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The top 10 Cubs stories of the 2010s, #7: The collapses of 2018 and 2019

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The Cubs were a much better team than they showed in September the last two years.

Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports

Pick any of the 12 games the Cubs lost in September 2018. Go ahead, look at this list and pick one.

Turn that game into a win and the Cubs have 96 wins at the end of September and avoid the tiebreaker game against the Brewers. They would have gone right into a division series with the winner of the wild-card game, which would then have been Brewers vs. Rockies. They’d have had the best record in the N.L. and instead of not having a day off before the wild-card game, they’d have had three days off before facing that winner, who would have instead have had the tough schedule the Cubs did.

Maybe they win that division series and go to the NLCS for the fourth year in a row.

Would that have been enough to get Joe Maddon a contract extension? Would that have been enough to avoid all the changes we see in the Cubs now?

Of course, we’ll never know, because none of that happened.

The defeat most people focus on from September 2018 as winnable was this 4-3 walkoff loss to the Brewers September 3 at Miller Park. The Cubs had taken a 3-2 lead in the top of the eighth on this two-run homer by Anthony Rizzo [VIDEO].

The homer was off Josh Hader. It was the first home run Hader had ever allowed to a lefthanded hitter.

But the pen could not hold the lead. Carl Edwards Jr. gave up two singles leading off the Brewers eighth. He struck out the next two hitters, but then issued a walk to load the bases and another walk to Mike Moustakas tied the game.

The Cubs didn’t score in the ninth and Steve Cishek entered to throw the bottom of the inning. He walked Erik Kratz and then hit Orlando Arcia. A passed ball moved the runners up. Cishek struck out Curtis Granderson, then another HBP loaded the bases.

The next hitter was Christian Yelich. Jesse Chavez was brought in to face him.

Then this happened [VIDEO].

That play will be debated forever among Cubs fans. Kris Bryant raced to third and then threw to first, attempting to turn a double play. But Yelich beat the relay, allowing the winning run to score. Should Bryant have thrown home for a force play? Probably. Do the Cubs win the game if it goes to extra innings? Maybe. We’ll never know.

But if the Cubs win that game, they’d have been division champions.

The 2019 collapse is a bit more complicated. Injuries to Javier Baez (at the beginning of September) and Bryant and Anthony Rizzo (later in the month) took away a lot of the Cubs offense and in some games they were putting what looked like a spring-training split squad lineup on the field.

But when he Cubs came back to Wrigley Field for a 10-game homestand beginning September 13, they looked like they were at least in good position for a spot in the wild-card game. They swept the Pirates in a three-game series and won the first game of a three-game set against the Reds. After that game, the Cubs trailed the Cardinals by two games for the division lead and led the Brewers by one game for the second wild-card spot. The Cubs had a 51-24 record at home at that point.

What could possibly go wrong?

Everything, as it turned out. The Cubs lost all six remaining games on the homestand, five of them by one run, and were swept by the Cardinals in a four-game series at Wrigley for the first time in 98 years.

The games I want to focus on are the last two of the Cardinals series. The Cubs had lost the first two and were on a four-game losing streak. The division title was now probably lost, but the Cubs trailed Milwaukee by just one game for that second wild-card spot going into the game Saturday, September 21. Eight games remained in the season. It was still possible to get into the wild-card game.

The lead changed hands six times in a wild game that Saturday. The Cubs had taken the lead in the bottom of the seventh on a two-run homer by, of all people, Tony Kemp [VIDEO].

The Cubs nursed the lead into the ninth and Craig Kimbrel, who had thrown well at times and struggled at others, entered to try to preserve the 8-7 advantage.

It was gone in two pitches. Yadier Molina and Paul DeJong both homered on the first pitch they saw from Kimbrel, and the Cardinals had a 9-8 lead. Kimbrel got out of the inning, but it was too late. The Cubs failed to score in the last of the ninth and had their fifth straight loss.

It got worse the next day. It was cloudy and drizzly most of the afternoon, matching the somber mood on the field. The Cubs fashioned a 2-1 lead thanks in part to a homer by Nicholas Castellanos.

Yu Darvish, who had thrown a spectacular game with no walks and 12 strikeouts, was left in to pitch the ninth. He gave up a leadoff triple to Jose Martinez that just eluded Albert Almora Jr. in center field. A fly ball tied the game, and then a single by Tommy Edman and double by Paul Goldschmidt gave St. Louis the lead, and the win when the Cubs couldn’t score in the last of the ninth. It was their sixth loss in a row and though they were not mathematically eliminated, the season was essentially over.

You know, I think if the Cubs had won those two games, they might have been able to sneak into the wild-card game. If they’d done that, the losing streak would have ended at four and they would have headed to the season-ending road trip three games out of first place and two behind the Brewers. Maybe they beat the Pirates instead of being swept by them, extending the loss string to nine.

Obviously, that didn’t happen, and likely the decision to move on from Maddon had been made long before that final road trip.

All of this still makes me think this team isn’t all that far away from having another strong, contending season even if they don’t make major changes. In 2018, in addition to losing Pedro Strop to that hamstring injury running the bases, the late August through September schedule, playing 42 games in 43 days, had to wear on every player in the clubhouse. In 2019, injuries to key players had them play September without their best possible lineup on the field for major chunks of the month. (Granted that the Brewers lost Yelich to injury in September 2019, but that’s a loss of one star player, not three.)

When the Cubs won the World Series in 2016, the only significant injury to a key player was the loss of Dexter Fowler for a few weeks mid-season. It wasn’t a coincidence that they went 5-15 during that time. Hopefully 2020 brings not only good performances out of Cubs players, but a fully healthy season for everyone on the roster.