Cubs Choke is Hard to Swallow

I have been reluctant to write about the astonishing collapse of the 2008 Cubs team during this post-mortem interval. The fan in me died another death watching this Cubs team, like so many Cubs teams before it, collapse under the weight of major league playoff baseball. Not every team can win it all, to be sure. But given how this franchise played throughout the 161-game grind (1 game cancelled due to hurricane Ike was not made up), finishing with the best record in the National League,  I expected more of a fight in October. Again. It is nearly unbelievable to me that this Cubs team would play almost identical baseball as the 2007 Cubs did last October. 

The bats were absent again this year even though the team hit for slightly higher average.  Take a look at team stats the past two postseasons:

  • 2008 Cubs NLDS:  .240 ave, 1 HR, 6 RBI, .282 on-base pct, .346 slugging
  • 2007 Cubs NLDS: .194 ave, 1 HR, 6 RBI, .307 on-base, .305 slugging

Mind boggling how inept both Cubs teams were in the playoffs. Those are not the numbers of a winning team. Maybe this collection of players is just not ready for prime time.  Maybe the are marathoners and not sprinters. Maybe they simply aren’t clutch. It pains me to say it, but these guys are chokers – in the most classic definition of the word. They choke. They cannot perform when the lights are bright and the ivy is brown. They played scared, they played tight, they pressed, they panicked …they choked.

It is true to say the players have to play but I lay a good deal of responsibility at the feet of manager Lou Piniella. Anyone can second guess after the fact, but the fact is Lou’s team was not ready to play. You could see it in their eyes, they were scared and desperate almost from the first pitch of game one. Their defensive and offensive fundamentals fell apart. Their renown patience at the plate vanished. This team was mentally beat to start each game. There was no fight in them, the big guys weren’t hitting, their sure handed glove men were booting the ball all over the place, it was embarrassing to watch it unfold. I thought to myself with each game that they would pull it together at any time. Get the clutch base hit; hit behind the runner; take a pitch or two; foul one off…what happened to situational hitting? 

When your game one starter is over throwing and missing his spots, walking 7 guys in less than 5 innings, getting out of a bases loaded jam in the 3rd, tell me how in the world a manager lets him walk the bases loaded again while down 2-0 in a playoff game?  How does that happen?  Ryan Dempster should have never had the opportunity to walk those 6th & 7th guys. The whole team was fully rested and healthy. There was a bullpen full of arms down there to draw from. It obviously wasn’t Dempster’s night – as good of a season as he’d had, particularly at Wrigley Field, he just didn’t have it on that night. Allowing the Grand Slam to Loney wasn’t the mistake. Lou Piniella allowing his starter to work through a second bases loaded situation was the critical error here. Blame goes to Lou on this one.

In game three, facing elimination, Rich Harden is throwing a decent game but not spectacular. His velocity is down and he is not sharp. Knowing how this team – facing elimination and on the road – is struggling mightily at the plate, how can it be that Sweet Lou allows Joe Torre to walk Ryan Theriot with Geovany Soto dying on second after leading off with a double followed by two ground-outs, leaving Rich Harden one of the weakest hitting pitchers on either team to bat with 2 outs and two on?  Lou had to let him bat because no one was up in the bullpen. The Cubs were down 2-0, facing elimination and unable to score runs and Lou lets Harden strike out to kill the chance to score some precious, elusive runs. Torre out-smarted Lou here, by walking Theriot to force Harden to the plate thereby killing the rally because Lou didn’t see it coming. No one was warming in the bullpen so Lou was left with no choice but to let Harden bat and make his sure out. So sealed the fate of the 2008 Chicago Cubs.

Like many Cub fans, I was stunned by this team’s utter lack of good baseball in the playoffs. I not only wanted more, but expected more from this team. Not because Ron Santo proclaimed “This Is The Year”, but because this was the best Cubs team from every perspective I have seen in my lifetime. The could hit for average, hit for power, field, pitch, come from behind, blow out an opponent, and win ballgames. This was a complete team, not dependent on one, two or even three key players, but really everyone contributed from top to bottom. Five guys with 20+ HRs, four pitchers with double digit wins, the team won 97 games and could have won a hundred if the division were in play longer.  But in October, this Cubs team choked.  And that reality is hard to swallow.

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    October 20, 2008   Posted in: game day, game strategy, Lou Piniella, observations, players, playoffs

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