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MILWAUKEE — The 2023 season isn’t over for the Cubs (82-78), but that’s mostly just because math says it isn’t.
Because of the way the last few weeks have gone, and because of the distance between the Cubs and the teams they’re fighting against to reach the postseason, only a minuscule amount of hope really remains that they can complete the playoff push.
About 1 1/2 hours before the Cubs lost 4-3 in 10 innings to the Brewers, their chief competitor for the final National League Wild Card spot was securing the opposite result. Over 500 miles away at PNC Park, the Marlins (83-76) scored four runs in the eighth inning to complete a late comeback in their victory over the Pirates.
With that, the Cubs’ odds at a playoff appearance are currently as slim as can be.
Even a few days ago, there were a few scenarios in which the Cubs could find themselves playing past Sunday. Now, there’s only one left that would get them into the postseason — win their next two games in Milwaukee, hope the Reds (82-78) at least split their last two in St. Louis and pray the Marlins lose their last two in Pittsburgh and their suspended game against the Mets (which they lead 2-1 in the top of the ninth) that would be resumed Monday if necessary.
The Cubs don’t have the tiebreaker over either of those two teams, and they won’t be able to jump the Diamondbacks (84-76) in the standings since the best they can do now is tie them (but lose the tiebreaker). So, they have to finish at least one game ahead of Miami and Cincinnati to get into the postseason.
“The same as it’s been,” Cubs manager David Ross said of the team’s mindset going into the last two games of the season. “We’ve got to win every game. It’s been that way for a while now.”
After they finished a sweep of the Giants on Sept. 6, the Cubs’ odds of making the playoffs sat at 92.4 percent (per FanGraphs). They’ve gone 6-14 since then. Those odds are down to 3.8 percent, and they could hit zero by the end of the game Saturday.
“There’s no quit in this team. I feel like we’ve fought hard all year,” Dansby Swanson said. “And even during this stretch, I feel we’ve been fighting. Just haven’t been able to come up in the big moments. It’s obviously frustrating. Nobody wants it more than us. Definitely just been tough, for sure.”
It feels like we were watching a group running on fumes, even though Ross disagreed with that description, saying “I don’t think I see a lack of energy, a lack of focus — any of those things.” But this is team that has spent so much energy throughout the season digging themselves out of holes in the standings. A team that seemingly has been playing must-win games since mid-June and almost certainly since the All-Star break.
Running out of the gas — though not an excuse to fans watching or anyone in that clubhouse — might be real when they’ve constantly been grinding out games, fighting their way back to the position they’re in now. Getting to the finish line doing that was never going to be easy.
“Across the league, everybody is in the same spot. We all play the same amount of games,” said Kyle Hendricks, who shutout out the Brewers the first four innings but ended up allowing three runs in 4 1/3 frames. “I guess we’ve been scratching and clawing to get our way back in for a while. Every ballgame has meant a lot going back for a couple months, so that could be playing a part in it, but at the end of the day, just a little bounce here, a bounce there not going our way. I think it just chocks up to ‘That’s baseball’ sometimes. Guys are just grinding. Everybody is beat up. They’re giving it all they’ve got. It’s just not coming out our way right now.”
Friday’s loss had a little bit of everything that we’ve seen this week, in terms of the ways we’ve seen the Cubs lose games in gut-wrenching fashion this week. Like Wednesday in Atlanta, they were walked off in the 10th inning. There was another defensive miscue by Nico Hoerner as he fumbled a potential double-play ball in the fifth, and Hendricks was charged with an error when he dropped the ball while covering first base on a grounder in the third.
The Cubs didn’t put up much of a fight offensively against a more ideal pitching matchup, letting Milwaukee’s Colin Rea toss five scoreless innings (seriously, in the last three games, they’ve avoided the likes of Max Fried, Spencer Strider, Charlie Morton, Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta, and they didn’t win any of them).
Swanson held himself accountable for his offensive performance postgame. Though he has had some big games over the last two months of the season, it’s not wrong to say he’s underwhelmed offensively in that time. From Aug. 1 through Thursday, he hit .219 with a .703 OPS. And even though he made some of those slick defensive moves we’ve come to expect out of him Friday, he also went 0-for-4 on the night as the Cubs struggled to find consistent offense again.
“Just playing bad, which I own,” Swanson said. “Obviously, I come to work every day with the expectation of playing well, and just haven’t performed in moments recently. It sucks and definitely something I’m freaking working on, but just not happening.”
To their credit, the Cubs seem like they’ll fight until their season is over. There won’t be any coasting through these last two games of the year as long as winning both could help them get to the playoffs.
“We have a group that hasn’t quit all year,” Ian Happ said. “It’s not going to happen tomorrow.”
“We’ve got two more chances,” Swanson said. “I know it sounds cliche, but we’ve got another opportunity to come to work tomorrow and put together a good performance and give ourselves a chance.”
The problem? It feels like the Cubs would need a miracle for two wins in their next two games to really matter anyway.
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