Cubs left-hander Jon Lester

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Spiegel: Sustained Success Never Felt So Empty

The Cubs and their fans must now deal with the cost of excellence.

Matt Spiegel
October 03, 2018 - 12:26 pm
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(670 The Score) The Cubs' failings in their 2-1 loss to the Rockies in the National League wild-card game Tuesday night were excruciating.

A Rockies outfielder overruns a pop-up, but that's immediately followed by a double play from the Cubs' best hitter to end the sixth.

An inning later, one Cubs pinch-hitter is gifted with catcher’s interference to load the bases against a rattled reliever, but the next one flails at a 3-2 fastball off the plate to enable his escape.

The Rockies’ third catcher, hitting .170 on the season, comes through with the go-ahead single in the top of the 13th.

The speed-demon non-hitting 25th Cub is forced to bat for the second time to lead off the bottom of the 13th, and he swings haplessly at ball four.

In the end, those 4 hours, 55 minutes of wild-card torture porn played out like a slow mercy killing. The Cubs' offense was so clearly lifeless over these past three weeks or so, and Tuesday was the third and final hideous performance over the last four days. 

On Saturday, the Cubs managed one run on five hits in a loss to the Cardinals. On Monday, they produced one run on three hits in a loss to the Brewers. With the season on the line Tuesday, they had just one run on six hits over 13 innings in the loss to the Rockies.

And ... scene.

Where did the quality at-bats go? How was this batch of professionals so consistently overmatched in the biggest of moments? Did they get trapped between the learned patient approach of taking lots of pitches per plate appearance and the "hit your pitch whenever you get it" philosophy that has pushed back and now spread around the league? 

There are lots of painful questions to answer in what should be a fascinating offseason. 

Cubs fans are trapped in the absurd reality of shifted expectations. It's a frustratingly empty feeling here in October, after a 95-win season. Sustained success never hurt so much. 

This is the cost of excellence. The bar raises, and anything short of a championship is never quite as good for them or for anybody. It reminds me of what Patriots coach Bill Belichick told a 30-year-old general manager after the latter won the 2004 World Series in Boston. Theo Epstein called Belichick for advice on how to handle success and was told: "You're f-----."

As we try to gain context of the moment, we look back on an offseason for the Cubs that gets an F. But as bad as it was, terrific in-season pickups raised the overall acquisitions grade. Cole Hamels was as good as you dreamt Yu Darvish would be. In Tyler Chatwood’s wild wake, Mike Montgomery had his best year as a starter. Brian Duensing, re-signed to a two-year deal last winter, ended up being completely outside the circle of trust by August, but scrap-heap find Jorge de la Rosa surprisingly stepped in.  Trade pickup Jesse Chavez was brilliant in a middle-relief role, allowing Pedro Strop to ably fill the Brandon Morrow void. 

So the pitching mostly evened itself out. The issue, as you felt and saw all year long, was the feast-or-famine offense. This Cubs lineup should be terrifying, but too often it was a pushover. When the Cubs won, they averaged 6.5 runs per game, just off the Red Sox's league-leading 6.7 mark. But when the Cubs were bad, they were horrid: Counting the loss Tuesday, they scored one or zero runs on 40 occasions, which tied for the league-high mark with the Orioles, who lost 115 games.  How this Cubs team won 95 is difficult to figure.

Seriously, think about it. Kris Bryant played in 102 games and was a frightening shell of himself to finish the year. Anthony Rizzo’s first’s six weeks were awful. Willson Contreras' second half was a curious, maddening disaster. Jason Heyward’s comeback year still manifested in an OPS of .731. David Bote was a godsend briefly, but then had an OPS of .538 (!) since Aug. 15. Addison Russell continued to regress offensively, then saw his season (and perhaps his Cubs career) come to an ugly end following domestic abuse allegations. Ian Happ’s year was a bizarre roller coaster. The two starting pitcher free-agent additions were complete busts. Kyle Hendricks didn’t find his form consistently until July.   

If I told you these stories and put a 95-68 record next to it, you’d laugh in my face. So, the manager did a great job, right?

Yes, you could argue that Joe Maddon had his best regular season, finagling lineups and relief matchups more than ever while dealing with all the aforementioned issues and injuries. Maddon is under contract through 2019, but I’ve been saying for a while now that I doubt he will get another deal. Tension with the brain trust has been there for a a few years. What manager has ever come out of a World Series win with less respect than he’d had before? Maddon did -- and not just with the fans. 

Then there were some questionable decisions this season. Did Maddon overuse and thereby break the fragile Morrow? When explaining Morrow's injury that sent him to the disabled list in mid-July, Epstein himself is the one who brought up Morrow’s usage for three straight days in late May and early June, without provocation. 

More recently in addressing the blog in which Melisa Reidy-Russell detailed allegations of physical abuse toward Addison Russell, Maddon fumbled the handling. He initially explained he didn't even need to read it before Epstein restated the organization's stance of taking the allegations seriously. The next day, Maddon told the media that he'd read the blog, giving real emotional weight to the issue for the first time. 

The Cubs have always known that Maddon would have waning effectiveness. Almost all managers do. The message -- or in his case sometimes the lack thereof -- gets old. Maddon is deeply committed to being calm and locked in to conveying logic, simplicity and steady sensibility. That can get old just like anything else. The real problem comes if a team looks listless and lifeless.

Like these Cubs hitters have far too often down the stretch. 

My bet has been that Maddon enters 2019 as a lame-duck manager in the final year of his deal. But the attention and focus on his security that has exploded with the wild-card game loss isn't going to be something a team can live with for a full season. It may indeed be time to extend or eject.   

There's one more scary item to address: Bryant’s injury and subsequent failure to return to form is a big, big deal. His left shoulder hampered him almost all year. He tried to adjust his swing finish when he came back the first time, but that didn’t stop the pain and he returned to the DL. Then when Bryant returned again, there were even bigger changes. He vacillated between a one-hand and two-hand approach to his follow-through. Down the stretch, he was late on the kind of fastballs that he has always murdered. Bryant and his coach/father are incredible students of hitting, and their work habits and knowledge should help in finding his way back to dominance. But the pain, struggle and failed adjustments were real and scary.

In the end, what feels emblematic of the 2018 Cubs season is the lack of any real celebration. Fans didn’t have a clean moment to be happy about making the postseason, and neither did the players. Everyone waited for the NL Central crown, which the Brewers stepped up and took.  

So after a fourth straight playoff appearance for the first time in Cubs history, there isn’t too much joy. It’s going to be a long, awkward winter of self-reflection.

This sport is really, really hard. 

Follow Matt Spiegel on Twitter @MattSpiegel670. For more from and about Matt, visit www.mattspiegel.com.​​