I think what we learn is that those games even earlier than that — April, May, June — they count,” Gomes said. “They’re really important, you know? That’s what going into the end of September, we started just locking it in on those games. I think we’re going to take a little bit more of a step forward and realize that every single game of the year counts.”
The Cubs had some success stories. Justin Steele turned into a Cy Young candidate. Adbert Alzolay looked like he had the makings of a top-tier closer. Jordan Wicks and Javier Assad were young players who contributed and look like strong options on the future pitching staff.
Bellinger had his best season since he won the NL MVP in 2019. Gomes was the team’s most clutch hitter all season. Nico Hoerner and Dansby Swanson have formed probably the best defensive middle infield duo in baseball.
So yes, there were successful steps taken this season — but the fact is this team won’t look the same in 2024.
Bellinger is set to hit free agency again. Gomes and Kyle Hendricks’ contracts contain club options for next season, while Marcus Stroman’s has a player option. There’s no guarantee any of them are back next year.
Now, certainly, the team shouldn’t look exactly the same next year. Improvements have to be made to the roster (a third/first baseman? More bullpen help? Another upper-tier starter?). If the Cubs are serious about making a deep postseason run next year, they’ll have to be big players in the trade and free-agent market.
But that doesn’t mean the end of this group’s run isn’t tough on them. They are very much aware that they had a golden opportunity to earn a playoff spot that not many outsiders would’ve predicted going into the season, but they blew it.
Again, they seemed to fight their way through adversity all season, but all that matters is that they couldn’t do it once more in the end. That’ll leave a bitter taste in their mouth throughout the winter — and hopefully, that’ll motivate them to not let it happen again next season.
“We’re going to have to come back next year and be tested all over again and have to improve on a lot of areas,” Ross said. “Right now, just disappointment. I think we can all feel that. We can all soak that in, remember how that feels, use that this offseason to get better and continue to grow and come back next year and take another step forward.”
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