It’s Starting To Feel Kind Of Cubs
3:44 PM EDT on September 28, 2023
In the 10th inning of a tie game, Ronald Acuña Jr. beat a throw to second base, pried the base loose from the ground, and hoisted it above his head like a war trophy. He did this to the great annoyance of the Cubs broadcasters, who found it "pretty absurd" to "stop the game and run a highlight montage" and wondered whether the celebration couldn't wait until after the game. Acuña was celebrating the fact that he had just joined MLB's otherwise vacant "40-70 club" with his 70th stolen base of the season. When Acuña things are happening to you, it's only natural to get frustrated.
I do not blame these cranky gentlemen for their pique; Acuña may as well have torn out their hearts. And perhaps they had a point about waiting, too, because the game ended on the very next pitch. Ozzie Albies drove Acuña home with a walk-off single to right field, handing the Cubs a loss they could ill afford. There is no joy in Naperville. The Cubs have struck out.
The model over at FanGraphs gave the Cubs a 92 percent chance to reach the postseason as recently as three weeks ago, when they held the second NL Wild Card spot and were three and a half games up on the Marlins, who held the third spot. That gave them a bit of breathing room, but not nearly enough to survive their torn-up, worn-out bullpen collapsing as one. The Cubs have a 6-12 record over that stretch, and the Diamondbacks went 6-1 in seven games against the Cubs this month to get themselves back into wild card position. The Marlins hold the edge in a tiebreaker and beat the Mets last night to tie Chicago's record and dislodge the Cubs from the final wild card spot.
What this means is that the Cubs must win one more than the Marlins in their next four games to keep the October dream alive. The sad graph above tells us the odds are in Miami's favor: The Cubs have one last game against the Braves and three against the division-winning Brewers; the Marlins will finish up their series against the Mets today before heading to Pittsburgh.
Teams that need furious second-half surges to even put themselves in a postseason chase sometimes just run out of steam. (See also: what the Mariners are doing right now.) But the Cubs have gone about this in especially painful fashion. In recent days, they are not even running out of steam so much as they are smilingly handing some piping hot steam to their opponents at the worst moments. On Wednesday, they gave up a game-tying solo home run to Marcell Ozuna in the bottom of the ninth, another heartbreaker in a series filled with late blown leads.
The maddening thing about narrowly missing the playoffs is that every player (even the good ones) and every loss (even the forgettable ones) is the culprit. Still, if the Cubs do fail to make the postseason, that probably won't stop fans from pointing to Seiya Suzuki's flubbed catch on Tuesday as the true season-killer. In a game the Cubs had led 5-0, his error turned a one-run lead into a one-run deficit.
Also on FanGraphs this week, aside from grim data visualization, is a wonderful post from Davy Andrews about how announcing crews call walk-off losses. It is an oddly touching study of grief—each cranky gentleman handles the pain in his own way. Some are angry, some are silent. Its best finding is that Don Orsillo has his own walked-off call, a simple "This hurts."
These are baseball's truest emotions, free of any perspective or restraint. Sometimes 1/162 feels like the world's biggest fraction. An optimist might see the above graph as proof the Cubs were playing with house money. Take it from me, the world's least angry and most cope-prone sports fan: I can remember when the Cubs were primed to sell at the deadline. Look at how much of the season they spent without a fighting chance, look at Justin Steele in the Cy Young conversation, look at how fun and impressive July and August were. Stretches of summer like those are worth savoring no matter what happens in the end. But also: who am I kidding? For all those glorious weeks, the money was really theirs. It still hurts.