CHICAGO – It was inevitable that if something went against the Cubs in the late innings of their first playoff game against the Marlins on Wednesday, a reference would be made to the team’s past.
Wouldn’t you know it, in the seventh inning, the comparisons to October 14, 2003 came up.
The Marlins scoring five runs against Kyle Hendricks and Jeremy Jeffress in the seventh inning of Game 1 of the team’s Wild Card series at Wrigley Field drummed up memories of that Game 6 of the NLCS for 17 years earlier.
In that inning, the Cubs saw a 3-0 evaporate thanks to a few fluky plays and a struggling bullpen in an 8-3 defeat. The team went from being five outs away from their first World Series in 58 years to completely out of the playoffs just 24 hours later after a Game 7 loss.
It’s both an apt comparison yet a bit far-fetched at the same time, since the Cubs and Marlins have a few more steps before playing for a World Series berth. Plus the north siders shook off a lot of the ghosts of October of 2003 when they ended their championship drought in 2016.
The more concerning thing from the Cubs’ past that crept up during this forgettable 2020 playoff debut is the team’s offense – which has continued to struggle at the end of seasons.
Sandy Alcantara started off a strong Marlins’ pitching effort against the Cubs by working into the seventh inning with just one run allowed. He along with three bullpen pitchers allowed the Cubs just four hits in a 5-1 victory.
Struggling with hitting late in the season has become an unfortunate recent trend and has kept the team from making a deep playoff run the past few years.
In 2018, Theo Epstein famously described the Cubs’ offense as “broken” after the team lost a late lead in the NL Central, then scored just two combined runs in a division tie-breaking loss to the Brewers and a Wild Card defeat to the Rockies.
In 2019, the team’s offense couldn’t help the team in another September swoon as the Cubs finished on the outside of the playoffs for the first time since 2014. These hitting issues plagued the cubs late in the 2020 season, where they scored two or fewer runs in seven of their final ten games of the season.
The three exceptions in that stretch came in the series before the playoffs against the White Sox, but that momentum cooled on Wednesday afternoon.
“I don’t know. I think this year, obviously, it’s a different year, it’s a sprint. Guys, naturally, like all teams, not be allowed to struggle and come out of it necessarily or do well and go into a slump and figure it out again,” said outfielder Jason Heyward when asked about the team’s hitting issues late in seasons. “The reality is, we need a chance to keep playing. that’s what I think we need. Like you said, this is postseason baseball, you expect, No. 1., you don’t expect it to be a large scoring game. I know it happens, but when two pitchers go out there and throw like that, it’s gonna be whoever cracks first.
“They were able to get a swing of the bat, and three runs. Unfortunately, we weren’t.”
Time is short to find it, with one more loss putting an end to an unusual baseball season. It’s a major challenge for David Ross as he embarks on his first postseason as a manager.
“Each one of these guys have their own plans of attack and on each hitter and these guys do a lot of homework so, again, you’ve got to trust the ability of the guys in the lineup and just try to keep letting them know what you see,” said Ross of the hitters.
Thanks to the league postponing Game 2 to Friday, the Cubs get a little more time to shake off the rough debut before facing the elimination contest.
“Just have our plan, have our approach. Go up there and try to have a team at-bat. Try to be aggressive in the strike zone,” said Heyward. “Yesterday is just one of those days; you face good pitching, you don’t have a lot to look at.”