CHICAGO — Before the Cubs home opener in April, manager Joe Maddon made the pronouncement: “Adversity is a good thing for the soul, brother.”
How’s that, Joe?
“You always look to see who looks good when things are going bad,” Maddon said. “When things are going well, it’s easy for everybody to look good. When it’s not going so well, I like the dudes that look good when things are going bad.”
If Maddon’s theory has merit, the Cubs’ souls were well-nourished in 2019, a season in which they faced one obstacle after another, from their 2-7 start to this weekend’s bitter conclusion to the final homestand.
Another excruciating ninth-inning loss to the Cardinals on Sunday, 3-2, in the home finale, their sixth straight defeat and fifth in a row by one run, was almost like beating a dead horse.
Yu Darvish pitched his heart out but coughed it up in the ninth. Kris Bryant went down in the third with a sprained right ankle after slipping on first base while trying to beat out a double play And the Cubs ended their last home game knowing the team that returns in 2020 may bear little resemblance to the one that walked out of Wrigley Field on Sunday.
Craig Kimbrel long will be remembered as the culprit most associated with the week the wheels fell off the 2019 Cubs, but he had plenty of help. Poor baserunning by Kyle Schwarber, another short outing by starter Jose Quintana and even the pitch selection to Yadier Molina and Paul DeJong during the “two shots to the jaw” ninth inning of Saturday’s stunning loss all factored into the collapse.
Bryant, the heart of the lineup, failed to come through in the final six games, going 2-for-20 with no RBIs in the most important stretch of the season.
“It is what it is,” Maddon said. “You don’t cry, you don’t sulk, you don’t do anything. You come back and play the next game. I have no issues with our ballclub.”
If most of this team were to return next year, could we expect different results?
“Yeah,” Maddon said. “I’m always looking at experience playing into it. Lessons learned are very big. Yes, I would. I think you’re going to learn from this.”
That’s probably not going to happen, of course.
The Cubs may lose Nicholas Castellanos, Cole Hamels, Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop and others to free agency. Ben Zobrist could retire. And if President Theo Epstein’s threat of a “reckoning” comes to fruition, players such as Bryant, Quintana Albert Almora Jr., Addison Russell and others could be gone.
It’s going to be an interesting, rumor-filled winter, and that doesn’t even include the decision on Maddon’s future, which should be announced quickly.
When Zobrist said before the game “it’s hard to beat the experience of being a Chicago Cub player, especially when you walk out on that field,” it reminded me of Eric Karros’ memorable line from the 2003 season: “Every player should be a Cub for one year.”
The combination of a great great city and an iconic ballpark should be attractive to anyone. Cubs fans embraced Castellanos as if he’d been one of the core for years.
But the pressure to win is now so all-consuming that Wrigley is also one of the toughest places to play, as this weekend proved. When things go bad, the vibe is overwhelming.
The most anticipated Cubs-Cardinals series since the 2015 National League Division Series turned into a coronation for the Cards, who were .500 at the All-Star break and seemingly on the road to nowhere. After they made no significant moves at the trade deadline, fans were calling for President John Mozeliak’s scalp.
But they persevered, going 30-11 after the break, and doing so without injured closer Jordan Hicks, who has been out since late June.
“There was a time when we could have mailed it in,” DeJong said after Saturday’s comeback. “But we kept pushing. We’re at a point in the year where we smell blood and we’re trying to take what’s ours.”
The announced crowd Sunday was 38,606, but several thousand fans declined to show up because of the threat of rain, the inability to dump their tickets or general apathy. Who knows?
“We all feel it individually,” Zobrist said. “I’m sure fans feel it. We’re human beings and we have to do our best to think positive going into today, knowing no matter what the end result ends up being, the character of this team is not determined by the final result.”
On the bright side, the Cubs saved their worst for the road, meaning fans could always change the channel if the team began breaking bad. Despite losing their last six games, the Cubs wound up 51-30 at Wrigley, the most home wins of any National League team besides the Dodgers.
That’s what made this season so frustrating, knowing the Cubs had it in them but couldn’t find a way to get it done when it mattered.
All the deep thinkers and number-crunchers in the expansive Cubs front office can spend the offseason trying to pinpoint the problem. But the bottom line is this group of players did not get the job done again, and that probably means change is inevitable.
Zobrist’s remark about the Cubs’ character highlights Maddon’s fondness for “dudes that look good when things are going bad.” We’ll find out these final six games which individuals in the clubhouse and front office are willing to face the music and which will go and hide.
It doesn’t get any worse than this.