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10/06/07 10:33 PM ET

Early exit has Cubs looking forward

Nothing dramatic about this loss, Chicago fell to better team

CHICAGO -- The Chicago Cubs have, at times, been celebrated as masters of the near-miss. But this particular miss had some serious distance to it.

This was not 1984, one victory away from the World Series. This was not 2003 and the proverbial "five outs from the World Series." This was seven victories from the World Series. This was a sweep by the Arizona Diamondbacks; one, two, three defeats you're out at the old Division Series.

There was little of the acute heartbreak to this series. Sweeps don't generally provide the kind of drama that leads to easily identifiable points of crisis. And it wasn't as though the Cubs blew a series lead, so there weren't any soaring expectations that had to come crashing to earth.

Oh, there were some people who believed that the Cubs were supposed to win this series. These were people who apparently didn't really know that much about the Arizona Diamondbacks.

The D-backs were a better team in the regular season than the Cubs, by a five-game margin, relatively substantial as these matters go. And the D-backs were better than the Cubs in the postseason, 3-0. The way this one unfolded, there were not a lot of twists and turns in the plot, and very few doubts planted along the way about which was the better club.

There have already been people in the Chicago media writing that the Cubs choked. No. When you lose to a team with a better record, that is not a choke. And because of the unbalanced schedule, the D-backs' 90 victories were achieved against a more demanding schedule, the NL West being a tougher neighborhood than the NL Central this summer.

The Diamondbacks' pitching was good enough to hold the Cubs to six runs in three games. The Arizona starters were tough enough. The bullpen was practically immaculate. This was not a choke. This was a defeat.

There were moments in Saturday's 5-1 final that were individually disappointing. The Cubs kept putting runners on base and then grounding into double plays, four of them.

But the disappointment for Cubs fans, of course, runs much deeper than three straight losses in early October, even to a low-profile crew from the Grand Canyon State. But by this time, the problem for Cubs fans, who lead the civilized world in unrewarded devotion, is chronic, not acute.

Next year, the calendar will have turned, and it will be 100 years since the Cubs have won the World Series. That will seem, of course, more than one year worse than 99 years without winning the World Series.

This will be focused upon in a huge way by the media, who like round numbers and records. There will be books and stories, and TV specials on the 100-year drought. Maybe this could be Ken Burns' next big PBS project.

So the questions for the Cubs are for next season. Can this team, as presently constituted, end the drought? And the answer is: Not likely.

The Cubs have done well to fortify their pitching. This turned them into a division-winner, and if the NL Central was not baseball's strongest, this was not necessarily their fault.

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But they have a feast-or-famine attack, and its weaknesses were on display in this series. They cannot manufacture runs, and if their big offensive guns are not firing, they're not winning. In the deciding Game 3, Alfonso Soriano stranded three runners and Aramis Ramirez stranded four. Soriano hit .143 for the series. Ramirez hit .000. Offensively, the Cubs don't have a Plan B.

Soriano is an interesting case. He is one of the most dynamic players in the game, with, when healthy, both speed and power. He was the prize of the offseason free-agent class. But he is not a leadoff hitter, even though that is where he hits for the Cubs. His .327 career on-base percentage is not high enough to justify that use. The leadoff home runs are exciting, but he will not provide enough RBI opportunities for Derrek Lee and Ramirez, even when both are hitting.

Lou Piniella did a good job of changing the culture and making sure of the direction this summer. He went against the managerial grain, against the very one-game-at-a-time nature of baseball, by saving Carlos Zambrano for a Game 4 that never happened. This was a mistake, but it was a mistake brought on by the fact that Piniella hasn't been handed a push-button operation. He's done much more good than harm here, and the fact that the Cubs aren't going to the World Series is not his fault.

Piniella said all the right things in defeat on Saturday night. "This is just the start, fellas," he told reporters. "We're gonna get better with this."

He spoke of unspecified improvements the club would make over the winter and the resolve to come back next spring and get better. The Cubs will have to do some work in both areas to get from here -- three straight defeats in the first round of the postseason -- to there -- the top of the baseball world.

The Cubs committed $297 million to free agents last winter and then committed another $91 million to a new deal for Zambrano. They were not exactly cutting corners. This money bought them a competitive team. But it has not bought them an elite team.

You watched the 42,157 fans file out of Wrigley Field on a night when the climate was more July than October, and you thought that they deserved better. But these people have deserved better for some time. This particular Cubs foray into the postseason ended not with a moment of classic October heartbreak, but with a whimper. The Cubs had lost to a team, which, while it may have lacked name recognition, was better when it counted most.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.