There’s a scene in an episode of The West Wing, from Season Four. A good friend of President Bartlet’s administration, Karen Kroft, recently lost a heartbreakingly close election to keep her seat in Congress, and Communications Director Toby Ziegler is trying (more or less) to apologize for that. He’s trying to convince her that her ouster was the administration’s fault, and to convey his feelings of guilt and remorse and helplessness. Karen stops him.
“In my religion … the whole symbol of the religion ended in crucifixion and condemnation. That wasn’t the measure of the experience. It’s just how it ended.”
The first part, perhaps, is a bit heavy to be dragged into a conversation about baseball, even on a night like Wednesday, but the last two sentences capture in neat summary the way Cubs fans ought to feel about their season, after the Mets ended it and swept the NLCS. That series—that unfortunate thud—isn’t the measure of the experience. It’s just how it ended.
Top Play: Jason Hammel has struggled to escape first innings throughout his rough second half. In fact, rare were the opening frames in which he didn’t surrender runs. Rare, for that matter, were the first innings during which any Cubs starter escaped unscathed during their playoff run. For the second straight night, though, they came within just a strike of doing just that. On Wednesday, it was two outs, two men on, and a 3-2 count on Duda, when Hammel just failed to execute on a pitch, and Duda absolutely crushed it. It was 3-0 Mets when the ball left the bat, and with the 0.272 WPA Duda provided, the Mets had a 77 percent shot to win the game before the Cubs ever came to bat.
Bottom Play: The game quickly became 6-0, but the Cubs started showing signs of life in the bottom of the fourth. In fact, they loaded the bases against Steven Matz, with nobody out, before Starlin Castro came to the plate with a chance to change the game.
He almost did it, too. Castro hit a screaming line drive (the ball was traveling at 107 miles per hour off the bat, however little that fact may be worth to you) about 15 feet to the right of third base, and perhaps eight or nine feet in the air. In so many other versions of the universe, that ball flies by a leaping David Wright, or glances off his glove and trickles toward the Cubs’ bullpen, and two runs score. In this one, Wright perfectly timed an athletic leap, reached to his left (and, it seemed, back—as if catching up to the ball after it had already gone by, though that was probably only a reflexive motion to make sure he kept the sizzling spinner in the pocket) and snared the ball. It was just one out, and it was hardly a complete rally killer, but it cost the Cubs 0.041 WPA and pushed their chances of winning the game back to nine percent—after Anthony Rizzo’s single had just nudged them back above 10 percent for the first time since the top of the second inning.
Key Moment: Ah, yes. The top of the second inning. That was where the game really got away from the Cubs. The Mets scored not only on Duda’s three-run jack in the first, but on an opposite-field homer by the next batter, Travis d’Arnaud. Thus, the Cubs trailed by four after one, but when Hammel retook the mound in the second, it felt very much as though the final nail was halfway into the coffin already. Duda worked a full count (again), and then doubled into right-center field, breaking the game wide open and making the rest of the contest an uphill climb the Cubs simply could not manage to scale.
The Trends: Over the final seven innings, the Cubs outscored the Mets, 3-2. So it was also (sort of) in Game Three, when the two teams were tied 2-2 after five innings. After the first three Mets batters of Game Two, the teams were tied 1-1. In Game One, the Cubs had the go-ahead run at the plate in the seventh inning and the tying run up in the ninth. That contest was also tied after four and a half innings. One major trend of this series was that the games played much closer than the final scores, even though the Cubs never did hold a lead in any of the four games.
Another trend: the Mets played much better defense throughout the series than did the Cubs. Blame Addison Russell’s absence, or the end of a longer season than those to which Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler are accustomed, or the overeager way Schwarber and Soler tried to make plays they might wisely have allowed to come to them on other nights. Blame whatever and whomever you want. The most likely reason that the defense faltered is the same one that most likely explains the Cubs’ relative lack of offense throughout the series, and their relatively poor starting pitching. That reason: variance. It’s just variance. It’s not youth and inexperience, not mismanagement of the moment or mismanagement of the roster, not the weather, not the pressure, not Bill Sianis or his goat Murphy or the Mets’ sudden G.O.A.T. named Murphy.
The most likely reason that the Cubs, who probably were and are a better baseball team than the Mets, lost to those Mets is that they simply played a stretch of less than their best baseball, a luxury not afforded to teams in tournament play. The Mets made very few mistakes and left very little margin for error. The Cubs made mistakes and were unable to take advantage of the opportunities they did have. When that happens, and especially when it happens in October, everyone wants to attach narratives to it. Everyone wants there to be a reason for it, because if there’s a definite reason, there’s a tangible solution. Even if the reason is that the team is cursed, there’s a solution.
But there is no solution, because there is no reason, no curse, no failing on the Cubs’ part other than the failure to sustain excellence all the way through the playoffs, to the World Series—and that’s no great failing. It’s just the way things go. As long as there are rounds of playoffs between the regular season and the World Series, there will be teams who feel they should have done more. A best-of-seven series isn’t designed to determine the best team; it’s designed to crown a champion. That’s okay; that’s fun. One day, the Cubs will win that crown, because they’ve established—far and away—the best organizational position to consistently put themselves in this tournament for the next several years. No team in baseball will have as many ping-pong balls in the World Series lottery over the next half-decade as will the Cubs, and one of those times, they will make it to that Series. In the meantime, let the Cubs join the chorus of the woulda-coulda-shoulda-been champions of 2015. The 100-win Cardinals. The Dodgers of Kershaw and Greinke, and $225 million-worth of other good players.
Bill Sianis didn’t cast it, but there really was a curse on the Cubs for decades. The goat, if there was one, was a three-headed goat monster. One head was the penuriousness of ownership—not only a reticence to spend money on players, but a minimalist approach to modernization, marketing, scouting, and infrastructural investments. The next head was simple managerial incompetence—a lack of institutional memory, too much willingness to change direction without examining all options, too little coherence with regard to organizational philosophies and long-term planning. The third head was myopia—a relatively slow uptake on the value of farm systems, then black and other minority players, then pitcher workload management, then sabermetrics. The Cubs lived on a skinflint budget in an increasingly outmoded ballpark with no clear idea of where they were trying to go, or what kind of franchise they were trying to be, and they failed even to recognize the proper tools with which to start building a brighter future. For something like 75 years, that’s the way it was.
That curse is broken. These Cubs know who they are. They have money, because they’ve assiduously invested money the right way. They are among the best teams in baseball at allocating resources and accumulating talent. There’s nothing holding the Cubs back. They were the better team in this series; the other team just played better. Next year, or the year after that, or the year after that, they’ll play better than all of the other teams—even if some of those teams are better than that future version of the Cubs. What goes around, comes around.
Lead photo courtesy Aaron Doster—USA Today Sports.