A chance for the Cubs to improve their playoff odds was followed by a vaguely familiar collapse, the kind that reaches into fans’ chest cavities and twists.
Four late-season home games against the Cardinals to right the wrongs of an up-and-down season were followed by four losses, most of them of the cruel ilk.
This is how the old Cubs used to do things.
Funny how the darkness, banished to a distant corner of history, has looked so at home at Wrigley Field of late. You are forgiven for having thought that the pain of the past was a thing of the past. You thought that the 2016 World Series title shook up the Etch A Sketch and erased 1969, 1984, 1989, 2003, 2004, 2007, 2008 and any other year I might be forgetting/blocking. You thought you saw a bright screen ready to be filled with multiple championships.
What you received instead was an excellent effort by Yu Darvish on Sunday that gave way to St. Louis’ 3-2, ninth-inning comeback victory because, well, what else did you expect?
What you received earlier in the series was closer Craig Kimbrel giving up game-winning home runs with the frequency that insurance agents give away magnetic calendars.
Four Cubs losses to the first-place Cardinals have given the Brewers and Nationals a four-game cushion in the “race’’ for the two wild-card spots.
With six games left, it’s still statistically possible for the Cubs to make the playoffs. It would take some combination of Cubs victories, Brewers or Nats losses and multiplied loaves. But we’re talking about a feeling here, not numbers or formulas. We’re talking about a sense of resignation, with hints of dread thrown in. We’re talking about that old vibe again.
The Cubs have needed players to rise to the occasion down the stretch, and too many haven’t, just like the bad days. When they needed a big game out of Jose Quintana on Saturday, he responded with five earned runs in 3 1/3 innings. When they needed Kris Bryant to keep up his hot hitting, he took the Polar Express to a combined three hits in his last seven games. When they needed Kimbrel, they received brutal instead.
Darvish struck out 12, but a misplayed ball by center fielder Albert Almora to lead off the ninth led to a triple and, eventually, two runs and the loss. Et cetera.
There was all that and more hanging over rainy Wrigley. Bryant sprained his right ankle in the third inning when his foot slipped on first base as he tried to beat out a double play. Just to be clear: It’s not the injuries that define this season. It’s the Cubs’ inability to gain any traction. A dead-in-the-water heaviness.
So it made sense that the weekend had some finality to it.
Saturday was the last Cubs home game for WGN-TV.
Sunday was the last regular-season game for Wrigley organist Gary Pressy, after 2,687 consecutive Cubs home games.
Was it the last home game for manager Joe Maddon?
He said, again, that he expects to be back next season. We’ll see. He has had massive success as the Cubs’ manager. That elusive World Series title. Three trips to the National League Championship Series. Four straight postseason appearances.
But if this is about results, it’s hard to ignore that the Cubs have declined since the World Series — from a ring to an NLCS in 2017 to a wild-card-game loss last season to likely not making the playoffs this season.
Then there’s the matter of the Cubs’ strangely awful road record in 2019. A team that won 51 home games has won only 31 away from Wrigley. Nothing that a psychiatrist’s couch can’t solve.
The problems aren’t just about a roster with holes in it.
“I don’t get that,’’ Maddon said of the road record. “You show up like you always do, you get to the ballpark — the prep’s the same everywhere, every time we do it. That’s the part that’s gotten away from us and that would be the one that I think requires the most thought in the offseason.’’
He has been in full Joe mode in these last days of the season. In a loss to the Cards on Friday, he used nine pitchers, which is a lose-win in his book. And the surprise returns of Anthony Rizzo and Javy Baez from injury played right into Maddon’s love of the dramatic. He’s awaiting the signed paperwork that will allow him to exhume Hack Wilson for the upcoming Pirates series.
Where all of this ends up for him is still a mystery, and team president Theo Epstein hasn’t announced how he plans to solve it.
It looks like the playoffs won’t get in the way of his decision-making. Sunday seemed to have ensured that.