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Rockies 2, Cubs 1: See you in Mesa

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The 2018 Cubs season ended, a lot earlier than we had hoped.

Jim Young-USA TODAY Sports

In the end, it appears that playing 42 games in the season’s last 43 days was just too much for the Chicago Cubs, who looked completely exhausted by the time their marathon 2-1, 13-inning wild card game loss to the Rockies ended a few minutes into Wednesday. I mean... I attended the final 12 games of that stretch, 12 days in a row, and I am completely wiped out. I can only imagine how the players feel after more than six weeks with basically no break, and playing high-pressure games the last two days.

I will tell you, though, as I told my compatriots in the bleachers during the game: You could sit at Wrigley Field for a long, long time — and yes, I have done that! — and not see a better baseball game than this one. It’s frustrating and disappointing that the Cubs lost, but we were treated to some magnificent baseball, so let’s get right to unpacking this game, which has a distinction:

So there’s that, anyway.

Jon Lester got himself in trouble with the first two batters of the game. He walked Charlie Blackmon and then DJ LeMahieu hit a ball in the left-center field gap that got stuck in the ivy. A break! Blackmon would have scored easily, but was sent back to third... for a minute or two, anyway, until Nolan Arenado hit a fly ball to center.

That was the only run that scored for a long, long time.

Lester was magnificent after that. He retired 18 of the next 21 hitters he faced, striking out nine of them. At 86 pitches after six innings, he surely could have gone longer... but that batting-order spot came up, and, well, Jon Lester isn’t going to bat down one run in the late innings of an elimination game.

Meanwhile, the Cubs could do nothing with Kyle Freeland. They had just four baserunners through the first six innings, but thanks to Lester, the score remained 1-0.

Thanks also to Albert Almora Jr., who made this terrific catch [VIDEO] on a long fly by David Dahl in the second inning.

Since I was at the game I obviously didn’t hear any of the ESPN announcers, but just listening to that clip it sounds like they were blathering on about a lot of things that had nothing to do with this game, and scanning Twitter during the game, it appears the alternate broadcast with Jason Benetti on play-by-play was significantly better TV.

Jesse Chavez was the first pitcher out of the pen for the Cubs. He allowed a leadoff single to Ian Desmond, and then Dahl hit a ball to medium-deep left field, caught by Kris Bryant.

Desmond tested KB’s arm [VIDEO].

The play was reviewed and the call was confirmed, a nice throw and tag.

The Cubs appeared as if they would break through and get on the board in the seventh. Almora singled with one out and advanced to second on a wild pitch.

Trevor Story might have saved the game for the Rox with this catch [VIDEO].

If that ball gets through, Almora almost certainly scores the tying run. That was it for Freeland, who was replaced by Adam Ottavino. Finally, I thought, maybe the Cubs can get to this guy, even though he’s been one of the league’s best setup men this year.

Ottavino walked Willson Contreras and then Tommy La Stella was sent up to bat for David Bote. It looked as if TLS had hit a comebacker for the third out [VIDEO], but you can see plate umpire Chris Guccione point right at catcher Chris Iannetta.

Once again, as he did several times during the regular season, La Stella reached on catcher interference. That loaded the bases, and Joe sent Jason Heyward up to bat for Chavez.

This ... I don’t know, I think I would have sent Kyle Schwarber up in that situation. Schwarber is good at drawing walks and up to that point, Ottavino had really been struggling with command.

Heyward ran the count to 2-2 and with the crowd on its feet, struck out on a borderline pitch to end the inning. Borderline pitches were being called strikes all night — for both sides, I should point out — and hitters appeared to be having trouble figuring out the zone, one of the reasons for the 29 total strikeouts in the game, I think.

On we went. Randy Rosario threw to one batter, Drew Butera, leading off the eighth, and walked him, but then got Blackmon to fly to left. Steve Cishek was summoned and got LeMahieu to hit into an inning-ending double play [VIDEO].

That one was also reviewed, and “call stands” was the call from the review crew... an awfully close play that could have gone the other way.

With two out in the eighth, Anthony Rizzo singled and was replaced by Terrance Gore. This is why Gore is on this team, for situations just like this. Gore immediately stole second, and that brought up Javy [VIDEO].

Javy’s double into the gap scored Gore to tie the game. With third base untended, Baez stole it, but was stranded when former Cub Wade Davis, who had entered after the double, struck out Almora to end the inning.

That’s when Pedro Strop made his first appearance since injuring his hamstring running the bases in Washington September 13. Strop looked strong, his velocity was good, and he got out of the ninth allowing a single and striking out two. He’d have looked very good closing for the Cubs through October, but now he’ll get an entire winter to rest that hammy.

Contreras drew a one-out walk off Davis in the bottom of the ninth, but Schwarber, finally up as a pinch-hitter, struck out, and Heyward hit a comebacker, and on we went to extra innings.

Cole Hamels had been placed on the wild-card game roster for a situation just like, to throw multiple innings in extras. He allowed a one-out single in the 10th, but the top of the Cubs order went down 1-2-3, the third being Gore, who had to stay in the game after running for Rizzo, with Daniel Murphy going to first base and Bryant to third. This was Gore’s first postseason plate appearance (in his ninth postseason game, the other eight all as a pinch-runner) and truth be told, he was completely overmatched, striking out. Another of the outs in the 10th was this fine play [VIDEO] by Arenado on a sharp grounder by Bryant.

Hamels got into a bit of trouble in the 11th, loading the bases with two out on a walk, single and fielder’s choice, but got out of it with a ground ball to Murphy.

The Cubs had a chance in the last of the 11th. Baez led off with a walk and was sacrificed to second by Almora. Murphy was given a Manfred and that brought up Contreras [VIDEO].

I daresay you have never seen anything quite like that on a baseball field before and you likely won’t see it again; Rockies manager Bud Black came out to discuss this with the umpires, perhaps arguing for an obstruction call. But the paths of Arenado and Baez were aimed directly at each other and that little “hug” was unavoidable, and a double play likely couldn’t have been completed.

So the Cubs had runners on first and second with two out, and Victor Caratini, the last position player available, batted for Hamels. He hit a soft grounder to first and on we went to the 12th.

Now yet another starting pitcher, Kyle Hendricks, entered the game. Hendricks was going on three days rest and got the Rockies 1-2-3 in the 12th. But former Cub Chris Rusin and Scott Oberg retired the Cubs 1-2-3 in the bottom of that inning.

Hendricks retired the first two Rockies in the 13th without incident, but... well, you know this part of the story. Three straight singles scored a run, the third of those hits was off the bat of Tony Wolters, who hit .170 this year and who entered this game in an 0-for-15 slump. His last hit before this one was on September 10.

That took most of the energy out of the crowd, and it had been high-energy before that, with very, very few people leaving even as the clock approached midnight.

The bottom of the 13th was symbolic of this entire Cubs season. Gore led off, just the second time he had two plate appearances in a major-league game. A 2-2 pitch appeared as if it might have hit Gore [VIDEO], as well as umpire Guccione.

The call on the field was “ball 3,” and though the Cubs challenged, it was confirmed.

Then... oh, Terrance, what did you do?

That’s right, Gore swung and missed at ball four, a pitch that wasn’t anywhere near the zone. If Gore gets on, he’s likely standing on second base a few seconds later.

But he didn’t, and he wasn’t.

And then Oberg calmly struck out Baez and Almora and the 2018 Cubs season came to an end.

A few words from a few Cubs after the game:

And that’s really the summary of this season, one in which the Cubs had setbacks from injuries, weather, travel and other factors, yet won 95 games, and I agree with Rizzo’s take on Maddon. This was Joe’s best managing job in his four years here, and I hope Theo & Co. give him a contract extension this winter, so he doesn’t go into a lame-duck season in 2019 without a new deal.

The Cubs just couldn’t win one more when it counted most, and here’s one of the biggest reasons:

I mean... which one of those teams doesn’t belong in that list? All the other teams there finished with losing records, the Marlins lost 98 and the Orioles lost like eleventy billion games (okay, “only” 115) and yet here’s the Cubs offense lumped in with those lumpy teams. The disappearance of the Cubs offense at times this season is the likely reason we’re going to be sitting at home watching other teams this October. They got magnificent pitching over the final two games of the season, yet could score only two runs in 22 innings.

I’ll have much more to say about this year’s team and where it needs to go this offseason, but now is not the time for that. We’re disappointed this morning, but the Cubs and Rockies played one of the best postseason games ever, and that, despite the loss, was a treat. Congratulations to the Rockies, a very good team that has earned its division series berth. Hope they take care of the Brewers and move on to the NLCS.

We will continue to have postseason coverage here throughout October, beginning with a game thread early this evening for the American League wild card game, and remember — a team with at least 97 wins is going to lose that game and sit home watching the postseason on TV with the rest of us. I think I’m going to root for the Indians the rest of October. It’s time they ended their drought. We’ll also have coverage of the Arizona Fall League, talk about moves the Cubs could make this offseason, and at noon CT today there will be a special edition of Cub Tracks with lots of links from other sources about the wild card game and the end of the Cubs season.

With that, I’ll end the way I traditionally do, with a passage from the late commissioner Bart Giamatti’s “The Green Fields of the Mind.” And it won’t be all that long until the Cubs take the field 144 days from now, February 23, 2019 in Mesa against the Brewers (and it’s also just 176 days till the Cubs begin the 2019 regular season in Arlington, Texas against the Rangers).

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.