Is it too soon for the post mortem on the season? You might have answered yes, but I’m not quitting over here. The Cubs are waking up on September 28 tied for the last Wild Card spot. The Reds are on life support. The Diamondbacks have almost certainly nailed down the second Wild Card spot and the Phillies have nailed down the first. So we’ve more or less boiled the season down to two teams for one spot. The bad news is that the Cubs lose any tiebreaker. The really bad news is that the schedule remains brutal.
The good news is they have one game to make up on a Marlins team that is also flawed. Nothing is over. Weird things happen in sports and teams back into playoff spots all of the time. Of course, those usually aren’t baseball teams. 162 games tend to produce more clear cut separation. But we do expect and know that as baseball continues to expand its playoff system that each expansion outwards reduces the margins. Logically the two reasons for having expanded playoffs go hand in hand. More teams in the playoffs. More teams in contention longer. All of that keeps more people invested in baseball down to the last pitch than ever before.
September 28 will also be the first day that begins with me not thinking the Cubs will play playoff baseball. I’d have to go digging for the precise time when the switch fully flipped. Along the way I went from a guy who thought they’d win 75ish games and was at least one more year away to a guy who thought they might end up closer to 90 than 85 and a tough out in the playoffs. I can say honestly that I can’t remember too many seasons where it went in that direction. Obviously, the 1989 Cubs jump off of the page. I guess probably the 2015 Cubs. It’s different when my thoughts weren’t crystalized by being put into writing. Doing this is interesting, because you almost have to organize your thoughts. You have to have opinions.
I’ve never been good at making predictions. But I’m not sure that I’ve ever gotten the chance to be wrong about a team twice. 75 was strikingly pessimistic and 85 plus wins was overly optimistic. That said, if you and I were sitting down in a bar, tipping back a few cocktails and watching a game, I would argue with you if you said that this team wasn’t good.
It frustrates me that there are people who purport to be Cubs fans who truly have negative things to say about this team. I don’t mean when you are mad or frustrated. That happens. We lash out. We don’t get a lot of (productive) opportunities to lash out at our boss, our job, our spouse, or our children. So sports ends up being a space where we can let it rip a little. If you are at home yelling at your TV, I think that’s part of the fan experience. I’m not as big a fan of doing it at a live venue. Not the least of which is that you can really ruin the experience of those around, some who may be experiencing a game for the first time.
This is a good team. Does that make what’s going on any less frustrating? Of course not. The Cubs have managed to blow three saves in three consecutive innings twice in less than two weeks. That’s embarrassingly bad. Maybe I’ve been doing half empty/half full for too long, but I’m not losing sleep over it. The other side to that frustration is that this team just kept fighting back. Most of you have watched the Cubs for years. How does the story go? You blow the save, you lose. The only question is if it’s just the one run that beats you or if they pile on and it gets lopsided.
These Cubs just keep coming off of the mat and fighting back. With five runs Wednesday night, the Cubs have gone over 800 on the season. That’s pretty rare air for them. They will outscore the 2016 Cubs. Of course, that team excelled at run prevention. This one has lots of work to do in that regard. The Cubs scored two in the third in this one. That gives them 119 runs in the third inning, most of any inning. It doesn’t take a lot of math to understand that. They average 4.25 batters in the first inning and 4.25 in the second (literally identical). 8.5 batters in the first two innings. So the third inning is the best hitters in the lineup seeing the starter for a second time.
The fifth inning is the third most amount of scoring, though way back at 90 runs. Interestingly, the Cubs had scored exactly 80 runs in the first, second, sixth and seventh innings (and 81 in the fourth). The third inning tends to be the second time the top of the order sees the starter and if the starter lasts, the fifth is a frequent inning to face him, particularly on nights when that starter is struggling to survive five.
The other highest scoring inning is the eighth inning. That’s often going to be facing a leverage reliever on the other team. Certainly, we know and remember there have been some games that got out of hand late against “B” relievers. But for a team that has played a ton of competitive baseball, that eighth inning is against a high end reliever. This team had 117 runs in each of the third and eighth heading into this one.
This has been one of the more competitive Cub offenses of my lifetime. With Ian Happ’s homer in this game, the Cubs have six players who have hit 20 homers for them this year and Jeimer Candelario has 21 of them total. Certainly rule changes helped, but a Cubs team stealing 136 bases is some pretty rare air.
I will only view this team as a good team playing bad and suffering from the after-effects of playing too long without contribution from enough of the roster. There were just too many times that the team didn’t have 26 players healthy, effective and contributing. The importance of having productive depth is in not wearing out, injuring or overexposing your best players. As the team attempts to grow and improve with an eye on another championship, they’ll have to continue to work to keep extending the roster. More productive players in the lineup, more productivity and more usefulness out of the fringes of the roster.
Of course, I finish with last year’s mantra. The future is never guaranteed. This team ascended into competition and was a viable contender for a period. If they take their eye off of the ball, it is always possible to regress. No one in Chicago has to look far to find a team that was ascending, until they weren’t and then were descending faster than the Hindenburg.
Let’s find three key performances in another tough loss.
- Even with the baserunners allowed in the seventh, Jameson Taillon’s line was terrific. He ends up with sixth innings, three hits, one walk and two runs. Of course, you know I’m not afraid to beat a dead horse. The Cubs only walked this one hitter. They did a nice job in not walking Braves after all four Braves to walk scored on Tuesday. The Cubs have now walked five through two games and all have scored.
- Ian Happ had a pair of hits, one a homer, and drove in two.
- Dansby Swanson had a single, was hit by pitch, stole a key base and scored an important run.
Honorable Mention: Yesterday’s Billy Goat bounces back. Drew Smyly inherited a mess and retired three straight hitters to preserve a Cubs lead.
Game 158, September 27: Braves 6, Cubs 5 (82-76)
Reminder: Heroes and Goats are determined by WPA scores and are in no way subjective.
- Superhero: Drew Smyly (.296). IP, 3 batters, K
- Hero: Yan Gomes (.274). 1-3, BB, RBI, K
- Sidekick: Jose Cuas (.201). ⅔ IP, 2 batters, WP
- Billy Goat: Daniel Palencia (-.549). ⅓ IP, 3 batters, 2 H, 2 R (1 ER)
*9th lowest WPA game score of the year by a Cub. Six of the 10 worst scores have happened since the start of August and four more of the next 10, including the next entry.
- Goat: Mark Leiter Jr. (-.494). ⅓ IP, 3 batters, 2 H, R
- Kid: Julian Merryweather (-.189). IP, 4 batters, 2 H, R
WPA Play of the Game: Marcell Ozuna’s homer with one out and the bases empty in the ninth inning to tie the game. (.467)
*Cubs Play of the Game: Yan Gomes singled with runners on first and second with one out and the game tied in the ninth. (.305)
Who was the Cubs Player of the Game?
This poll is closed
Ian Happ (2-4, HR, SF, 2 RBI, R)
Someone else (leave your suggestion in the comments)
Yesterday’s Winner: Miles Mastrobuoni 59-48 over Cody Bellinger. Superhero is (107-50)
Rizzo Award Cumulative Standings: (Top 6/Bottom 6)
The award is named for Anthony Rizzo, who finished first in this category three of the first four years it was in existence and four times overall. He also recorded the highest season total ever at +65.5. The point scale is three points for a Superhero down to negative three points for a Billy Goat.
- Cody Bellinger +35
- Adbert Alzolay +18
- Ian Happ +17.5
- Justin Steele +16
- Javier Assad +14
- Marcus Stroman +11
- Michael Fulmer -9
- Patrick Wisdom -12
- Dansby Swanson -14
- Drew Smyly -15
- Trey Mancini -20.5
- Jameson Taillon -23
- Diamondbacks win second straight (The Diamondbacks magic number over the Cubs is one due to the tiebreaker, so this is the last time I will cover the Diamondbacks in this space)
- Marlins split their doubleheader
- Cubs lose
Phillies have clinched the first Wild Card; The Marlins do have the tiebreaker against the Diamondbacks. So the Marlins only need to tie them. The Marlins are two games behind the Diamondbacks for the second Wild Card. The Diamondbacks magic number against the Marlins is three. The Cubs are tied with the Marlins, but that leaves the Marlins with a magic number of 4 against the Cubs.
Up Next: Marcus Stroman makes his second start since returning from injury. The Braves are calling up a rookie named AJ Smith-Shawver to start tonight. Al will have plenty of information about the pitching matchup later in the day.