For many years, the final Cubs game of the season was a sad occasion. At the ballpark, it was farewell to baseball for the long winter, and goodbye to baseball friends you might not see until spring.
Not anymore, not with the Cubs built the way they are, a strong organization and resilient big-league team that had a terrific second half and seems well-prepared for its third straight foray into the October tournament that will, about five weeks from now, crown a champion. Instead, this final day was filled with hope and anticipation for the fall baseball to come.
That champion could very well be the Cubs; though they go into this postseason as underdogs, there’s no reason they couldn’t get hot over the next few weeks and repeat as World Series champions.
Will it be easy? Absolutely not. But it wasn’t easy in 2016, either, despite rolling through that regular season with 103 wins. You remember, right? The Cubs had to have a miracle four-run rally in San Francisco to avoid a Game 5 against Johnny Cueto. Then they got shut out twice in a row in the NLCS before taking three straight from the Dodgers, and won three straight elimination games, the last one in extra innings, to become the 2016 champions.
Whew. Even writing that brief summary recalls the thrills and exhaustion of last October. Let’s hope we’ve got more thrills and 11 more wins coming up over the next five weeks.
Which is a short way of saying that I’m looking forward instead of back at a sloppily-played 3-1 loss to the Reds, the final regular-season game of 2017.
Regular players started coming out of the game in the second inning. Anthony Rizzo, who hit .306/.379/.694 (15-for-49) with five home runs in 13 games as the Cubs’ leadoff hitter earlier this year, batted leadoff in this one. After he hit a fly ball to left on which Adam Duvall made a nice grab, Rizzo departed.
Before that, I had watched John Lackey walk out to the bullpen with the relievers pre-game, hinting that he’d get a shot at throwing in relief in this one. And after Mike Montgomery threw three efficient shutout innings (one single allowed), Lackey trotted in for his first regular-season relief appearance since 2004 (he made one in Game 4 of the 2013 World Series for the Red Sox). Fun fact:
Lackey's last regular season relief appearance was June 27, 2004 -- 4,844 days ago. #Cubs— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) October 1, 2017
Lackey got touched up for a pair of doubles, scoring a Reds run. He threw 21 pitches (12 strikes). Here’s what Joe Maddon said after the game:
#Cubs Maddon on Lackey today: "Give him a test out of the bullpen, see what it looked like, see how he felt, that kind of thing"— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) October 1, 2017
Maddon says Lackey is "amenable" to pitching in relief in postseason. #Cubs— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) October 1, 2017
Given all that, I think we should expect to see Lackey on the postseason roster, and ready to go in relief, perhaps even as soon as Game 1 if needed.
After that it became the Iowa Cubs against the Cincinnati Reds. Of the nine players who finished this game for the Cubs, only Ben Zobrist did not spend at least some time in Des Moines this spring or summer. (Zobs was also the only Cub to play the entire game).
Rob Zastryzny was touched up for two more Reds runs, one in the fifth and one in the sixth. It was his first appearance in 22 days, so I suppose you could excuse the rust. Felix Pena threw two scoreless innings and also took an at-bat, and Dillon Maples threw a scoreless ninth that included Victor Caratini throwing out Jesse Winker trying to steal third [VIDEO].
That one went to the review crew, which had to be thinking, “Really? In the ninth inning of this game?” Truth be told, it didn’t appear clear that Ian Happ actually tagged Winker, but the video wasn’t conclusive, so it was ruled “call stands.” Had the call on the field been “safe,” it probably also would have stood. Not that it mattered.
With Reds closer Raisel Iglesias out for a save, Albert Almora Jr. put the Cubs on the board with one out in the ninth:
Almora is obviously healthy and ready to go for the postseason; the four days off will give his sore shoulder a bit more time to be 100 percent, and he could be a key contributor in the division series. The homer, his eighth of the season, gave the Cubs 223 for the year, one short of the Brewers and Mets (224 each) for the National League lead.
After Zobrist grounded to second to end the third-quickest Wrigley game (2:30) of the season, Cubs players came out to acknowledge the cheers of the crowd for a season well-played:
At the end of that clip you can hear Len Kasper talking about the season’s second half beginning in Baltimore with “no panic.” The Cubs went 49-25 after the All-Star break. Only the Indians were better, and it took a 22-game winning streak for them to do that.
This team is well-positioned to defend its title, though it will not be easy, as there are a number of formidable opponents. They know how to win; the experience of the last two seasons will be tremendously valuable in the playoff run that begins Friday in Washington.
And we know we have at least one more game at Wrigley Field this year, a week from Monday, Game 3 of the division series. If the Cubs can steal one of the first two in D.C., good things can happen in the first-ever Cubs postseason series against the Nationals franchise... and their former manager Dusty Baker.
Thus I end this last regular-season recap with hope for more great baseball to come. We’ll have plenty here over the next four days, including season wraps, some fun features, and game threads for the wild-card games Tuesday and Wednesday and A.L. division series that begin Thursday.