Of all the songs to choose from, the Wrigley Field game ops crew went with AC/DC’s “Have a Drink on Me” after Tony Wolters poked Kyle Hendricks’ changeup into center field in the top of the 13th inning, shattering a 1-1 tie that seemed destined to persist into November.
What cruel irony. In that harrowing moment, with the Cubs suddenly trailing 2-1 in the National League wild-card game – a historically arduous, four-hour, 55-minute slog that neither Chicago nor the Colorado Rockies seemed particularly inclined to win – everybody in that building could’ve used a beer. Badly. Unfortunately, the concession stands, per league rules, had stopped selling alcohol hours earlier.
So, every member of that partisan crowd was sober(ish) when Wolters, the Rockies’ third catcher of the evening, drove in the go-ahead run, and all 40,151 of them watched with clear heads as the Cubs’ comeback attempt fizzled in the bottom of the 13th, allowing Colorado – the inferior team, by record and talent – to claim a 2-1 victory and a spot in the National League Division Series. The Rockies will now fly to Milwaukee and begin a best-of-five with the Brewers on Thursday. The Cubs – who entered the final weekend of the regular season with a 90 percent chance of making it to the NLDS, according to FanGraphs – can now finalize their offseason vacation plans.
Memorably, after snapping a 108-year World Series drought back in 2016, Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein announced on live television that he was “going on a bender.” If Epstein embarked on another one now, nobody could fault him if it lasted into spring training given how pitifully the Cubs’ hitters performed in their two most important games of the year. It was a 36-hour stretch that negated all the good work accomplished over the previous six months, and may well require us to recalibrate our expectations.
When they played the Brewers at home for the NL Central division title Monday afternoon, the Cubs – who finished tied for 11th in the majors in offense this season after adjusting for park effects – mustered just three hits in a 3-1 loss, with the lone run coming on a solo shot from Anthony Rizzo. Combined, Ben Zobrist, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward, and Willson Contreras went 0-for-13, squandering a solid start from Jose Quintana.
The following night, with the stakes considerably higher, the Cubs delivered a remarkably similar performance – against a worse team, no less. Again, they didn’t hit, as the offense was quieted by Rockies left-hander (and under-recognized stud) Kyle Freeland, who was handed a one-run lead in the first and proceeded to shove, scattering four singles and one walk over 6 2/3 scoreless innings. (Jon Lester, much like Quintana the day prior, pitched his butt off in support of the Cubs’ punchless offense, delivering six gutsy innings of one-run ball.)
With a runner on first and two outs in the bottom of the seventh, though, Adam Ottavino replaced Freeland via a double switch – Drew Butera simultaneously took over behind the plate for the Rockies – and was magnanimous enough to give Cubs manager Joe Maddon an opportunity to embarrass himself, along with his hitters.
Ottavino, you see, promptly issued a walk to Contreras, putting runners on first and second. Cubs pinch hitter Tommy La Stella then reached on catcher’s interference, loading the bases for the pitcher’s spot and creating an opportunity for Schwarber – omitted from the starting lineup with a lefty on the mound – to be a pinch-hit hero. Except that Maddon called on Heyward, who struck out. That one might keep Maddon up for a while.
Fortunately for the manager, Javier Baez rendered the decision moot in the following frame when he stroked a game-tying, two-out double off Ottavino, plating Terrance Gore – the track star masquerading as a ballplayer – who’d stolen his way into scoring position after coming in to pinch run following a Rizzo single. Unfortunately for Maddon, that was the extent of the Cubs’ offense for the night.
As the affair extended into the wee hours, well into extras and firmly into the “Screw it, we’re using this guy” territory (along with Hendricks, Cole Hamels came out of the bullpen, throwing two innings of scoreless relief), the Cubs’ bats remained silent. In the bottom of the ninth, after Daniel Murphy reached on a one-out walk, Schwarber – pinch hitting, at long last – struck out, before Heyward grounded out to the pitcher. The tenth went three-up, three-down. The Cubs hinted at a rally in the following inning, but nothing came of it other than the weirdest fielder’s choice/most tender mid-play embrace by opponents in baseball history. No Cubs batter reached base after that inning; Scott Oberg struck out Gore, Baez, and Albert Almora Jr. in succession in the 13th to seal the victory. All told, the Cubs finished 6-for-43 (.140) with five walks. They left 10 runners on base.
All those missed opportunities against Milwaukee and Colorado resulted in the Cubs’ earliest postseason exit since they stormed back to relevance in 2015. And even though they were favored against the Rockies, Tuesday’s loss was a weirdly fitting end for a team that always felt like less than the sum of its parts in 2018, failing to distinguish itself from the Brewers despite adding Yu Darvish and Brandon Morrow (and, later on, Murphy) to a roster than won 92 games last year and advanced to its third straight NLCS.
“We just kept going about: ‘We’re going to get it back. We’re going to be together.’ But it never came to us,” Baez told Patrick Mooney of The Athletic. “We were never in a rhythm of winning games.”
Perhaps, though, as the Cubs enter an offseason in which little roster turnover is expected, this defeat can still be instructive. Perhaps, as Lester indelicately suggested, much like those futile final innings, it’ll be sobering.
“Sometimes you need to get your dick knocked in the dirt in order to appreciate where you’re at,” Lester told Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune. “Maybe we needed that. Maybe we needed to get knocked down a peg or two to realize nothing is going to be given to us.”
Jonah Birenbaum is theScore’s senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.