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The 12 Days of Cubsmas: 5 games out of the playoffs

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Sometimes seasons don’t work out the way anyone wants them to

Willson Contreras reacts after a 4-2 loss to the Pirates on September 25
Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

We don’t always get what we want and the 2019 Cubs seemed so close to putting it together so many times, only to fall five games short of the playoffs in 2019. While some on Twitter felt like this was vindication for PECOTA’s projection that the Cubs were a third place team in the NL Central I saw something different. For starters the Cubs underperformed their Pythagorean projection by six games, which would have definitely gotten them into at least the Wild Card Game. Yet, despite some magical moments, it just never seemed to come together for the Cubs. For the fifth day of Cubsmas I’ll explore some possible culprits and turning points.

Road Woes

The Cubs were absolutely atrocious on the road in 2019. I’ve really never seen anything like it. Al summed it up back in August:

The Cubs open play Monday with a 60-51 record and a 1½-game lead in the N.L. Central.

That’s pretty good, but as you likely know, it could be better if not for the team’s inexplicable inability to win games away from Wrigley Field. Through Sunday they are 39-18 at home. That’s the second-best home record in the N.L. (Dodgers, 43-15) and fourth-best in MLB (Yankees, 43-18 and Astros, 41-15).

The other three teams noted there are running away with their divisions because they all have decent-to-good records away from their home parks.

The Cubs... don’t. They are 21-33 (.389) away from Wrigley Field. Only the Marlins — who are 25 games under .500 overall — are worse in the National League (20-32, .384).

It’s totally bizarre, it even got to the point where the Cubs brought their home uniforms on the road with them. Andi and I had joked about this on the podcast the week before, so it isn’t like I was surprised by that move, but it was still wild to see a major league baseball team try to shake bad run of luck with superstition.

Theo Epstein summed it up nicely:

With the setback, the Cubs fell to 21-33 on the road, which represents the worst mark in the National League. The continued struggles away from Wrigley Field are perplexing to everyone involved, including president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, who’s “embarrassed” by it.

”Not really, honestly,” Epstein said on the Mully & Haugh Show when asked if he understood why the Cubs are so bad on the road. “We’re obviously trying to figure it out, but if we knew what it was, we would’ve fixed it. I will say it hasn’t been a hallmark of this group. We’ve played well on the road most years in this window. But this year, honestly, we’re embarrassed by the road performance, not having won a road series since May 20. And to me, more troubling even than that is we’ve had seven road series against the division and we’re 0-7. We’ve lost every single road series against division opponents.

”That’s just not going to win anything. That’s not going to be competitive in a division, if every time you go play a division opponent on the road, you lose. That has to change. That has to change immediately. We just hope the intensity of a pennant race and the desire of this group to rewrite the script from what happened last year and win the division will carry the day and that our talent will carry the day.”

Injuries

Even with the terrible home/away splits the Cubs were still in contention in September and then it felt like the wheels came off the bus.

On September first the Cubs were three games out of first place and playing the Brewers when Javier Báez fractured his thumb sliding into second. That was a pretty big hit to the Cubs playoff chances in and of itself but two days later backup short stop Addison Russell was hit in the head with a pitch. While he ran the bases after being hit, he went on concussion protocol shortly thereafter and didn’t start another game while the Cubs were still in contetion.

Incredibly, the Cubs looked like they were going to overcome both of those injuries as Nico Hoerner performed better than expected when called up to play shortstop when the heart of the team, Anthony Rizzo, sprained his ankle fielding a ball against the Pirates on September 15.

Rizzo attempted a miraculous comeback on an ankle that was clearly still very injured in a do-or-die series against the St. Louis Cardinals in September only to have Kris Bryant suffer an almost identical injury running the bases in the final game of that homestand.

Honestly, as I type all of that it’s a miracle they got as close as they did.

Miscellaneous

There are other culprits too... the Cubs lost 10 games via walkoffs in 2019. That’s 10 games they were tied or winning going into the bottom of the ninth only to see the hopes of victory vanish. They lost nine games in a row from September 16-27, including their final four games against the Cardinals. What stung most about that series was how winnable all of those games were until the end. And who can forget how they started the year? Two and seven with multiple games devolving into a comedy of errors.

On the fifth day of Cubsmas my true love gave to me: five games out of the playoffs, four Alec Mills starts, three Nico homers, 2 fWAR from Castellanos and a David Ross for manager.