Throughout this September, with the Cubs desperately clinging to hope of a postseason berth with a 16-9 start to the month, I kept thinking "stranger things have happened". From time to time, as you know, I'd cite various other late-season pennant collapses or pushes, such as the 1964 Phillies or 2007 Rockies, as examples of why the Cubs could come back.
Now, though, if the Cubs were to somehow pull off a miracle finish, you'd have to say "stranger things have NOT happened". With four teams ahead of them and an elimination number of one, the race is, for all intents and purposes, over.
It would, however, be fun if somehow the five teams wound up in what Baseball Musings' David Pinto calls a "massive tie". Today Pinto posts the way in which four teams could wind up tied for the NL Wild Card. That'd be fun to watch if only to see how Bud Selig would have to sputter his way through the method of breaking the tie. Right now the team with the best chance of pulling a "miracle" finish is the Braves, who on September 6 were seven games off the wild-card pace and who have now won six in a row and closed to within 2.5 games of the lead.
Yesterday, the Cubs missed their chance to have their first-ever four-game sweep of the Giants in San Francisco, losing to the Giants 5-1. Randy Wells didn't pitch too badly, but he kept getting nibbled at; he allowed eight singles and two RBI doubles to a backup catcher (Eli Whiteside) who was hitting .197 at the start of the game. How many times have we heard that story this year? Give some credit to the Giants' Matt Cain, who is one of the better pitchers in the league and who tied the Cubs in knots, throwing eight shutout innings before the Cubs got a consolation run off the Giants' bullpen. The Cubs did get enough men on base in the ninth to force Bruce Bochy to call on his closer, Brian Wilson, to finish it off.
So the Cubs will come home for a season-ending seven-game homestand against two bad teams, the Pirates and Diamondbacks, with a chance to at least end the season strong. Some will say that if the Cubs win all seven (for example) and finish the year with 88 wins, that it would "fool" management into thinking there aren't any problems. I disagree. Management clearly knows what they did wrong this year -- the sending-home of Milton Bradley is evidence of that -- and though this isn't an excuse, injuries, particularly to Aramis Ramirez and Alfonso Soriano, held this year's team back from winning more games.
The first win will give the Cubs three consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 1970-71-72. The 82nd win will also make Lou Piniella the first Cubs manager to have winning seasons in his first three years since Charlie Grimm in 1933-34-35. That's a worthy goal. And any baseball player with professional pride should want to win every time he goes on the field.
I was trying to think of comparisons in Cubs history to the disappointment we have felt over the 2009 Cubs, and "disappointment" is the right word. This wasn't a bad Cubs team, just one that wasn't quite good enough. That would make a comparison to 2004 inapt, because the 2004 Cubs were tremendously talented. Their late-season collapse wasn't in any way comparable to 2009 -- the 2004 team had the wild card in its grasp and blew it.
It's not comparable to 2001, because that was a team of overachievers that probably had no business being in contention that long. That team wound up with 88 wins; the current bunch would have to sweep the homestand to do that -- not an impossible task given the opposition. (We also wouldn't want the 2010 Cubs to do what the 2002 Cubs did -- lose 95 games.)
It's also not comparable to the 1977-78-79 teams, Cubs clubs that either were in first place or nearby for a couple of months each, because this team had far more talent than any of those.
No, I think the best comp to the 2009 Cubs would be the 1970 edition. Similarly to 2009, the 1970 Cubs had to play after a season filled with wonders, only to have the previous year's team collapse -- 2008 in the playoffs, 1969 in September. And like this year's team, after 1969 the Cubs made one significant change: they sent Oscar Gamble and Dick Selma to the Phillies for a washed-up Johnny Callison. Not only was Callison not nearly the player he had been three or four years before, but Gamble eventually became a productive player elsewhere. This forced the 1970 Cubs to play nonentities like Cleo James, Joe Pepitone, Jimmie Hall, a 33-year-old Jim Hickman, and even (for one game) Glenn Beckert in center field, much as the 2009 Cubs have mixed and matched at various positions. The 1970 Cubs got off to a hot start, racing out to a five-game lead by mid-June, and then lost 12 in a row. They never recovered -- just as the eight-game losing streak this year put the Cubs in a spot from which they just barely got back into first place in late July before having an awful August.
But also like this year's team, the 1970 Cubs had one brief "maybe" moment in September. On September 13 at Wrigley Field, the Cubs were down to their last out trailing 2-1, when Matty Alou of the Pirates dropped a routine fly ball. Given new life, the Cubs followed with three straight hits, winning the game 3-2 and moving them to within one game of first place with 17 games left. Unfortunately, the Cubs went 8-9 in those 17 games and finished five games out of first place, the closest they would come to first place in the 1967-73 era of contention.
Enough of the history lesson. Let's hope the Cubs play some fun and winning baseball in the next week, because we will all miss baseball while it is away for the winter.