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Sunday, October 5, 2008
Cubs' latest failure is worse than ever

By Gene Wojciechowski

It wasn't a collapse. "Collapse" is too nice a word. A collapse would mean the Chicago Cubs actually showed up for the National League Division Series.

It wasn't a choke. A choke is what happened in 2003, when the Cubs were exactly five outs away from their first World Series in seven decades. A choke is when you blame someone sitting in Section 4, Row 8, Seat 113 of Wrigley Field.

No, in some ways this latest Cubs playoff zombie film is worse than 2003's, and it's definitely worse than last year's October three-and-out. The 2003 choke produced anger and tears. The 2007 postseason losses produced disappointment, but with them came a weird, wait-'til-next-year optimism.

Next year just came and went. The Cubs have become playoff-irrelevant, which is the cruelest thing you can say about a team. They simply don't matter once the leaves change.

Nine postseason losses in a row. Nine. The Cubs haven't won a playoff game since Oct. 11, 2003.

The Los Angeles Dodgers just eliminated them in three games. Check that. Only one of those Dodgers-Cubs games -- Saturday night's 3-1 loss -- was actually competitive. The first two were embarrassments for the Cubs.

[We pause here to give the Dodgers their every prop. They bear-hugged the playoff moments.

A little more than a month ago they were five games below .500 and losers of eight in a row. Now they're drying out their swim goggles and unis from the champagne and beer clubhouse showers. Their right-handed starting pitching Saran Wrapped the Cubs' predominantly right-handed lineup.

Liner Notes

I've got them somewhere in my desk: Cubs World Series tickets for 2008 (bleacher seats, $125 per), for 2007, for 2004, and, sigh, for 2003. They're useless, of course -- just perforated strips of what could have been.

I woke up Sunday morning and looked at the NLDS stats. The Dodgers' James Loney had as many RBIs as the entire Cubs team during the series. No Cubs starting pitcher lasted longer than 6 1/3 innings (Ryan Dempster 4 2/3, Rich Harden 4 1/3, Carlos Zambrano 6 1/3). Five of the eight Cubs position players hit .200 or worse. No one was more brutal to watch, with the exception of those mind-numbing "Frank TV" promos, than Alfonso Soriano (.071), but Lou Piniella never talked about benching him. Instead, Kosuke Fukudome (.100), who at least can play defense, was the one who sat at the beginning of Game 3.

Anyway, the numbers are only part of the story. The real question is this: Why did the winningest team in the National League (97 victories) assume the fetal position as soon as the playoffs started? The Cubs did it last year too.

The Cubs are living proof that playoff baseball requires a special kind of player, a special kind of nervous system. I don't blame Mark DeRosa for stating the obvious -- that Game 2 of the Dodgers series was do or die. It was do or die. What I don't understand is how almost an entire team could belly flop again.

I think it was Cal Ripken Jr. who said it on the TBS postgame show: The winningest team isn't always the best team. He's right. The Cubs won lots of regular-season games, but they switched to fragile mode once October arrived. They lacked the mental toughness of the Dodgers, or even of the less-talented White Sox, who grinded their way into the postseason. The Cubs' body language screamed, "We're doomed."

You only get so many chances at greatness. This was the Cubs' chance, maybe their best chance. And like Soriano, they whiffed.

The year began with Dempster saying the Cubs were going to win it all. It ended with the Cubs not even able to win an NLDS game.

-- Gene Wojciechowski

So now the Dodgers advance to the NLCS. Nothing against the remaining playoff teams, but can you imagine what will happen if Manny Ramirez's Dodgers, led by a former New York Yankees manager, somehow face the Boston Red Sox, the team Manny couldn't wait to leave, in the World Series? Just think: At least two games, possibly four, of Manny back in Fenway?

We now return to our previously scheduled skin peel of the Cubs.]

The Cubs deserve every rip job they get. Winning 97 games during the regular season means zilch if you lose every time you reach the postseason. It means less than zilch (negative integer zilch?) if you waste the precious home-field advantage in a best-of-five NLDS. At least in last season's playoff sweep to the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Cubs started the series on the road.

The Dodgers had a lot to do with what happened earlier in the week at Wrigley and Saturday evening at Dodger Stadium. To mention Billy Goat curses, black cats and priests sprinkling holy water in the Cubs' dugout is to insult what Joe Torre's team did in the NLDS.

But there is a 100-year weight (and wait) around this franchise's neck. It isn't what made Alfonso Soriano finish the Dodgers series 1-for-14. (Fittingly, his check-swing, Game 3-ending strikeout came on a toe-high pitch.) It isn't what made Aramis Ramirez finish 2-for-11 or Geovany Soto 2-for-10.

But the failed history of the Cubs, combined with the expectations for this postseason, overwhelmed them. If they couldn't deal with the past, how were they going to deal with the present?

Torre said afterward that the Cubs felt the pressure of opening the series at Wrigley. If so, these Cubs are exactly where they belong: out of the playoffs.

Cubs manager Lou Piniella can pretend the 100-year World Series drought isn't a factor, but the numbers say otherwise. The Cubs reach October and suddenly need barf bags. Seven walks issued by Ryan Dempster in the Game 1 loss to the Dodgers. Four Cubs errors in the Game 2 loss. Rich Harden lasts only 4 1/3 innings and the Cubs leave nine runners on base in the Game 3 defeat.

The Cubs were outscored 20-6. They might as well have been waving rhythmic gymnastics ribbons at the plate. By the way, Soriano and the holes in his swing are signed through 2014. Enjoy.

Some of Piniella's decisions deserve scrutiny, too. He started the struggling Kosuke Fukudome in right field for the first two games and got an 0-for-8 out of him. He slotted Ted Lilly, who had won his last four starts in September, in the No. 4 spot of the playoff rotation. Lilly never threw a pitch. Piniella also tinkered with the lineup.

None of it worked. And almost none of the Cubs produced, not even against Game 3 Dodgers starter Hiroki Kuroda, who was making his first playoff appearance after 11 years in the Japanese leagues and one year in the majors.

Strange. The Cubs are done, but former Cubs Greg Maddux and Nomar Garciaparra play on for the Dodgers. I wonder whether they sneaked a peek into the Cubs' dugout during the celebration.

Before this series began, there was a rally in downtown Chicago for the Cubs. A documentary film crew was assigned to follow the Cubs during the postseason. Back in 2004, another year the Cubs were favored to reach the World Series, an MLB film crew shadowed the team. The Cubs had a meltdown and missed the playoffs.

Nobody at that rally, including White Sox honk Mayor Richard Daley, thought the Cubs' last game at Wrigley would be played Oct. 2, nor that the season would be done by Oct. 4. But it is. Wrigleyville is a quiet, subdued place today.

"It's Gonna Happen." That was the unofficial slogan of the Cubs this year. And it did. Another failed October. Another sweep. Another long, cold winter of what-ifs.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for You can contact him at