It’s an oddity of North American sports, or at least three of them I guess, that we have such long regular seasons, and yet they are all defined by a handful of games after that regular season. MLB, the NBA, and the NHL play for six months, but those six months go without much meaning for just about everyone until a series or two or three in the postseason. And sometimes it comes down to one game. And for baseball, sometimes you skip that series and just go to Game 7.
Really, the only time your regular season isn’t defined by what did or didn’t happen in the postseason—if you made it at all—is when you’re an up and coming team with future success all but guaranteed. The ’15 Cubs are a prime example. Sure, it hurt when they were swept by the Mets because it felt like they really had something cooking. But that season was still considered a success because of how much better the regular season went than expected, and because of what we knew was on the horizon.
Sadly, you really only get that once. Luckily, here in town the ’09 Hawks were followed by the ’10 Hawks, the ’15 Cubs were followed by the ’16 Cubs, and going into the wayback machine the ’90 Bulls were followed by ALL the Bulls teams, and so on. Sadly, the ’05 Bears were then followed by the ’06 Bears and an injured Tommie Harris.
The Cubs won 95 games. That was tied for the best record in the National League. By any logical measure, that’s a successful season. But because they just happened to be grouped with the other team with that record who also happened to be the hottest team in the league when it came time to add 0.6% to the season (and yes, that’s how much one game is in a baseball season), they were forced to play another 0.6% to determine just how we would define this season.
There’s no point in barking about how really silly and unfair that kind of system is. Ask a Pirates fan how they feel about it. Hell, the Yankees won 100 games this year, never came within Enterprise hailing distance of the division crown, and could have lost their whole season last night to a team literally covered in sewage (a sewage-covered team that won 97 games, mind you, and right now is also feeling pretty aggrieved at never really threatening a division title and losing after just an added 0.6% of the season).
95 games. You know how many Cubs teams in my lifetime have won 95 games or more? Five, and that’s if I count 1984, when all I did was giggle incessantly and fall down a lot (not much has changed, really). Quite simply, it’s one of the best Cubs teams of the past 40 years.
That doesn’t mean it wasn’t flawed, because it was. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t have done better, because it could have. And yet when I sit here and said if only one or two guys had performed better over the season or if Bryant had been healthy, and I think they would have won what, 98? 99? Am I really supposed to stamp my feet and throw all my toys around the room because the Cubs didn’t win 99 games? In a what is likely the deepest division in baseball? I don’t know, that seems callous at best.
We’ll never know how much the 40 straight days at the office took out of them. Clearly, it was a noticeable amount. I’m just a writer, but if you asked me to stand at my desk (because I’m so healthy, y’see) for 40 straight days I’d probably be pretty punchy way before I got to the end of it. That’s not an excuse. It was what laid before them, and the answer is it probably took just enough out of them to be unable to hold off a team, and I can’t stress this enough, that went 20-7 down the stretch. It’s not like the Brewers stood around as the Cubs were Martin Sheen’d off the building and they just picked up the division lying next to the busted corpse. The Cubs had to hold off a charging thoroughbred after 40 days at work. It seems like a big ask.
The knives will be out for Chili Davis. And Joe Maddon, though it seems like he’s certainly sticking around. I’m just not sure how much influence a hitting coach really has. Maddon’s act and desperation to hear himself talk has worn thin, at least with me. And I argue with some in-game decisions all the time. But I’ve said this repeatedly: the Cubs missed Bryant for a third of the season, and he was a shell of himself for a good portion of the rest of it. They lost their closer, and then its second closer. Their #2 starter made eight starts. They had those 40 days and nights. And yet they still won 95 games. To argue that happened despite the manager is simply asinine. There will be plenty of managerial discourse in the coming days, and I’ll have something here on Maddon soon.
For me, if I really wanted to get red and angry (and at my age I have to be careful about that), I would look at a front office that put an awful lot of faith in young players that didn’t have a large tableau of major league success. Addison Russell, before it became public knowledge what an incredible sh*thead he is, had never had an above-average offensive season. Willson Contreras had one and a half. Albert Almora had one season of being exactly average last year, and had never really been dominant in the minors. Same goes for Ian Happ.
And really, I think all four of those guys being just “meh” all year would have been fine with a fully functional Bryant. And keeping those guys around A) maintains the depth that got the Cubs 95 wins, and B) keeps the payroll low to make a run at Harper or Machado this winter, if they so choose. Maybe it looks like a poor decision now, but it was at worst defensible last winter.
95 wins. And if you go by expected W-L, the Cubs were just one game better than they “should” have been by run differential. They weren’t exceedingly lucky to get where they were (and for what it’s worth, the Brewers were four games better). Sometimes, things don’t go your way no matter how good you are. Like a runner falling down between third and home before tying a game against your competitor. Or a ball bouncing out of Nick Castellanos’s glove and over the wall against that same team. Or the Rockies stringing three bleeding grounders together that confusingly snuck by Cubs’ fielders Tuesday night in the 13th.
Again, the team was flawed. They weren’t the Red Sox or the Astros. But they were far from helpless.
I don’t like connecting to my hockey origins, but I can’t help but think of the ’12 Hawks. That team is regarded as an utter failure, as it went out in the first-round for the second-straight year following the first Cup. It missed Jonathan Toews for half the year. Patrick Kane played center for most of the year. Corey Crawford was actually bad for most of it. But they racked up 106 points. They simply mauled the Coyotes in five or all six games of that playoff series. But because of the matchup they got in a division with three other 100+ point teams, there was nothing much they could do about Arizona goalie Mike Smith having a .948 SV% against them that series.
It hurts because these chances aren’t limitless. And something could go wrong next year, and then suddenly you see the end of the road more clearly than the beginning. The Cubs are now defined by what happens at the end, as unfair as that might really be. Another chance fell the past two or three or four days. Even by the most optimistic standards there may only be what, five more? Six? Seven at most? Not a lot in the grand scheme.
Sometimes you eat the bear… and sometimes… well, he eats you.
Lead photo courtesy @Cubs on Twitter