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The Cubbies death sentence........
While not officially eliminated from the playoffs, the Cubs are pretty damn close. The game at Wrigley is about to start, and to make the playoffs, the Cubs will have to win today, tommorrow, and hope that both Houston and San Francisco lost their remaining two. Not impossible, but not very likely, so I am pre-maturely pronouncing the 2004 Cubs dead.
The Cubs may not even win 90 games, which is unacceptable for a team that was within five outs of the World Series and improved both over the off-season and mid-season with the trade for Nomar. It's never fair to dish out blame, but there has to be a reason for the disappointment. By all accounts, the Cubs fell drastically short of expectations. When they ABSOLUTELY had to win their games down the stretch, the Cubs instead have lost four in a row, and six of their last seven.
It's been painful week:
Last Saturday, the Cubs wasted 7-2/3 innings of four-hit scoreless ball from Mark Prior by bringing in Ryan "not a typo" Dumpster in the 9th. Dumpster predictably walked two to bring the tying run to the plate. Hawkins came in and gave up a three-run home run to rookie Victor Diaz to get a tough blown save. Its tough because if Dusty hadn't left Dumpster in a close game, its likely Hawkins and his 1.05 WHIP would have never even let the tying run get to the on-deck circle.
On Sunday, the Cubs wasted a strong 7 inning, 3-run start by Kerry Wood by managing a meager 3 hits off the Mets. The Cubs left 12 men on base.
Monday was the lone bright spot, beating the Reds 12-5. Although, they didn't really need 12 runs with Zambrano pitching well, maybe they should have bottled up some of that offense and saved it for the rest of the week.
Tuesday, well, the Cubs just lost on Tuesday. It wasn't a particularly painful loss, but it still hurt to see my boy Maddux struggle, knowing how much the game meant. But you take this loss and put it behind you.
On Wednesday, the heartbreak continued. I was talking with John on the phone at the end of this one, and given how much it hurt me just hearing about it, I'm suprised John didn't throw the phone through a window. The Cubs offense wasted another great pitched game, this time a 1-run outing from team-MVP Glendon Rusch. Even after leaving 19 men on base, the Cubs were still in a position to win, but Hawkins blew it in the 9th. With two outs, D'Angelo Jimenez tripled. Hawkins then threw two fastballs by Austin Kearns. Ahead in the count 0-2, instead of finishing off Kearns with some high cheese, LaTroy proceeds to do EXACTLY what John predicted (and advised against) and go to his breaking ball. Boom, tie ball game. Like I said, I am infinitely suprised that John's phone is still in one piece.
There is not much to say about Thursday. Mark Prior goes 9 innings, giving up three hits, one run, and striking out 16. Cubs leave 20 (20?!?!) men on base and lose 2-1 in extra innings. Then, on Friday, the Cubs stranded 15 more, lost by one run and effectively eliminated themselves from the playoffs.
What a week.
Who do we blame?
I've heard people put undue blame on LaTroy Hawkins. I don't think that is entirely fair. Hawkins has blown nine saves, as many as Octavio Dotel and Danny Graves, but its hard to fault someone with a 2.67 ERA in a team-leading 81 relief innings. If anything, LaTroy was the rock in that bullpen. But the two blown saves that hurt the most happened in his last two outings, and they will always be fresh on our memories. The blown leads against the Mets and the Reds were heartbreaking and do stick out, but overall, LaTroy was one of the best relievers in baseball this year.
The other thing that sticks out is the offense. Much has also been made about the Cubs striking out way too much as a team, especially in clutch situations, but it's hard to really back up that claim when the three division winners (Atlanta, LA, and St. Louis) all struck out more times than the Cubs. Also, the Cubs hit .270 on the season, and hit exactly .270 with runners in scoring position, striking out once every 5.8 plate appearances in both situations.
Instead of blaming it on the two obvious choices, I have two things Cub fans really ought to blame it on. Those two things are embodied in the persons of Jose "I can play short" Macias, and the long lost son of Bret Saberhagen, Mark Prior:
You're blaming Jose Macias?
No, I am not trying to pin all the blame on just Macias and Prior, but both are representative of what went wrong. Macias because he symbolizes the playing time that the Cubs have given to absolute schmucks this year, and Prior because he symbolizes the massive amounts of injuries the Cubs have sustained as a team. One may have a lot to do with the other, but regardless, these are the two best reasons I can come up with.
The Cubs had four offensive bats healthy all season, Alou, Patterson, Lee, and Barrett. Sammy missed time, and had a wretched season by his standards when he did play. Aramis missed time and wasn't healthy when he played the others. Todd Hollandsworth, their best bat off the bench missed most of the season. Nomar missed time down the stretch prompting a lot of starts from the Ramon Martinez, Neifi Perez, and Jose Macias triple headed monster.
In fact, a team that gives 808 ABs to some combination of Ramon Martinez, Jose Macias, Alex Gonzalez, Neifi Perez, Rey Ordonez, and Tom Goodwin is in trouble, whether or not their fans would like you to believe that.
Injuries to Kerry Wood and Mark Prior hurt too. They were offset somewhat by suprisingly solid pitching from Glendon Rusch, but its hard to win when you get 40 starts instead of 60 from your two best pitchers.
Taking the easy way out?
Yeah, lets be realistic, injuries are no excuse for falling this short. The rational thoughts inside me like to think that the Cubs bench was horribly inadequate to overcome injuries, that Jim Hendry was too slow in making deals to help fix the glaring holes, and that they really needed to improve on their team .327 OBP. I can't use rational thoughts at a time like this.
I started to like this team at the end of 2001. I followed them through their disappointing 2002, and started getting real excited during the playoff run of 2003. I look at the 2004 team and I see a team with a pretty good offense, a pretty decent bullpen, and the best rotation in the league. The Cubs outhit and outpitched their opponents this year.......just not by enough.
The statistics nut inside me like to think there was some reason, but the baseball fan inside me has come to the conclusion that the Cubs just didn't do the "little things". I hate saying that more than anything, but its all I can come up with for this team. They are just way too talented to be sitting at 88 wins right now. The playoffs are all but gone, but it's 0-0 in the 2nd--Braves at Cubs--theres still a sliver of hope.