What happened to the Cubs this season? Guest author Melissa Rakestraw takes us from heady summer days to autumn nights chilly with defeat, and, as a bonus, ranks the three worst heartbreaks in recent Cubbies history.

The 2008 Chicago Cubs, 97-64, NL Central Division Champs. It was not much of a surprise to me to see this team win the division. I certainly did expect them to win their division; but that doesn’t mean I didn’t appreciate the manner in which they were able to do it. There is no question that this season was the best summer of baseball I have seen a Cubs team produce. They entertained their fans, winning more home games than any other team in the NL, and looked good doing it. There were many great games and moments in those games I won’t forget.

Opening day at Wrigley Field, the Cubs main off-season acquisition, Kosuke Fukudome, hit a 3-run homer in the bottom of the ninth off of the Brewers’ Eric Gagne to tie the game and send it to extra innings. It didn’t end in a Cubs victory that day, but it was an impressive debut for the Japanese rookie and a moment that I was able to witness first hand.

Jim Edmonds, the former Cardinal, winning over the hearts of Cubs fans on June 12 with a game-tying homer in the bottom of the ninth against Atlanta, to send the game to extras, leading to an eventual Cubs’ win. Aramis Ramirez with a walk-off solo home run against the White Sox to give the Cubs a 3-2 win. The Cubs scoring 8 runs in one inning against those same White Sox, with Jimmy Ballgame providing 2 home runs in that outburst. The Cubs coming back from a 9-1 deficit to beat the Colorado Rockies at Wrigley. The Cubs’ 4-game sweep of the Brewers at the end of July up in Milwaukee, effectively sealing their fate as division champs.

Ted Lilly running through Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina at home plate attempting to score at Busch Stadium. He was out, but his effort seemed to symbolize the Cubs’ resolve to not let anyone or anything stand in their way.

The Cubs won that game as well. Geovany Soto, the rookie catcher, hitting a 3-run homer in the bottom of the 9th against the Brewers. The Crew had led 6-2 entering that inning and the Cubs went on to eventually win that game in extras as well. September 20, Wrigley Field, the Cubs beat the Cardinals to clinch the NL Central. Cubs players returned to the field after the final out and celebrated with the fans singing the chorus to “Go Cubs Go.” It was the first time since 1908 that the Cubs had won back-to-back division titles. Lastly, I won’t forget Carlos Zambrano’s no-hitter, thrown against the Houston Astros in the Brewers’ Miller Park. It was a dominating performance by Big Z and the first no-hitter thrown by a Cub since Milt Pappas in 1972.

These are just some of the best memories that I have from a season filled with great moments. There is no way that 3 games in October will erase them. Those were the games that made fans fall in love with this team. Of course, when you fall in love with someone or something, you always set yourself up for possible heartbreak — and unfortunately, this season ended in more heartbreak for Cubs fans.
I will admit that at the start of the season I didn’t think the Cubs were headed for the World Series, but after witnessing such a great performance all season long I thought they had a legitimate shot at getting there — and maybe even winning it all.

With Zambrano, the acquisition of Rich Harden, and the incredible 17-win season of Ryan Dempster, I thought the Cubs had fortified the top of their rotation and put themselves in a position to win the NL pennant and beyond. I do believe the post-season is a crapshoot and I know the best team doesn’t always win a 5- or 7-game series, but I liked my guys’ chances going in. And I’ll admit that with the playoffs approaching, I started to look at things more from an emotional standpoint, wanting my team to take it all as opposed to looking at it with a logical perspective. Yet if you had told me that the Dodgers would sweep the Cubs, I would not have been shocked. Although I didn’t think it probable, I was aware it was possible. I was not shocked by the fact the Cubs were defeated, but rather the way in which they were defeated. I couldn’t help but feel disappointed by the Cubs’ sub-standard performance.

Not to take anything away from the Dodgers, but the Cubs didn’t seem to make it very difficult for them. That caught me off-guard. I watched this team battle all summer long — they were consistent throughout. When Ryan Dempster walked 7 batters in game 1, more than he had walked in any appearance all season, I was surprised. Demp was 14-3 at Wrigley this season and I thought he would give his team a chance to win. In the 5th inning, he walked 3, and with 2 out and an 0-2 count on James Loney, he gave up a grand slam. It only put the team in a 4-2 hole, but was a blow they didn’t recover from in a game that ended 7-2.

But as improbable as Dempster’s performance was in Game 1 it paled in comparison to the events that would unfold in Game 2.

Heading in, I was confident that starter Carlos Zambrano would turn in a solid performance in spite of struggling in his last two regular season starts. Big Z opened up strong, retiring the side in order to start the game. In the bottom of the inning, Alphonso Soriano led off with a single and advanced to second on a wild pitch. Things looked promising until Ryan Theriot failed to advance him by striking out, Derrek Lee did the same and Aramis Ramirez flied out to end the inning. What followed in the Dodgers’ half of the 2nd was one of the worst Cubs’ debacles I’ve witnessed.

Ethier led off the inning for the Dodgers with a single. The Dodgers then put on the hit-and-run with James Loney at the plate. Shortstop Ryan Theriot was heading towards second thinking the runner was attempting to steal, when Loney swung and hit a chopper to his right and Theriot paused, trying to barehand the ball. The ball bounced off his hand and caromed into the outfield, allowing Ethier to advance to third and leaving Loney safe at first with no outs.

Theriot had no chance of getting the runner at 2nd, but in my opinion, he had time to glove the ball and get the runner out at first. He tried to make a play that frankly he does not have the skill to make. He was not charged with an error, but I believe most average shortstops would have made an out on that play. Kemp was the next batter and he struck out looking to record the first out of the frame.

The next batter, Blake DeWitt, hit what appeared to be a sure double-play ball to 2nd baseman Mark DeRosa. Yet all was not as it had appeared and DeRosa was handcuffed by the ball which then bounced away; the runner on third scored, runners were safe at 1st and 2nd, and he was charged with an error.

Zambrano got the double-play ball that should have ended the inning with no runs scored, but his defense could not execute the inning ender. Casey Blake next hit a hot smash to first but normally sure-handed fielder Derrek Lee couldn’t convert the play, and another error was charged. Now the bases were loaded and there was still only one out. Dodgers’ pitcher Chad Billingsley went to the plate next and struck out to record only the second out of the inning. Leadoff hitter Rafael Furcal managed to push a bunt past the pitcher to get a hit, and another run was in — leaving the bases still loaded. Russell Martin hit a bases-clearing double to center, scoring three more runs. It was the only extra base hit of the inning, yet 5 runs had been plated. Finally, Manny struck out to end the inning.

By my tally, the Cubs misplayed 3 balls that should have resulted in an additional 4 outs. When a defense gives a team 5 runs in an inning, they don’t give their pitcher much of a chance to win. I give Carlos Zambrano credit, he kept his cool and did everything he could to try and keep his team in the game, but the game and the series was over after that inning.

The Cubs’ defense went on to record 2 more errors from infielders Theriot and Aramis Ramirez, to account for a playoff series record-tying 4 errors in one game. The Cubs offense did manage to put together 3 runs, but it was too little too late and they ended up losing Game 2 at home 10-3.
After witnessing that 2nd inning, I was absolutely stunned. It was truly unbelievable to watch this team self-destruct before my very eyes. I will never forget that 2nd inning, the standing ovation that the crowd gave Zambrano when he eventually departed the game, or the sight of him sitting in the dugout with a towel draped over his head. I still hoped they could put 3 wins together, but I knew then it wasn’t going to happen. Rich Harden took the mound in Game 3 and gave his best effort, but his offense went out with a whimper — Dodgers, 3-1.

So a team that had the best run differential in the NL and the most balanced lineup top-to-bottom could only manage to scratch out 6 runs in 3 games. There were times in Games 1 and 3 I thought Cubs’ manager Lou Piniella could have made some moves that might have helped his club. Yet he seemed to manage with a belief that his team would eventually come through; they never did. I don’t lay the blame at his feet…but he wasn’t much help.

As tough as this series loss was to stomach, it wasn’t the biggest disappointment to me as a Cubs fan. Yes, unfortunately, as a Cubs fan I know disappointment all too well. In 2003, when the Cubs were 5 outs away from the World Series, in game 6 of the NLCS, I suffered greater disappointment. That team did not have the same kind of spectacular regular season, but to get so close to the World Series and then blow it? That hurt more.

In fact, this year isn’t even the 2nd-worst letdown. That distinction goes to the 1984 team which jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the NLCS, only to be vanquished in 3 straight games by the San Diego Padres. That team also seemed to have the World Series in their grasp, only to let it slip away. It may seem hard to believe, but in my view, this is only the 3rd-worst disappointment I have witnessed as a Cubs fan.

Will this be the dagger in the heart that causes me to call it quits as a Cubs fan? Absolutely not. And no, I’m not a masochist allowing the Cubs to play dominatrix to my soul. I’m not going to walk away — because I love baseball and the Cubs are my team for better or worse.
This October was a huge letdown. But I believe that if the Cubs continue to field teams that can win their division, eventually, they will win a World Series.

One Response to “From Triumph to Defeat: The 2008 Chicago Cubs”

  1. this is clearly misplaced anger…he should be absolutely enraged, but enraged at his own teammates that they are incapable of making routine plays. hey Lackey, you know why the Red Sox are moving on the ALCS and you’re not? because they don’t have 3 guys stop and stand there looking up at a ball that none of them catch. D’OH!

    seriously, dude, you can’t fault the sox for actually, you know, catching the balls when they are hit at them. that’s kind of the point of fielding, no?

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