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No Excuses

Without a Bartman or a billy goat to blame, the Cubs simply let themselves be outplayed.

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No new curses this time, or need for any. No goats, literal or metaphorical. No black cats, no Steve Bartman. No real chokes, only a general team-wide collapse. The Cubs were swept by the Arizona Diamondbacks in three games in the first round of the NL playoffs, and the only surprise was how quick and all but painless it was.

The only addition to the Cubs' hall of shame was a vivid new image of the frustration of losing: pitcher Ted Lilly hurling his glove to the ground after grooving a 3-2, two-out fastball to Chris Young, who hit it into the stands in Arizona for a three-run homer to give the Diamondbacks the lead in the second game. The Cubs were never in it after that, not that they'd been in it much at all after reliever Carlos Marmol lost the opener, 3-1.

A key element of any true Cubs tragedy in what is now a full century of failure is that victory has to be there for the taking. The Cubs have to have the better team, the better position. They forced the 1945 World Series to a seventh game, with miracle man Hank Borowy on the mound, only to see him get bombed. Long-term, they were better in '69 than the New York Mets, but for two months the Mets were far better and the Cubs withered. They had the better team in the 1984 and probably also the '89 playoffs, yet lost both. They were five outs from the World Series in 2003 with a relatively weak New York Yankees team in front of them when they lost to the Florida Marlins, who went on to win the championship.

But anyone who thought the Cubs better than the Diamondbacks was only guessing. I still can't quite understand how the Snakes won a league-leading 90 games while being outscored overall by their opponents, but they're a young, talented team and the Cubs allowed them every chance to succeed. With their experience, the Cubs were favored, but as team leader Derrek Lee warned before the series began (perhaps drawing on his experience as a member of those 2003 Marlins), youth can express itself as brash conviction while experience makes players tentative. That's how it played out, and the Cubs' troubles were compounded by their apparent lack of respect for their opponents.

Count me a defender of manager Lou Piniella's decision to remove ace Carlos Zambrano early from his first-game pitchers' duel with Brandon Webb. I don't believe Piniella was punting the game to concentrate his resources on winning the three middle games in the best-of-five series, but I do believe arrogance played a part in his reasoning. After six innings, Piniella clearly thought he could have it both ways in game one: turn the ball over to his reliable bullpen against a wearying Webb, then bring a lightly used Zambrano back with three days' rest to clinch the series (he hoped) before Webb got another turn to pitch.

Piniella, after all, had already made the decision to pitch Zambrano in game four. But he didn't bank on the 24-year-old Marmol taking an inning to get his feet under him in the playoffs; the two runs he allowed were all Webb and the even-more-reliable Arizona bullpen, with Jose Valverde closing, needed to preserve the opening victory.

Piniella's call was indicative of a larger complacency and overconfidence on the part of the Cubs. Was their washout due to a lack of execution or to poor scouting? Probably both, the latter contributing to the former. The Cubs clearly did not scout the Diamondbacks well. The Snakes were last in the league in batting average and on-base percentage, but the Cubs' pitchers persisted in getting themselves into fastball counts that made it easier for the rash young Arizona hitters to simply react. Young's homer in the second game was a perfect illustration. Lilly had two outs, two on, a 2-0 lead, and first base open when he missed with a 2-2 pitch to Young. He should have come back with a curve, a changeup, a walk--which would have brought the left-handed Stephen Drew to the plate--anything but the letter-high fastball he threw. He knew it the instant he threw it, too, which is why Young was only steps out of the batter's box, watching the ball soar toward the stands, when Lilly removed his glove and heaved it to the ground.

Yet what did Rich Hill throw to open the third game at Wrigley Field but a first-pitch fastball? Young pounded it into the left-field seats. That's bad scouting and bad execution. Even after Drew followed with a double, Hill struck out two and was about to work out of the inning when he fell behind Justin Upton, freshly 20, two balls and no strikes; Hill then threw him a fastball and Upton slapped it into right field to score the extra run. The Diamondbacks added another in the fourth off Hill and tacked on two solo homers off Chicago relievers, but those they didn't need. While the Cubs were throwing fastballs to Arizona's young hitters, the Diamondbacks were getting the overaggressive Cubs to swing at pitchers' pitches.

Arizona had obviously scouted the Cubs as a team that would rather swing than walk. Piniella was onto that strategy when he talked about the series before the third game, but he had to add that at this late point he couldn't change a leopard's spots--or the Cubs' tendencies at the plate. Just as the White Sox, knowing in the 2005 playoffs that they wouldn't be able to walk the California Angels' feared Vlad Guerrero if they tried, got him to swing at miserable pitches, so too the Diamondbacks with Chicago's leadoff man Alfonso Soriano. They pitched to Aramis Ramirez the same way and both had bad series.

The Cubs' last critical at-bat came after Arizona starter Livan Hernandez walked the bases full with one out in the fifth inning of the third game. Mark DeRosa had been tagging the ball during batting practice, and he was my pick to click in the game. The 42,157 fans in attendance at Wrigley Field, many of whom had shown up early enough for batting practice, felt the same, and the crowd was as loud as I'd heard since the 2003 playoffs. Hernandez fell behind 3-1, but then DeRosa swung at a low breaking ball and grounded into a double play. That was the story of the game and the series. Hernandez walked five but he erased three of the runners on double plays. In the end, he always got the Cubs to swing at his pitch, while the Cubs were giving in to the Arizona hitters.

The loss spoiled a wonderful mirage of a season that ended on a truly glorious October evening. After a brief pre-BP cloudburst the skies cleared, and the usually late-arriving Cubs fans were there in their seats from the beginning, cheering Hill as he emerged for his warm-ups. Even after he fell behind they kept cheering and shouting, though the singsongy "Let's go, Cubbies" chant soon gave way to the more staccato "Let's go, Cubs!" A guy in a blue Soriano jersey in my corner of the upper deck shouted "Get up, nosebleeds!" to those around him, then patrolled the aisle chanting "Let's go, Cubbies" and adding, "Somebody has to clap because I can't." He had a beer in one hand. He chanted again, grabbed the rim of the beer cup between his teeth, and clapped for himself.

The wind, which had been wafting off the lake and crossing from the right-field to the left-field foul pole, died and the evening got sultry as defeat closed in. At the guess-the-attendance game the guy with the Soriano shirt reappeared with it turned inside out and said, "Great, let's see how many thousands of heartbroken fans there are here tonight." By the time I moved down behind the Arizona dugout to get closer to the postgame interview room, fans were turning on each other.

Soriano, who would be the Cubs' last batter of the year, swung and missed. "You suck, Soriano!" shouted one guy.

Another in the same row jumped up and shouted back, "He only hit 33 homers and drove in 70 runs, and now all of a sudden he sucks? Support your team!"

"Soriano, you suck!" shouted someone behind him, and Soriano popped out to right field to end the season.

This year the Cubs and their fans adopted the motto "It's gonna happen" to express the conviction that at some point their World Series drought had to end. Whenever I heard it I'd think, "Yeah, that's what I'm afraid of." Happen it did, as disaster always does for the Cubs. But take it from a veteran of the '69 campaign: after the first five or six times it doesn't hurt as bad.

For more on sports, see our blog The Sports Page at chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Pitcher Ted Lilly in game two by Jeff Gross/Getty Images.

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