In early May Cubs President Theo Epstein stood in front of the dugout before a game at Wrigley Field and addressed his club’s second straight mediocre start to the season.
The Cubs had turned it on in the second half of 2017 to easily win the National League Central Division title, and I asked Epstein if that was part of the problem.
Maybe the players know they can turn it on when they need to and lack a sense of urgency?
“Maybe,” he replied. “There’s that theory that last year reinforced those habits. I don’t know. You can sit here and say ‘yes’ and then we’ll go run off 10 in a row and then it was just psychobabble, trying to create a narrative.
“If you want to write that story, I’ll give you the quote. But I’m not sure it’s true.”
Five months later, during Wednesday’s postmortem after the Cubs blew the division title to the Brewers in the final week and lost to the Rockies in Tuesday’s wild-card game, Epstein conceded the theory was not just psychobabble after all.
“Again, 95 wins is tremendous, but sometimes divisions aren’t lost on that last day of the season when you only score one run and you don’t get in,” he said. “They’re not lost in that last week and a half when the other team goes 8-0 and you go 4-3 and you needed to go 5-2.
“Sometimes they’re lost early in the season when you have an opportunity to push for that sweep, but you already have two out of three and you’re just not quite there with that killer instinct. You know what that makes us? Human.”
In light of that candid admission, here are five Cubs losses before the final-week collapse that ultimately contributed to the Cubs blowing the division title:
May 6: Cardinals 4, Cubs 3, 14 innings at Busch Stadium
After Javier Baez’s home run in the top of the 14th gave the Cubs a 3-2 lead in an ESPN “Sunday Night Baseball” game, manager Joe Maddon turned to reliever Luke Farrell, his eighth pitcher of the night. Farrell struck out the first two hitters, including pitcher Miles Mikolas, who had to pinch-hit for the Cardinals. But Harrison Bader reached on an infield hit to shortstop, and former Cub Dexter Fowler hit a two-run, line-drive homer to right for a stunning walk-off victory. The Cubs were 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position, a recurring theme in 2018 as they ranked 20th in the category with a .247 average. Farrell posted a 5.17 ERA in 20 appearances and the Cubs waived him in early September.
May 13: White Sox 5, Cubs 3 at Wrigley Field
The Cubs scored 19 runs in winning the first two games of the City Series. The White Sox had the worst record in baseball and struggling Lucas Giolito on the mound. In the first inning, Giolito walked three, gave up a hit, threw two wild pitches and allowed four stolen bases. But the Cubs managed only two runs, failing to capitalize on his wildness. Giolito wound up with seven walks over 5 2/3 innings, but the Cubs managed only three hits on the afternoon. “Some days (we) come out banging,” Anthony Rizzo said afterward. “And some days we come out cold.” It was a series the Cubs should have swept, but Maddon wasn’t overly concerned. “Any time you win a series, we’ll take it,” he said, adding: “I know they’re going through some issues, but I really like their team on the field.” The Sox wound up with 100 losses, the third-worst record in baseball.
June 24: Reds 8, Cubs 6 at Great American Ball Park
Before the start of a four-game series in Cincinnati, Maddon said Cubs fans were “angst-filled” by nature. “Our fans need to be entertained, so if you want to keep riding that emotional roller coaster, go ahead,” he said. “And if you choose not to, that’s probably (OK). It’s like investing in the long term as opposed to watching the (stock) quotes every day. That will drive you nuts.” After the Cubs lost the first three games, Maddon doubled down on the angst: “We just beat the Dodgers two out of three, and we’re the best team since the ’27 Yankees. Cincinnati beats you up for three days, and all of a sudden it’s doom and gloom. I cannot live my life that way.” That preceded a shocking finale in which the Cubs led 6-1 in the bottom of the seventh before starter Mike Montgomery and Pedro Strop combined to give up seven runs. Maddon left Strop in for nine batters, seven of whom reached, on four hits and three walks. After Joey Votto’s RBI double gave the Reds the lead, Strop walked Jose Peraza with the bases loaded to make it 8-6. Afterward, Maddon and his coaches dressed in colorful bib overalls for a theme trip to Los Angeles. “This was pre-planned,” he said. “You don’t change. You still eat. You still sleep. You still pet your puppy and you move on.”
Sept. 3: Brewers 4, Cubs 3 at Miller Park
The Cubs traveled to Milwaukee with 10 victories in 12 games and a seemingly comfy five-game lead in the Central. A series triumph would put the Brewers behind the eight ball. When Rizzo cranked a two-run homer off dominating left-hander Josh Hader to give the Cubs a 3-2 lead in the eighth, the ballpark erupted with celebrating Cubs fans who came up for the Labor Day matinee. But Carl Edwards Jr. issued a bases-loaded walk in the eighth to make it 3-3 before he angrily stalked off the mound, shouting at the home plate umpire. Edwards and Maddon were ejected. Steve Cishek loaded the bases in the ninth on a walk and two hit batters before Jesse Chavez came in to relieve. The Cubs employed a five-man infield with one out, and Chavez got Christian Yelich to hit a hard shot to Kris Bryant, who was playing 10 feet off the line at third. Instead of going home for the force, Bryant opted to sprint to third and then threw to first for an attempted double play. But Yelich beat the throw, and the Brewers celebrated madly with a walk-off victory. Bryant and Maddon defended the decision to attempt a double play. “You just have to make a snap decision, and that’s the one that I think most third basemen would make going to the bag,” Bryant said. The Brewers took two of three in the series and two of three at Wrigley on Sept. 10-12 to stay in the race.
Sept. 21: White Sox 10, Cubs 4 at Guaranteed Rate Field
Did Addison Russell cost the Cubs a game without even being there? Daniel Murphy homered to lead off the South Side edition of the City Series, but former White Sox ace Jose Quintana gave up five runs on nine hits over five innings in his return to 35th and Shields. The Cubs were never really in this game, but it was significant because of what happened beforehand. The day began with the news that MLB had placed Russell on administrative leave after his former wife, Melisa Reidy-Russell, accused him of physical and emotional abuse. Epstein and Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts addressed the team in the clubhouse before the game and held a joint news conference. The next day, Maddon said the Russell situation had been a distraction that affected the clubhouse. “It’s hard to say that it didn’t,” he said. “You walk into the locker room, there’s a much different buzz going on outside of the game itself. We did have to meet as a group to talk about things, and again, we did get in (from Phoenix) at 6 o’clock in the morning the day before. So (it) was just one of those days. What it really comes down to is you either have trust and faith in your guys or you don’t. It was a tough day.” But Jon Lester denied the news of Russell’s leave had affected the players. “This clubhouse has been through enough adversity in the four years I’ve been here to move on from anything that goes on outside this clubhouse,” he said.