Why The Cubs Lost To The Dodgers

Not that it’s any consolation for Cubs fans right now, but Ken Rosenthal had a reasonable take on the team’s playoff failure:

The Cubs are a good team that had a bad series. Nothing more, nothing less. What do they do now? Very simple—try again.

Rosenthal’s right: as long as the Cubs continue to create opportunities, say five to seven playoff appearances a decade, they’ll eventually catch fire in the postseason. In the short term, though, the team’s pathetic showing against the Dodgers stings. Let’s dig through the wreckage.

What Went Wrong

The Cubs didn’t hit in the postseason. A team that hit .278/.354/.443 (a Kelly Johnson-type line) in the regular season hit just .240/.282/.346 (a Rajai Davis-type line) in the playoffs. A team good for 5.3 runs per game scored just 2.0 per game. Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez, Geovany Soto, Jim Edmonds and Kosuke Fukudome were awful. Even with the Dodgers running three very good starters out there, this was not expected. Whether it was the pressure or just a poorly-timed collective slump I can’t say. The 2008 Cubs had a strong offense due to their depth; their #7 hitters posted a .885 OPS, and their #8s were at .781. The offense does not have a scary monster that teams go out of their way to avoid, like an Albert Pujols or a Manny Ramirez.

A couple of fine starting pitchers in Ryan Dempster and Rich Harden posted lousy starts. Dempster was uncharacteristically wild, while Harden seemed to be about 75 percent of his normal self. He’s clearly ailing and has been for weeks; it was foolish of me to ignore this while predicting he’d out-pitch Hiroki Kuroda.

Good Carlos Zambrano showed up, but the Cubs’ normally sound defense made several crucial errors to ruin his effort. Again, maybe it was pressure, maybe it was a fluke. So many Cubs players underperforming simultaneously seems to support the notion that the team cracked under the pressure and expectations. Soriano, Ramirez and Dempster in particular seemed to be pressing.

Not An Upset

Anyone who calls the Dodgers’ series win an upset probably didn’t look closely at the Dodgers. I had the Cubs winning in five games, but I admitted the teams were evenly matched. In some cases my component analysis was sound, but my conclusions were not. For instance, I liked the Dodgers’ starting pitching edge in Games 1 and 2. It follows that they would win those games and hold a huge 2-0 advantage. The Cubs looked good on paper with Harden and Lilly for Games 3 and 4, but I ignored the human element. It is demoralizing to be down 2-0 with your season riding on one game. It can’t be measured, but even just losing Game 1 in a five-game series must wear on the players. Also, this is an article about the Cubs, but let’s credit the Dodgers. Their top starters completely shut down a good offense. And while several Dodger hitters struggled, Manny Ramirez, Russell Martin and Rafael Furcal stepped up. James Loney contributed a grand slam in Game 1 from which the Cubs never recovered.

I wouldn’t use the word upset for the series win, but it’s fair to say the sweep was surprising. The Cubs’ lack of offense, the errors, Dempster’s start—I don’t remember anyone predicting those things.

What Now For The Cubs?

The more hopeful Cubs fans are already playing general manager, speculating on how to improve the team for ’09. Do the Cubs need “gamers” like David Eckstein and Craig Counsell? Postseason bulldogs like Derek Lowe and John Smoltz? Probably not. As Rosenthal said, the Cubs just need to reach the playoffs on a regular basis. Jim Hendry will probably make a few minor tweaks this winter, for example shifting Kosuke Fukudome to center and signing Bobby Abreu to play right. Soriano and Ramirez aren’t going anywhere, so hopefully the switch will flip for them in the ’09 postseason.

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