ST. LOUIS — Cubs manager David Ross had no sooner sat down in the dugout to meet with media before Saturday’s penultimate game of the 2021 season when a light rain turned suddenly into a torrential downpour at Busch Stadium.
“Fitting,” Ross said.
The second-year manager, who still has no experience on the job free of pandemic protocols, then talked almost until the rain subsided about the latest roster moves involving the Cubs’ end-of-season outbreak that has put five players from one of the least-vaccinated teams in the league on the COVID-19 list in the last four days.
When it rains, it pours.
And when it comes to the Cubs in 2021, it has been one storm system after another, including the trade-deadline purge that rendered the rest of the season a two-month ear-worm loop of “are we there yet.”
Welcome to the end of the road for these Cubs after one of the longest, strangest rides that finally, mercifully rolls to a thump-thumping stop in St. Louis Sunday like a hand-me-down Buick with two flat tires and only one spare.
After Saturday’s comeback win on Ian Happ’s ninth-inning homer, it will finally end with at least 70 wins, at least 91 losses — with an 11-game losing streak, a 12-game losing streak, at least 14 major-league debuts and at least nine COVID-19 cases (counting coaching staff and manager) sandwiched in between.
With four weeks still to go in the season, bench coach Andy Green called it “one of the more emotional seasons you’re ever going to have.
“Because you absolutely loved the [core] guys that were here to start the year,” he said, “and as we went through that rough stretch in June you could kind of feel it threatening to end and everybody carrying the weight of that through the end of the trade deadline and even the start of August when everybody had turned over.”
It took a major-league record 67 players to get to the end of this thing — and might yet take another if pitcher Joe Biagini gets in Sunday’s final game, or if catcher Tyler Payne is activated and plays in the final game after Willson Contreras left Saturday’s game with hip tightness (or if another player tests positive).
“We’re not looking to break those records,” Ross said.
If anything, Saturday brought the Cubs five innings of bittersweet reminders of a faded championship won and more opportunities lost in the stone-faced visage of their former postseason hero, Jon Lester, staring them down from the mound under a Cardinals cap.
How far down this forsaken 2021 road the Cubs have traveled since spurning Lester’s offer to return on a discount last winter was represented in their own starting pitcher for this one: a journeyman right-hander named Adrian Sampson who signed as a minor-league free agent in May, got called up for an emergency start in August and pitched his way onto the 2022 radar with an eye-opening, 2.80-ERA finish in 10 games, including five starts.
“I wanted to turn some heads and surprise some people,” Sampson said after another strong four innings Saturday.
Who knows where Sampson fits in the Cubs plans next season? Team president Jed Hoyer said he can’t even say what kind of players he’ll go after in free agency until he sees what happens with the highly volatile labor negotiations this winter.
About the only thing we know about next season as this one thumps to a stop is that Ross will be back, likely with a freshly minted contract extension.
“We’re just trying to get to tomorrow, and through tomorrow, and try to win the two games in between, and get into next year, and try to learn from where we can get better and try to deal with the circumstances that next year is going to present,” Ross said before the game Saturday.
The weight of the COVID outbreak was apparent in Ross’ voice and the occasional pause and sigh as the season’s clock ticked toward its final 24 hours.
“All the emotions that have gone into this year are definitely heavy,” he said. “Even today with Jonny taking the mound, even more. There’s so many different aspects of these emotions in that kind of roller-coaster season.
“We hope the emotions are on the other end of the spectrum at the end of next year,” added the manager whose first year was a pandemic-shortened, 60-game season. “So it’s definitely been an emotional year, and I’m glad we’ve gotten back to 162, and hopefully next year is a little bit more of a normal 162.”