Five questions: Chicago Cubs

Forget five. There’s only one question:

Why the hell can’t these Cubs win in the postseason?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. A hundred years, blah, blah, blah. Never mind. Let’s talk now. This team. Lou Piniella and Our Gang.

Two years in a row, in the first round of the playoffs, the Cubs have failed to win a game. Not one. They have been skunked. Shut out. Shut down. Buried.

Opponents 36, Cubs 12. Twelve runs they’ve scored in six games. Six goes into 12… two runs a game. Important games. Nobody injured. Playing the regulars. Soriano, Lee, Ramirez, those guys.

Let’s put the horrors of the past two years in context.

Never before, in all the century-plus history of the modern National League, has a team gone to the postseason two years in a row and failed to win a game. The Minnesota Twins managed to get blanked in the AL championship series of 1969 and 1970; I’ll see your Billy Martin and raise you Dusty Baker: The Cubs have now lost nine straight postseason games. Throw out 2003 (and oh, how Cubs fans would like to) and the Cubs are the kings of recent division series oh-fers: 1998, 2007, 2008.

So we search for explanations.

It’s not like they were lucky to be there. The Cubs have won more regular-season games than any other National League team over the past two years. They won five more than eventual World Series winner Philadelphia last season.

It’s not like they were overmatched. The Cubs swooned against a 2007 Arizona team that had given up more runs than it scored, and against a 2008 Los Angeles squad that was three wins-into-losses from being a .500 team.

Other theories:

The Cubs were unfortunate to run into hot teams? To be sure, the Dodgers were rolling at the end with a 17-8 September while the Cubs were 12-12, but the Cubs had clinched early and didn’t have to run at full throttle much of the month. Besides, the Cubs had the better second half overall (40-26, vs. LA’s 38-29). And the previous year it was the reverse: The Cubs had a better September than Arizona, the Diamondbacks the marginally better second half. Not much to work with there.

Maybe Chicago ran into a team that had its number? True, the Cubs were 2-4 against the ’07 D-backs, but last year they dominated the Dodgers in the regular season, losing just two of seven.

Home field advantage? Chicago had it last year, fell behind in the fifth inning of the first game, and never sniffed a lead for the rest of the series.

A manager who doesn’t know how to get a team ready for the postseason? Unless ol’ Lou’s forgotten a bunch of stuff, that’s not the case. Before moving to Chicago, Piniella had taken five teams into October play. Four of those times his guys won at least the first-round division series; he won a World Championship in 1990 with Cincinnati.

The Cubs’ hitters are too right handed, and opposing managers take advantage of that in the postseason? That seems to be a popular theory, in places that include the Chicago front office.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Indeed, five of the six opposition starters in the ’07 and ’08 sweeps were right handers. The exception was Arizona’s Doug Davis, whom the Cubs touched for four runs in 5.2 innings. In the past offseason, the Cubs juggled their roster to bring more ammunition to bear against righties. They signed switch-hitter Milton Bradley (who in fact has been a significantly better hitter against left-handed pitchers), and created left-right platoons at second base and in center field by shedding Mark DeRosa .

On the other hand, the left-right business seems too facile an excuse. Of the Cubs’ right-handed hitting Big Three—Derrek Lee, Alfonso Soriano and Aramis Ramirez—none has a career record showing a serious split based on the handedness of the pitcher. All have hit southpaws only slightly more proficiently. Among them it figures to a difference of a hit every 50 at-bats.

We’re running out of ideas, here, folks, except for the word that dares not speak its name, the word that starts with C and rhymes with that’s no joke. In unusually candid Cactus League interviews this spring, Dodgers manager Joe Torre and ex-Dodgers starting pitcher Derek Lowe (easy first-game NLDS winner last fall) hinted strongly that they thought the pressure of high expectations cooked the Chicagoans in that series.

There’s some circumstantial evidence. Our three laboratory specimens, A-Ram, D-Lee, and A-Hop-before-he-catches-a-routine-damn-fly ball (sorry, off the subject) are career clutch hitters. Over the years, Ramirez and Lee have hit better than their lifetime averages in late-and-close situations, Soriano almost as well. But these are the facts in those two postseason sweeps:

Ramirez, 2 for 23.
Soriano, 3 for 28.
Lee, 10 for 23, no homers, no RBIs.

You know, it happens. Trivia question: What’s known as the biggest clutch hit in Cubs history? Gabby Hartnett, 1938. Two outs, ninth inning, Cubs playing Pittsburgh, a half-game behind the first-place Pirates. Late-September dusk. The Homer in the Gloamin’.

Hall of Famer Hartnett’s lifetime postseason BA/OBP: .241/255. Check the water at Wrigley Oct. 1.

Moving on to 1a, 1b, 1c and 1d:

Pretty good pitching, eh?

The team the Cubs will field was pretty well set when spring training began. But there’s nearly six weeks of preseason stories to write, so there’s some interest in bullpen “battles”:

Q. Will Carlos Marmol or Kevin Gregg be the closer? A. Yes.

Which of the Luis Vizcaino types in camp will start the season as the last man on the relief bench, getting to dodge line drives down the left field line into Wrigley Field’s wonderfully exposed bullpen? Step forward if you care. Not you, Mrs. V.

Here’s the more important question: Is the starting pitching as good as it looks on March paper?

It looks quite good, indeed. Ted Lilly (ERA+ of 109), Carlos Zambrano (114) and Ryan Dempster (151) all ate up at or near 200 innings and averaged 16 wins apiece in 2008. Rich Harden had a startling 206 ERA+ with Oakland and the Cubs combined (NL leader Tim Lincecum’s was 167). The pitchers competing in spring training for the fifth and probable midseason replacement spots were Sean Marshall, Aaron Heilman and Jeff Samardzija, each of whom could have headlined some Cubs staffs of the past. (Hello, Steve Trachsel, wherever you are.)

Sounds like a full complement. Ah, but we spoilsports also have to imagine the staff half empty. To wit:

This will be Harden’s seventh year in the majors. His arm is as fragile as a paranoid’s ego. He’s pitched in as many as 30 games just once. Lilly and Dempster had the best seasons of their lives in 2008. Lilly, now 33, beat his career averages in innings pitched, ERA and WHIP, and had more wins and strikeouts than he’d ever had in a season. As for Dempster: Surely not even this converted reliever himself expects him to match last season’s 17 wins and 2.96 ERA.

And then there’s Zambrano, who joked (we hope) this spring that he wants to go to the minors and learn to be a hitter like Rick Ankiel did. Unlike other THTers, I wasn’t born with a standard deviation in my mouth, but I do know that Zambrano exceeds your standard deviate in inconsistency. I give you his four September starts as a for-instance:

IP     H     R     K
5      5     3      3
9      0     0     10
1.2    6     8      1
4.2    3     3      2

You wouldn’t want your heart surgeon to have such a gap between his good and bad days.

Will the Cubs make the postseason at all?

What with the Series-winning Phillies looking just as good as last year and the Mets looking better, there’s a good chance the National League’s wild card entrant will come from the East Division, and the Cubs will have to win the Central to advance.

They should. Milwaukee’s good, but without its erstwhile best starting pitchers, C.C. Sabathia and Ben Sheets. That’s some loss. Houston has some big boppers, but basically no one to pitch the 125 games Roy Oswalt doesn’t. Cincinnati is hoping that jettisoning Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey Jr. since the start of last season somehow makes it better than last year’s 88-loss team. St. Louis is going to hit a ton of homers, but even Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan can’t make lemonade out of that pitching staff. Pittsburgh is Pittsburgh.

Will the Cubs get anything out of their four-year, $48 million import?

Kosuke Fukudome was a great story for a while last season, his first in the United States after a sterling career in Japan. Although his swing often resembles that of a man wielding a weed whacker, he inspired creative signs and headgear among the Wrigley fans, hit a dramatic Opening Day home run, played a smooth right field and was voted (undeservedly, but who cared?) to the NL All-Star team. And then National League pitchers discovered that they were better than the No. 4 starter on your average Japanese Central League staff.

The pitchers’ learning curve went all in one direction. Fukudome’s batting averages for the six months of the season, in chronological order: .327, .293, .264, .236, .193, .178. That is not an encouraging trend.

This season, the plan is for Fukudome to platoon in center field with right-handed hitting Reed Johnson, though the 2008 Fukudome didn’t fare any better against righty pitchers than southpaws.

What the heck: The Cubs aren’t the only ones in the world with an investment that’s gone into the toilet this past year.

If he’d played on the East Coast …

Does Ron Santo belong in the Hall of Fame? Do ballplayers scratch where it itches?

So it’s not exactly season preview material, but dagnabit, it’s been 20 seasons since Santo’s debut on Cubs radio broadcasts. Now, I’ve heard Vin Scully, and Ron, you’re no Vin Scully and you’re not going to make the broadcast wing of the Hall. But you ought to be in the other one.

This qualifies as current events because the Hall’s Veterans Committee just turned Santo down narrowly for the umpteenth time, and the Baseball Writers just voted in Jim Rice on his last chance with them. Rice had 16 years in the big leagues to Santo’s 15 and compiled slightly better offensive numbers. Santo’s career spanned the pitching-dominant era of the late ’60s; Rice’s didn’t. Santo was a five-time Gold Glove winner; Rice owned a glove. Santo was the best third baseman in the history of the iconic franchise Cubs; Rice was not the best left fielder in the history of the iconic franchise Red Sox.

And it’s not like the Cubs have gotten all the breaks lately.

Joe Distelheim is a retired newspaper editor whose career included stints as sports editor of The Charlotte Observer and Detroit Free Press. He co-authored Cubs: From Tinker to Banks to Sandberg to Today.

Comments are closed.