Cubs fell apart at wrong time

10/2/2004 - Chicago Cubs

CHICAGO -- His postseason fate now formally sealed, Moises Alou's eyes filled any gaps his words left behind. The disappointment, the confusion, the shock. Never before had he played on a team with this much talent. And never before did he have so little to show for it.

His eyes watery, his spirit broken, he rambled on, trying to explain what went wrong, trying to explain how this could happen. But he couldn't. Nobody could.

"Mental mistakes? Injuries? I don't know," Alou said. "To tell you the truth, this is one of the best teams I've played on in my career. And that's why it hurts so bad."

He wasn't alone. Late Saturday afternoon, after the Atlanta Braves formally stomped the postseason life out of the Cubs in an 8-6, come-from-behind victory, each of the Cubs walked out of the shower, changed at their locker, faced the television cameras and shrugged.

They had no idea.

No idea how a team loses seven out of eight must-win games. No idea how four of a team's top six run producers can hit a combined .117 in a given week. No idea how a team that nobody wanted to face in the postseason couldn't even reach the postseason.

"I can't explain it," Todd Walker said. "We score six, they score eight. We score three, they score four. This entire week -- I've never seen anything like it. It's a freak deal."

"That's just baseball" was the explanation of Nomar Garciaparra, Mike Remlinger, general manager Jim Hendry and the 12 advance scouts who sat behind home plate charting the tendencies of the Cubs and Braves Saturday afternoon.

"They had a great year," said one National League scout, who asked that his name be withheld. "But these things happen. Go ask the Phillies or the Marlins if they would have traded places with the Cubs this year. It's just that everything fell apart at the absolute worst time. That's baseball."

The numbers don't lie. The Cubs had 141 more hits than their opponents. They scored 122 more runs. They hit 67 more home runs. They had four players with 30 or more home runs. The major's best ERA in September. A better ERA this year (3.76) without Kerry Wood and Mark Prior for chunks of the season, than last year (3.83).

After defeating Cincinnati 12-5 Monday night -- their lone win during this week of hell -- all they had to do was go 3-3 in their last six games and the Astros and Giants would have needed to go 4-1 to tie or 5-0 to catch up and beat the Cubs.

Instead, the Cubs have gone 0-5 and the season is over. What went wrong? A lot of things. It started with the Mets' Victor Diaz, playing in his eighth major league game, belting a two-out, two-strike, bottom-of-the-ninth, three-run homer to send a game to extra innings that the Cubs would eventually lose.

And it ended Saturday, with Jose Macias losing a fly ball in the sunlight, leading to two Atlanta runs and an eventual Atlanta comeback victory.

In the most important week of the year, all the weaknesses were exposed. Baserunning. Defense. Advancing runners. Bunting. The Cubs struggled at all of it. Five of their seven losses came by one run, three of them in extra innings.

"I'm not used to my teams playing like this," said manager Dusty Baker. "Next year, it isn't going to be like this. It will be a better team. I expect it."

During the 1-7 stretch, everyone but Alou forgot how to hit. Corey Patterson, Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez and Michael Barrett -- five of the team's top six run producers -- combined to go 13-for-111 (.117 average) in the final week of the season. They managed three home runs and seven RBI between them.

Sammy Sosa hit .250 and jacked a pair of homers during the week, but his 0-for-5, four strikeout and one double play effort against the Mets a week ago stranded several Cubs and helped set the stage for Diaz's heroics.

How bad had the Cubs offense gotten? When they scored four runs here Saturday in the bottom of the fifth, it was their biggest inning in eight days.

Maybe it was fatigue, as the team went through a brutal 26 games in 24-day stretch. Maybe it was injuries, with Ramirez, Garciaparra and Mark Grudzielanek all fighting nagging nicks and bruises. Or maybe, as the Cubs tried to explain Saturday, it was bad luck.

"We've hit more bullets right at people than I've ever seen in my life," Walker said. "It comes down to luck. And over the last week, we've had none. We're just left standing here apologizing to everyone."

One criticism all season long was that the offense was too one-dimensional, living and dying with the home run. The Cubs were 71-40 when they homered, 17-33 when they didn't. Just above 45 percent of the Cubs runs came from the home run, the second-highest percentage in the majors over the last 30 years.

This week, when the bats went quiet, they couldn't manufacture offense. The team routinely had runners in scoring position and would strike out or ground into a double play and end the threat.

"Everybody seemed to stop hitting at the same time," Hendry said. "It isn't like these guys couldn't handle the pressure or anything -- it's the same guys that got the big hits and carried us last year. But they all went cold."

And then there was the bullpen. Twice in the last week the Cubs were within one strike of a victory and lost. Both times the culprit was LaTroy Hawkins. Saturday, it was Kyle Farnsworth's and Mike Remlinger's turn, giving up three runs and three hits in an inning and a third that helped the Braves win.

As a team, the Cubs blew 25 of 66 save opportunities. Hawkins' nine blown saves were second worst in the National League as was his 72.7 percent conversion rate (24 of 33). Perhaps most painful is Hawkins blowing seven of 11 one-run save opportunities. That partially explains how the team was 19-30 in one-run games, better than only the Arizona Diamondbacks (14-31) and Montreal Expos (16-30) in the National League.

If Hawkins closes three of those games, the Cubs are probably in the postseason. Instead, they aren't. Some might blame the injuries, with Prior and Wood missing over a month each with injuries, Sosa missing three weeks after sneezing too hard and closer Joe Borowski needing season-ending elbow surgery.

"There have to be four or five more wins we would have gotten out of those guys," Walker said. "The injuries just took too much out of us."

Maybe they did. But the fact remains, although the team is guaranteed its first back-to-back winning seasons since the early '70s, it has yet to reach the postseason in consecutive seasons since 1908. It left Alou depressed, Garciaparra shocked and Baker irritated.

"If I could put my finger on it I'd have to use about seven or eight fingers," he said.

And then there was Walker, who played for the Bambino-cursed Boston Red Sox last year, wondering if there is some supernatural control of Chicago's baseball destiny.

"It's been leaning that way right now," Walker said. "When you go through a stretch like this, and you can't explain it, you start to wonder."

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Wayne.Drehs@espn3.com.