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There’s enough blame to go around for the Cubs’ September performance. FanGraphs’ playoff odds gave them a 73.8 percent shot to make the postseason on Sept. 1, which reached a season-high of 92.4 percent five days later, but by the end of Saturday’s game in Milwaukee, they had officially been eliminated from playoff contention. So, who should shoulder the blame for that dramatic downturn? Ask David Ross, and it starts with him.
“I wouldn’t separate myself from any player, front office, coach. We’re in this together,” the Cubs’ manager said. “If we don’t get to where we want to get to, I’m the head of the team. I’m the manager of this team. The blame should come on me first.”
The team’s collapse in September felt like it featured gut-wrenching moment after gut-wrenching moment. The Cubs went 12-17 after the calendar turned to the fateful month, including losing 14 of 20 before they were officially knocked out mid-game Saturday. They went 2-8 in one-run games and 5-12 in games decided by three runs or less.
Again, Ross is willing to take the criticism and blame for the collapse. He understands how this business works. When a team wastes a golden opportunity to get back to the postseason, a lot of fan backlash will fall on the manager. That’s what he signed up for when he took the job.
But to the ones in the locker room and in the front office, it’s not that cut and dry. The players know they didn’t perform their best when it mattered most. President of baseball operations Jed Hoyer has acknowledged that the pitching depth the Cubs thought they built ultimately wasn’t enough.
They’re not making excuses for themselves. And they aren’t about let Ross be just another fall guy.
“That’s just who he is. He’s always going to take the brunt of it,” Kyle Hendricks said. “But no, it comes down to the players at the end of the day. We’re the ones that win and lose the ballgames. He can just put us in the best positions to succeed. And he did unbelievable. He’s grown so much, I feel like, every year. He’s just such a great leader of men and gets the confidence, gets the best out of everybody in here. Everybody loves going out there and playing for him and giving him our best. We just want to win for him.”
Ross’ bosses share a similar sentiment. They are very much aware that he had no managerial experience before they hired him. He would have to do some learning on the job, but they believed in his ability to lead and manage the ones who go out and play 162 games a year.
“I think Rossy did a great job,” Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts said Sunday. “He creates a great clubhouse culture. The players love playing for him. He keeps a steady, balanced approach game in and game out that you need over the course of 162 games. I talked to him before the game today. He’s as disappointed as anyone that we just couldn’t quite pull it over the finish line.”
When told about the comments coming all the way from the top, Ross was grateful, of course. But his group had also just lost a ballgame, and the day before, they officially knew they wouldn’t be playing postseason baseball.
So, as expected, Ross didn’t just leave it at being grateful.
“I appreciate that, obviously,” he said of Ricketts’ comments. “We’ve got really good ownership. I’ve got a really good front office that I work for. The group is top-notch human beings. Sure, that feels good. Making the playoffs would feel better. Winning the World Series is going to feel better.
“I appreciate that, but I know the expectation here and hold myself to a higher standard than where we’re at. I want to get into playoffs. I know these guys do, that Tom does and Jed and [general manager] Carter [Hawkins]. The whole group does.”
Ricketts, Hoyer and players alike have all pointed to the summer that changed the season as an example of Ross leading in critical moments of the season. When the team fell 10 games below .500, they won 50 of their next 78 games to get themselves back in the race until the very end.
The players performing well had something to do with that, but they say Ross’ leadership played a role, too.
“It’s just a testament to him,” Dansby Swanson said. “With all the adversity that we experienced early on, and for him to be able to kind of right the ship or be able to manage — pun intended, I guess — our way through those tough times, it just speaks to who he is. … A lot of our personality comes from him as a manager. He’ll probably be critical of himself, but that’s just something that’s going to help us continue to grow and get better is his willingness to get better, which obviously bleeds over into the players and the rest of the organization.”
“When the team got down way below .500 and it looked like the season was over, he didn’t let it go,” Ricketts said. “Got the guys back and played hard, and we got to here. He was a big part of that. I think he’s a great manager.”
That stretch of the season is something the Cubs will reflect on positively. But that doesn’t erase what happened afterward. Like everyone else in the organization, Ross will have to reflect on what went wrong. He’s planning to sit down and have honest conversations on how he can improve with others who “will see your shortcomings more than you do.”
For him, getting “to here” — playing meaningful ballgames in September and just missing out on the playoffs — won’t be good enough next season.
Four years into his managerial career, Ross certainly has his critics. Whether it be lineups, bullpen management, relying on veterans too much or annything else that’s been thrown out there, plenty of fans are already ready for the team to move on. Some observers don’t believe he’s the one who can lead this ballclub to its loftiest goals.
But the Cubs think differently. They’re not convinced that Ross, whose contract includes a team option for 2025, can’t be the manager to get them where they want to go.
“You think about what makes a great manager, and part of it is you just have to create a clubhouse culture that can stand 162 days of intense scrutiny,” Ricketts said. “I think that in terms of getting players comfortable and getting them motivated, I don’t know if there’s anyone better than David.
“I think Rossy had a great season, and the players play hard for him. He’s our guy.”
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