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Cubs playoff update: Bullpen falters, Cubs lose wild card position

Ryan Avatar
September 28, 2023

That’s now two potential wins the Cubs have squandered in the late innings in Atlanta. Two wins that would currently have them in playoff position. Instead, they’d be on the outside looking in if the season ended Wednesday.

Four games remain, but the Cubs’ chances of making the postseason have fallen with every loss. Things won’t get any easier, either, with two playoff teams standing in their way and a taxed bullpen not getting one of their top reinforcements back for at least another day.

There is still some hope, despite how much it has dwindled the last two nights. They’ve got four games left to play good baseball and win some ballgames. It won’t be enough if they don’t get some help from other teams, but it’s all they can do at this point.

Here is CHGO’s daily update on the Cubs’ postseason hopes and where things stand with the rest of the playoff contenders.

Play of the Day

The double play that wasn’t. A painful error by the Cubs’ potential Gold Glove second baseman (which you can see here at the 1:40 mark, via Marquee Sports Network) that didn’t immediately cost them the lead but may have had a domino effect later on.

In the bottom of the seventh, with runners at the corners, nobody out and the Cubs clinging to a 3-1 lead, Jameson Taillon got Marcell Ozuna to hit a grounder to Nico Hoerner a few feet away from second base. It looked like the type of routine double play we’ve seen Hoerner and Dansby Swanson convert plenty of times this season. But Hoerner’s flip was too high, and Swanson couldn’t glove it to at least get the out at second.

Had they turned two, perhaps Taillon remains in the game, even after the runner on third scored, to try and get the last out with bases empty. And if he does, then the Cubs can use Drew Smyly and Julian Merryweather to hopefully finish the last two frames.

Instead, Smyly entered directly after the play (and masterfully got out of the jam with the Cubs still up a run), and Merryweather went out for the eighth (where he did give up the game-tying run). That led to Mark Leiter Jr., who hasn’t been 100 percent and hadn’t pitched in a week, blowing a save in the ninth and Daniel Palencia allowing the deciding runs in the 10th.

Would the rest of the game have gone down any smoother if the double play is executed? We’ll never know for sure. But that broken play force a taxed bullpen to cover three extra outs, playing a factor in the outcome.

Quote of the Day

“At the deadline, we had a lot of factors, and there weren’t really arms that we felt like we could access at that time. And you look around, a lot of teams had the same challenge. I think it comes down to just building up that depth, and I think you’re ultimately going to have to rely on player development. For a huge chunk of the season, I think that was effective. It hasn’t been effective late, so yeah, I have to look at myself and say, ‘What are we going to do differently for next year?’” — President of baseball operations Jed Hoyer, via reporters in Atlanta, on the Cubs’ bullpen.


The NL Central race is over, and the Phillies locked up the top wild card spot Wednesday. Earning one of the other two bids is Chicago’s only shot at the playoffs, and right now, they’re among five teams still mathematically in the race.

First, a reminder that there’s no more Game 163. Of the five teams battling for the last two spots, the Cubs own the tiebreaker (head-to-head record) over only the Padres, while they’d lose it to the Diamondbacks, Marlins and Reds.

Here’s how each of those five teams fared Wednesday:

  • Cubs: Lost to the Braves
  • Diamondbacks: Beat the White Sox
  • Marlins: Split doubleheader vs. Mets
  • Reds: Lost to the Guardians
  • Padres: Beat the Giants

Arizona beat the White Sox on the South Side again, so they’ve moved to two full games ahead of the Cubs (and without the tiebreaker, it’s more like three games at this point). Miami split their doubleheader in Queens, and with the Cubs’ loss, there’s now a tie for the last wild card spot. But again, the Marlins win that tiebreaker, so as it stands, the Cubs are not in playoff position.

They remain ahead of Cincinnati and San Diego by more than one game, but all that matters is that they don’t hold control of their postseason destiny. They still have to win ballgames, but they also have to rely on help from other teams to get to October.


Another disappointing loss has the Cubs on the ropes heading into the last few games of the season. They could’ve won two in Atlanta, but they didn’t. Now, Thursday’s series finale becomes another must-win to stay afloat before they end the year with three in Milwaukee.

Here are the remaining schedules for the other teams still mathematically in the wild card hunt:

  • Diamondbacks: @ CWS (1), vs. HOU (3)
  • Marlins: @ NYM (1), @ PIT (3)
  • Reds: @ STL (3)
  • Padres: @ CWS (3)


According to FanGraphs’ playoff projections, the Cubs’ odds at clinching a wild card spot have fallen all the way down to 29.4 percent after Wednesday. Among the five teams still making the push, the Diamondbacks (97.9 percent) and Marlins (69.2 percent) are massive favorites to be the final two teams in. The Reds (3.6 percent) are remote contenders, while the Padres — though not yet officially eliminated — are given 0.0 percent odds.

Today’s pitching matchup

The Cubs need Marcus Stroman (10-8, 3.88 ERA) to deliver Thursday. It’s his last start of the regular season, and his team needs a win. This is the kind of moment Stroman has said he craves; it’s now the moment in which they need him to lead the way to victory.

Through his first 16 starts of 2023, Stroman was the one at the forefront of the NL Cy Young conversation. He began the season 9-4 and posted a 2.28 ERA (which led all NL starters at the time). However, he went 1-4 and posted a 9.00 ERA in his next seven outings. Right hip inflammation that he tried to pitch through probably played a part in his struggles, and he went on the injured list at the beginning of August to address it. But just when he was expected to return, a right rib cartilage fracture extended his IL stint for another month.

When he returned a couple weeks ago, he made two appearances out of the bullpen. He rejoined the rotation Saturday, but he allowed three earned runs over three innings in his first start since July 31. And that came against the Rockies. On Thursday, he’s going up against the Braves and their vaunted lineup. Regardless, for however long he’s out there (he may still not be fully stretched out), he has to be effective and give his team a shot.

Atlanta will counter with AJ Smith-Shawver (1-0, 4.57 ERA). He’s the second consecutive rookie starter for the Braves, so it’s another chance for the Cubs to do some damage against a young arm without much major league experience or success. And with Thursday now becoming the biggest game of the year (as every game left on the schedule will be), that’s simply what they have to do.

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