For Cubs, it's a tale of two seasons
Superb through September, offense, rotation pull vanishing act
LOS ANGELES -- The league's best offense didn't score. A top-flight rotation turned in one quality start, and that only by the most generous definition of the term. What made the Cubs famous made a loser out of them in the playoffs.
Often, the perception is that the little things define playoff series. You hit the cutoff man here, you move a runner over there, you win in October. For the Cubs in their National League Division Series against the Dodgers, it was never close enough for the little things to matter.
"I was concerned about our offense coming into this thing, I'll be honest with you," manager Lou Piniella said on Saturday night. "And basically my concerns were realized."
Chicago led the National League in scoring in 2008, piling up 855 runs in 161 games. The Cubs drew a league-high 636 walks. And they were the circuit's best team with runners in scoring position, batting .278 and slugging .452.
But over three games against the Dodgers, it all vanished. They just didn't hit. They batted .240 as a team. They scored six runs in three games. They drew six walks while striking out 24 times.
And most of all, when they did have chances, they didn't convert. The Cubs were a grim 5-for-28 with runners in scoring position in the series, including 1-for-11 in Saturday's clincher. Combine that with exactly one home run in three games, and it adds up to a very small run total. Some credit must go to a fine Dodgers pitching staff, but some blame must go to a big-time offense that came up very small when it mattered most.
"It's a combination," said Alfonso Soriano. "I think they did a very good job and we didn't do anything."
Cubs' struggling starters
|The Cubs' starting rotation, one of the best in the National League during the season, did not make a good showing in the NLDS.|
|Category||Season (NL rank)||NLDS|
|K/BB ratio||2.17 (sixth)||1.08|
The Cubs' other purported great strength, in addition to the offense, was their starting rotation. Ryan Dempster enjoyed a career year and was especially outstanding in the second half. Carlos Zambrano threw a no-hitter three weeks ago and is annually a Cy Young candidate. And Rich Harden is frequently the most dominating of them all.
Yet no Cubs starter took over a game. Only Zambrano even made it through the fifth inning, and he did so while allowing seven runs (admittedly only three earned). Dempster walked seven men in 4 2/3 innings, and Harden had to battle to get 13 outs.
None was terrible. But one way to win a playoff game is to have your starting pitcher say, 'Get on my back, boys.' None did. And they never even got to Ted Lilly, who had an outstanding season in his second year as a Cub.
"We didn't play like we played this year," Dempster said. "We played some pretty bad baseball, but we also ran into a team that played some pretty good baseball. Those guys over there deserve a lot of credit because they came in ready to go and played really well and executed. ... They did a better job than us, and we didn't deserve to win any of the games and they deserved to win all three."
Ironically, the Cubs bullpen actually did excellent work. The one facet of the team that some thought might trip them up, fared well. Of course, the relievers never had a lead to protect, so it wasn't quite the same as some of those roller-coaster rides from the season.
As they head into winter and begin building a 2009 team, then, the Cubs face a frustrating reality. It will be difficult to upgrade the facets of the team that let them down in October. It's not as though they can point to one or two obvious flaws and fix them.
The rotation was excellent for 161 games, then lukewarm for three. The offense was patient, powerful and opportunistic for six months, then meek for a week.
"It's not the best team that wins in the playoffs," Soriano said. "It's the team that plays better."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.