MILWAUKEE -- Sunday's 5-2 Cubs win over the Brewers was an outstanding example of how this team can (and hopefully will) win games in the years to come.
An early two-run homer from the team's best hitter. A decent outing from the starting pitcher. Then, lockdown relief after the sixth inning.
That's a recipe for success for many teams, and all of it was in evidence on a gorgeous, 75-degree, early-fall afternoon at Miller Park. (Where was this great summer weather all summer?)
Anthony Rizzo homered in the first inning after Chris Coghlan led off the game with a walk, providing the Cubs with a lead they never relinquished. Rizzo had one of his better games of the season, going 3-for-4 with a walk, two runs scored, the homer and even his only stolen base of the season on a play that must have completely surprised the Brewers, because no throw was made. It happened on the front end of a double steal (!) in which Jorge Soler took second; it didn't really matter because Arismendy Alcantara's double into the right-field corner would have scored both runners anyway. The Cubs added an insurance run in the ninth on a single, a walk and an infield ground ball on which a throw came home wide, and too late.
Great offense? Well, no. But certainly enough to win on a day when Cubs pitching did an efficient job. Jacob Turner threw five solid innings; he was touched for two runs which could have been less if not for a wacky throwing error by Luis Valbuena, who picked up a bunt attempt and made a Matt Garza-like throw in the general direction of Rizzo. Martin Maldonado, the slow-running catcher who bunted, was credited with a hit instead of the play being ruled an error all the way; the run that scored as a result was ruled earned.
Turner was lifted after he allowed a leadoff single in the sixth, but overall, he had a solid outing and showed some of the talent that made him one of baseball's most untouchable prospects just two years ago. At 23, I think he still has a chance to become a good big-league starter. He'll have to show well in spring training, because he's out of options. Either he makes the 2015 Opening Day roster or he'll have to be exposed to waivers. Someone would undoubtedly claim him.
Anyway, after Turner departed, the bullpen took over and gave up just one hit and one walk over four innings. Justin Grimm finished the sixth without incident and Neil Ramirez, Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon (29th save) completed the game. Those three could make an excellent late-inning trio for any contending team. All have been very good this year and Rondon posted that good save total even though he was not officially made the team's closer until mid-May.
Rizzo, for his part, stepped up his already-good game on his return two weeks ago from back problems. In the 11 games he played in September, he hit .395/.521/.684 (15-for-38) with five doubles, two home runs and eight walks. His overall .913 OPS finished third in the National League, behind only Giancarlo Stanton and Andrew McCutchen, pretty good company. Had he not missed 22 games this year, he would almost certainly have hit 35 home runs, with an outside shot at Stanton's league-leading total of 37.
Sunday's game, which had a significant minority of Cubs fans in attendance despite another losing season, was punctuated with cheering at inappropriate times, all of which happened when the Green Bay Packers did something good against the Chicago Bears. I heard reports that many fans spent a good chunk of the afternoon standing on the concourse at Miller Park watching the football game. This makes little sense; you've paid money to come to a baseball park and then spend your time doing something you could have done for free at home?
Odd Miller Park note: the roof was open, but only about halfway; this was done apparently to reduce the shadows in the early innings. Only left field was in sun when the game started, then the field was in shade until the sun came through the first-base side windows about the seventh inning.
Though I usually enjoy quick games, for this one I didn't even mind the three-hour, nine-minute game length, exactly the length of an average major-league game in 2014; I just wanted to savor the final big-league game I'll see in person until next March.
The Cubs, by winning, finish the season 73-89, their first sub-90-loss year since 2010 and a seven-win increase over 2013. That's progress, in my view, especially since they played near-.500 ball for four-plus months, going 60-62 since a 13-27 start. Baby steps, right? In winning this series from the Brewers, the Cubs also posted 11 wins against them this year -- that's the most any Cubs team has ever posted against any Brewers team since the two clubs started playing each other in 1997.
Incidentally, I never did make it to dinner in Milwaukee. Both places my friends and I wanted to go to were closed! Really? Restaurants closed on Sunday? Guess they roll up the sidewalks on Sunday in Milwaukee. So, instead, we went to The Silo in Lake Bluff, on the road home.
One final note on this game. Before 2014, the last time I had seen the Cubs' final regular-season game on the road was in 2007, when I traveled to Cincinnati to see them clinch the N.L. Central. I'd like to take more trips like that one in the future.
And so, another season is in the books. And yes, I do feel cautiously optimistic about the Cubs' future. Some of it was on display Sunday in Milwaukee. More of it will be coming, in the form of Kris Bryant and others, next year and in seasons to come. They'll have to supplement the prospect pipeline with judicious free-agent or trade acquisitions. I'll have more about that in the days and weeks to come, and also, there will be plenty more here at BCB as we enter the Cubs' offseason.
First, there will be game threads for every playoff day. I love playoff baseball, no matter who's involved, and we surely have rooting interests here (read: any team that plays the Cardinals). Watch for those beginning Tuesday.
Second, there's a Wrigley Field construction project that's set to begin Monday with the commencement of the demolition of the bleachers. We'll have photos of the progress as often as possible.
There will be other news, of course. Sunday's game might have been the last Cubs game televised on WGN-TV -- ever. The team has no deal yet in place for the 70 games that were carried on WGN this year and it's strange to think that a 66-year relationship could have ended with no formal farewell. In the end, I suspect the Cubs will re-up with WGN (local only, not WGN America) on a short-term renewal, maybe not the entire five years that remain until they have their entire TV package available for sale. That's strictly my own speculation, nothing more.
And, I've got some offseason series in mind, too.
With that, I'll put the 2014 season to bed as is my tradition, with this quote from the late Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti's "The Green Fields of the Mind":
It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.