The End: Cubs cant see into the future

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The End: Cubs cant see into the future

Box Score
PENA: I'd love to return
READ: Ricketts leaves Cubs waiting for answers
SORIANO: I don't want to be on another losing team
DEMPSTER: It's an end to what's been a rough season

SAN DIEGO They pulled beers from the cooler and stood around the clubhouse, watching the fantastic finishes in Baltimore and Tampa Bay, not wanting to walk out to the bus just yet.

They cheered and screamed at the side-by-side television screens that showed the Red Sox collapsing and the Rays celebrating. No one in the room knew what that meant for their general manager search. But everyone understood that change is coming.

The Cubs knew they werent going to the playoffs months ago. It was a lost summer without much on-field drama or suspense.

Year 103 without a World Series title officially ended inside PETCO Park at 8:13 p.m. Pacific time. The same group that finished at 71-91 after Wednesdays 9-2 loss to the Padres wont be brought back together again.

Another fifth-place finish already cost Jim Hendry his job. It could take down manager Mike Quade and his coaching staff before the next head of baseball operations starts gutting the roster. The blame game will continue in what should be a very long winter.

You can bring here whoever you think the best manager in the big leagues is, Aramis Ramirez said. I dont think its going to be any different. The bottom line is as players we didnt get it done.

The manager doesnt take the field. The players take the field. The numbers dont lie. Go ahead and look at the numbers offensively, defensively, pitching-wise we didnt get it done. The manager had nothing to do with it.

Pitching and defense is supposed to be the name of the game. The Cubs led the majors in errors (134), and their staff never did live up to expectations (4.33 ERA). They didnt hit with runners in scoring position either.

Their rotation couldnt withstand the loss of Randy Wells and Andrew Cashner during the first week of the season. Their roster was paralyzed by the big-money contracts handed out during the final days of the Tribune Co.

The faces of the franchise are about to change.

Ramirez could follow Ozzie Guillen and take his talents to South Beach. Carlos Zambranos collection of bobblehead dolls is already cleared out of the clubhouse, and no one expects to see him pitch for this team again. Alfonso Soriano may have played his final game in a Cubs uniform.

I dont think about it, Soriano said. If they want to trade me, (I) hope they trade me to a good team, a contender. If not, I want to be here. I love it here. It all depends on what they want to do."

The next general manager will probably want to build around Starlin Castro, a 21-year-old All-Star shortstop who finished the season with 207 hits and by reaching base safely in 40 consecutive games. The Hall of Fame requested his jersey from Wednesdays game.

I know I can do better, Castro said.

Besides Castros flashes of brilliance and moments where he totally lost concentration there was the sight of Matt Garza screaming into his glove yet again. And Marlon Byrd kicking his legs into the air after a fastball knocked him to the ground and shattered his face. And Ryan Dempster yelling at Quade from the top step of the dugout.

There was the silence of one of the best-kept secrets in franchise history, Hendry doing his job for almost a month knowing that he was fired. He kept almost the entire team intact at the trade deadline, closed on a draft class that cost almost 12 million and loved calling Zambrano on his retirement bluff.

The Cubs didnt unload Carlos Pena because they wanted the next management team to have the option of re-signing the first baseman, assuming they dont go hard after Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder. Pena watched Wednesdays game thinking this might be the end.

I would be lying if (I said) that didnt go through my mind, Pena said. I try to focus on the fact that I had the privilege of playing for the Cubs. I wore the uniform with a lot of pride and Im very grateful for the opportunity.

I also understand how the business of baseball works and that there are some things the Cubs need to do in the top office. (They) have their hands full (and) I understand that. (I) would love to return. I just really dont know what the future holds.

Patrick Mooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. Follow Patrick on Twitter @CSNMooney for up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Theories on why Cubs haven’t played up to their defensive potential yet

Theories on why Cubs haven’t played up to their defensive potential yet

“That’s what we’re supposed to look like,” Joe Maddon said Monday night after a 6-4 loss where the San Francisco Giants scored the first six runs and Wrigley Field got loudest for the David Ross “Dancing with the Stars” look-in on the big video board, at least until a late flurry from the Cubs.

But for a manager always looking for the silver linings, Maddon could replay Addison Russell’s diving stop to his right and strong throw from deep in the hole at shortstop to take a hit away from Christian Arroyo. Or Albert Almora’s spectacular flying catch near the warning track in center field. Or Anthony Rizzo stealing another hit from Brandon Belt with a diving backhanded play near the first-base line.

The highlight reel became a reminder of how the Cubs won 103 games and the World Series last year – and made you wonder why the 2017 team hasn’t played the same consistently excellent defense with largely the same group of personnel.

“Concentration?” Jason Heyward said, quickly dismissing the theory a defensive decline could boil down to focus or effort. “No shot. No shot. It is what it is when it comes to people asking questions about last year having effects, this and that. But this is a new season.

“The standard is still high. What’s our excuse? We played later than anybody? That may buy you some time, but then what?

“The goals stay the same. We just got to find new ways to do it when you have a different team.”

FiveThirtyEight.com, Nate Silver’s statistical website, framed the question this way after the Cubs allowed the lowest batting average on balls in play ever last season, an analysis that goes all the way back to 1871: “Have the Cubs Forgotten How to Field?”

Even if the Cubs don’t set records and make history, they should still be better than 23rd in the majors in defensive efficiency, with 37 errors through 43 games. The Cubs have already allowed 28 unearned runs after giving up 45 all last season.

“We just got to stay on it and keep focusing and not let the miscues go to our head,” Ben Zobrist said. “We just have to keep working hard and staying focused in the field. A lot of that’s the rhythm of the game. I blame a lot of that on the early parts of the season and the weather and a lot of difficult things that we’ve been going through.

“If we’re not hitting the ball well, too, we’re a young team still, and you can carry that into the field. You don’t want to let that happen, but it’s part of the game. You got to learn to move beyond miscues and just focus on the next play.”

Heyward, a four-time Gold Glove winner, missed two weeks with a sprained right finger and has already started nine times in center field (after doing that 21 times all last season). Zobrist has morphed back into a super-utility guy, starting 16 games at second base and 15 in two different outfield spots.

[MORE CUBS: Have the Cubs found their new leadoff hitter in Ben Zobrist?]

Maddon has tried to drill the idea of making the routine play into Javier Baez’s head, so that the uber-talented second baseman can allow his natural athleticism and instincts to take over during those dazzling moments.

The Cubs are basically hoping Kyle Schwarber keeps the ball in front of him in left and setting the bar at: Don’t crash into your center fielder. Like Schwarber and Almora, catcher Willson Contreras hasn’t played a full season in The Show yet, and the Cubs are now hoping Ian Happ can become a Zobrist-type defender all over the field.

“I’m seeing our guys playing in a lot of different places,” Heyward said. “It’s not just been penciling in every day who’s going to center field or right field or left field. We did shake things up some last year, but we did it kind of later in the season. We had guys settle in, playing every day. This year, I feel like we’re having guys in different spots.

“It’s May whatever, (but) it seems like we haven’t really had a chance to settle in yet. Not that we’re procrastinating by any means, but it’s just been a lot of moving pieces.”

The Giants won World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014 with a formula that incorporated lights-out pitching, airtight defense and just enough clutch pitching. The Cubs are now a 22-21 team trying to figure it out again.

“Defense comes and goes, just like pitching,” said Kris Bryant, the reigning National League MVP, in part, because of his defensive versatility. “I feel like if you look at last year, it’s kind of hard to compare, just because it was so good. We spoiled everybody last year. Now we’re a complete letdown this year.”

Bryant paused and said: “Just kidding. Different years, things regress, things progress, and that’s just how it goes sometimes.”

For Joe Maddon, Cubs winning World Series came down to Giant comeback in SF and avoiding Johnny Cueto in elimination game

For Joe Maddon, Cubs winning World Series came down to Giant comeback in SF and avoiding Johnny Cueto in elimination game

Jon Lester vs. Johnny Cueto at Wrigley Field – the playoff matchup the Cubs dreaded in an elimination game – will happen more than seven months later under far different circumstances.

The Cubs have a 2016 championship banner flying next to the iconic center-field scoreboard – the ultimate response to any questions about their slow start to this season. The San Francisco Giants can’t have Madison Bumgarner saunter out of the bullpen when he’s recovering from a dirt-bike accident, another reason why an odd-year team is much closer to last place than first in an improved National League West.

The Giants don’t have the same aura, because the Cubs staged an epic comeback to end a best-of-five division series last October, scoring four runs again five different relievers in the ninth inning at AT&T Park.

“I’m telling you, man, Game 4 pretty much won the World Series,” Joe Maddon said. “I did not want to see Mr. Cueto pitching back here again. I’ll get to see him (Tuesday night), but that’s OK, compared to whatever that day would’ve been.”

Maddon has admitted this already, but it is still telling from a manager who always tries to stay in the moment and ignore the negativity. It says something about a Giant franchise that had won 10 straight postseason elimination games and World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014 – and a fan base that used to expect things to go wrong in Wrigleyville after more than a century of losing.

“That whole Game 4 in San Francisco, I did focus on that a lot,” Maddon said. “Just trying to understand Game 5 back at home – how this is going to play out – and do whatever we possibly can to win that game there that night in San Francisco.

“That was the game for me – out of the entire postseason. To have to play the Giants where they were battle-tested – Game 5, back here with (Cueto) pitching – I did not like that at all. I thought that pretty much the postseason hinged on that one game in San Francisco.”

Even though the Cubs still had to survive a 21-inning scoreless streak against the Los Angeles Dodgers before winning their first NL pennant in 71 years. And come back from a 3-1 deficit in the World Series and beat the Cleveland Indians on the road in a 10-inning Game 7 for the ages.

[RELATED: Cubs can't complete another miracle comeback against Giants bullpen]

“That’s what good teams do,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “They’re a very talented club, very solid all around. You don’t win the World Series unless you are.

“Look back at our success, how many times were we looking at elimination? No, you’re never surprised in the postseason. Anything those teams do, it’s because they’re there for a reason. They’re very good.”

Lester beat Cueto in a 1-0 instant classic when Javier Baez lifted a 3-2 quick pitch into the basket beneath the video ribbon in the left-field bleachers. Cueto kept the Cubs so off-balance in Game 1 that Baez actually walked up to home plate in the eighth inning thinking bunt.

The Giants reacted to that Game 4 meltdown by giving All-Star closer Mark Melancon a four-year, $62 million contract at the winter meetings, trying to fix a bullpen that led the majors with 30 blown saves last season.

“It was close,” Bochy said. “Three outs from taking it to Game 5 with a pretty good pitcher going. We can speculate all we want. There’s no point in that. It didn’t happen.

“But, sure, you look back. That’s how tight that series was. Unfortunately, we couldn’t hold on. Give them credit – great job coming back. We’re a team that plays very well under pressure, and we did there. Just couldn’t hold on to that ninth inning.”