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The End: A season comes crashing down for Cubs in NLCS

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The End: A season comes crashing down for Cubs in NLCS

Don’t blame this on billy goats and black cats and whatever else the national media and New York writers discovered during their trip to Chicago.

The Mets completely outplayed the Cubs in every phase of the game, never trailing at any point of a National League Championship Series that had almost no drama or suspense.

You could start writing the season obituaries in the first inning on Wednesday night, the Cubs falling behind again and getting booed at Wrigley Field. A loud season that announced the Cubs are coming quietly ended with an 8-3 loss, the Mets moving onto the World Series for the first time since 2000 after a four-game sweep.

“They did not let us up for air at any point,” manager Joe Maddon said after watching his team get outscored 21-8.

You can wonder if ownership might have made a difference by creating a little more financial flexibility at the trade deadline, why the business side hasn’t produced enough revenue to support a big-market payroll in 2015, when baseball operations will finally develop a legitimate starting pitcher from within.

[MORE: Cubs' magical season comes to a close]

Those are good questions for another day. But don’t pretend players born in the early 1990s feel cursed or burdened by history. Maybe just try to step back and appreciate the playoff ride. 

“It benefits the entire organization,” Maddon said. “It validates the scouting and development. It validates what we did in spring training this year just to get to this particular point. To win over 100 games this year – come on! 

“That’s not easy to do. So, yeah, I think everything that’s occurred this year validates all that’s been put in place prior to this year beginning. I’ve said it before: I feel very fortunate to be part of this because I was not responsible for any of that heavy lifting that put this all in order.”

A Cubs organization stocked with so many former Boston Red Sox could point to how the New York Yankees experienced an epic collapse in the 2004 American League Championship Series. Fenway Park is the business/baseball blueprint at Clark and Addison – and it should keep the team relevant through a five-year window – but history wouldn’t repeat itself this time.

Those 2004 fighting words looked so much stronger the next morning in print. Standing by the laundry baskets inside a quiet clubhouse, it sounded more like going through the motions when you actually heard president of baseball operations Theo Epstein speak briefly with reporters after a sloppy Game 3 loss.

Before Game 4, a video board showed Kevin Millar – one of Boston’s favorite “Idiots” from 2004 – wearing a Cubs hat and sitting with Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer. The sound system played Jason Hammel’s standard warm-up music – Pearl Jam’s “Alive” – a tribute to his roots in the Seattle area and a reminder of superfan Eddie Vedder.

[NBC SHOP: Buy Cubs playoff gear]

But the Cubs looked dead in the first inning when Lucas Duda – who had been 3-for-24 with 13 strikeouts in the playoffs – blasted Hammel’s 94-mph fastball into the left-center field seats next to the batter’s eye for a two-out, three-run homer. The next batter, Travis d’Arnaud, crushed another Hammel fastball into the right-center field bleachers.

So rookie lefty Steven Matz – a homegrown, local kid from Long Island – had a 4-0 lead before he threw a single pitch in an NLCS where the Mets never felt all that uncomfortable.

“I wouldn’t say we’re shocked,” said Kris Bryant, who hit a two-run, garbage-time homer in the eighth inning to end his Rookie of the Year season. “We know how good of a team they are. But we (also) know how good of a team we are. We just kind of hit a down point at the wrong time and they were swinging the bats well and pitching it. They just beat us.”

Hammel – a good clubhouse guy and an All-Star-level performer in the first half who never looked the same after trying to pitch through a leg injury that knocked his mechanics out of alignment – got four outs and gave up five runs. It again showed how much work the Cubs have to do on their rotation this winter.

The Cubs didn’t get their first hit off Matz until Jorge Soler doubled down the right-field line in the fourth inning. With that, Soler became the first Cub in this series to lead off an inning with a hit, snapping an 0-for-28 streak (which included Anthony Rizzo walking and getting hit by a pitch).

The Cubs still would have signed up for this back in spring training, no questions asked, knowing they have Rizzo, Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber – just to name a few building blocks – in place through 2021.

“I think the lesson to be learned here now is that they learned how to win this season,” Maddon said. “They learned how to win on a major-league level. They’re participating in the playoffs as one of four teams left, which is pretty impressive at their point of development.

“It’s been just one big positive. You’re not just going to boat-race it all the way through and just nail it down. You’re going to have your struggles. And I think our guys have done a great job of dealing with it.”

The Cubs' Achilles' heel is rearing its ugly head again this winter

The Cubs' Achilles' heel is rearing its ugly head again this winter

If the Cubs ultimately don't sign Bryce Harper or another big ticket free agent this winter and fans are wondering why, look no further than Rob Zastryzny.

It's not Zastryzny's fault, of course. 

But he is the poster boy of sorts for the Cubs' issues in drafting and developing pitching that can make any sort of an impact at the big-league level.

Zastryzny has made at least 4 appearances over each of the last three seasons, racking up 34.2 innings to lead the way for the 147 pitchers drafted by Theo Epstein's front office over the last seven summers. 

As a result, the Cubs have had to spend a lot of money to form their pitching staff over the last few years. That money adds up. 

Kyle Hendricks and Carl Edwards Jr. — who spent time in the Cubs farm system, but were originally drafted and largely developed by the Texas Rangers — are the only two truly impactful pitchers that have come up through the minor leagues and still a big part of the current roster. 

Where are the Josh Haders and Corbin Burnses and Josh Jameses and Walker Buehlers coming up through the Cubs system?

All four of those guys played major roles for their respective teams (Brewers, Astros, Dodgers) this fall.

Look, it's no secret to the Cubs they haven't developed a Hader-type weapon and they're disappointed about it, too.

"Candidly, those guys aren't found on the market very often," GM Jed Hoyer said last week. "Those guys are usually found internally. We haven't been able to develop that guy. Hopefully we will in the future. That guy makes a massive, massive impact."

Former Cubs draft picks accounted for 27 innings in the majors in 2018, and 1 of those innings came from Ian Happ (who is obviously not a pitcher). Of the remaining 26 innings, 5.1 came from Dillon Maples (who was drafted by Jim Hendry's front office in 2011).

That leaves 20.2 innings for a trio of draft picks — Duane Underwood Jr. (2012 selection) Zastryzny (2013) and James Norwood (2014). 

The Cubs are projected to pay more than $130 million (with arbitration included) to only 12 pitchers in 2019 and they still figure to add at least another late-inning bullpen arm or two to that mix.

That obviously hampers what they want to do this winter in a free agent class loaded with potential impact bats that could make a huge difference for an underachieving lineup, though would come with a hefty price tag.

Last winter, Epstein's front office committed $185 million to a trio of free agent pitchers — Yu Darvish, Brandon Morrow, Tyler Chatwood — and all three guys were out of the team's picture by September either because of injury or ineffectiveness.

The contracts of those three guys are hanging over the 2019 squad and major questions follow each guy entering the new year. 

But the Cubs are also in a tight spot financially because their homegrown position players are now starting to get exponentially more expensive.

"Of course we want more out of our homegrown pitching and I think we will have more as we go forward," Epstein said. "But we also built around bats. We built around homegrown bats and developing a nucleus that way knowing that in our minds, the right strategic move was to develop bats and then acquire pitching that's already good or about to become good or known commodities. 

"If you look at our pitching track record, it's really good. Yeah, it's expensive. That's part of it."

The Cubs still have high hopes for young right-hander Adbert Alzolay, the top pitching prospect in their system who was shut down halfway through 2018 with a lat injury. But he's also only pitched 72.1 innings above A-ball in his career and will undoubtedly have an innings limit and other restrictions coming off the injury, so it's hard to count on him as a potential cost-effective part of the 2019 pitching staff.

The Cubs hope more pitchers are on the way along with Alzolay, but they don't know why the arms are lagging so far behind the bats.

"I think it's improving," Hoyer said. "I think our pitching depth is improving and hopefully that will start to bear fruit this year or next year. Overall, I think we've done an exceptional job of developing hitters. 

"The pitching has lagged behind that. That's no secret. We're very accountable to that and we need to figure out why."

2018 Cubs Trivia… in Reverse

2018 Cubs Trivia… in Reverse

Normally baseball trivia is consumed by the average fan in a question-answer format.  Today, we are going to try something different.  I’ll name a player from Cubs history, present a little background of that player, then finally reveal why the player is relevant in terms of 2018 Cubs trivia.  Let’s get started.

Ted Savage
Savage was the 1961 International League MVP for the Buffalo Bisons. After a promising rookie season with the Phillies, he was traded to the Pirates and ended up bouncing around the league for several seasons. In all, the outfielder played nine Major League seasons with eight different teams. His finest season was 1970 when he played for the Brewers in their first season in Milwaukee (they had been the Seattle Pilots in 1969), hitting .279/.402/.482 with 12 HR & 10 SB. 

In 1967 Savage was purchased by the Cubs from the Cardinals. He appeared in 96 games for Chicago, and he stole seven bases.  Three times he stole second.  Twice he stole third.  Twice he stole home.  And no Cub would again steal home twice in a season… until Javier Báez in 2018. 

Fred Pfeffer
Fred Pfeffer hit one home run in 85 games in 1882 as a rookie for the Troy Trojans.  He hit one home run the following season in 96 games for the Chicago White Stockings (the team we know today as the Cubs).  He hit 25 home runs in 1884.  This wasn’t really an incredible power surge, since the fences at Chicago’s Lake Front Park were about 180 feet away and prior to that season anything over the fence was a ground rule double.  Three of his teammates also hit at least 20 homers.  They ended up moving to a new park the next season.  But still, Pfeffer was the second baseman of the dominant Chicago teams of the 1880s. 

Back to that 1884 season.  Pfeffer not only hit 25 home runs that season, he also knocked in 101.  And he even made an appearance on the mound.  Does that sound familiar?  It should.  Because Anthony Rizzo also hit 25 home runs with 101 RBI and a pitching appearances this past season. Rizzo and Pfeffer are the only players in franchise history to do that.  Of course Rizzo had a higher degree of difficulty.

Ellis Burton
A switch-hitting outfielder, Burton played for the Cardinals for eight games in 1958 and 29 games in 1960.  After some more time in the minors, he resurfaced with the Indians in 1963 and was purchased that May by the Cubs. August 1963 was easily the most eventful month of his Major League career.  On the first of that month, he homered from each side of the plate – the second Cub ever to do that; the other was Augie Galan on June 25, 1937.  On the final day of August he had perhaps his finest moment.  The Cubs trailed Houston 5-1 entering the bottom of the 9th inning.  It was 5-2 with two outs after a pair of flyouts, three singles and a walk.  Burton stepped to the plate to face Hal Woodeshick (who replaced Hal Brown – unlikely we’ll ever see a two-Hal inning again), and hit an ultimate grand slam – a walkoff grand slam with the team down three runs.  

It was a feat which wouldn’t be duplicated by a Cubs batter until David Bote turned a 3-0 deficit to a 4-3 win with one swing of the bat on August 12 against the Nationals.