After another tough one-run loss Friday night at American Family Field, the Chicago Cubs found themselves on the brink of elimination with two games remaining.
A season marked by wild swings was about to end, perhaps as soon as Saturday night in Milwaukee.
Manager David Ross said after the gut-wrenching 4-3, 10-inning loss to the Brewers that the feeling in the clubhouse was no different than it had been the last week or so.
“Same as it’s been,” Ross said. “We’ve got to win every game. It’s been that way for a while now. I know the score.”
In a season as crazy as this, the possibility of overtime seemed like the perfect ending for a Cubs team that has gone from 10 games under .500 to playoff contender to potentially collapsing with 14 losses in 20 games down the stretch.
The Miami Marlins’ suspended game against the New York Mets on Thursday meant the Cubs could have forced them to play the final inning Monday to beat them out for the third wild-card spot. But the Cubs’ loss and the Marlins’ comeback win against the Pittsburgh Pirates likely made that a moot point.
The Marlins can clinch the spot if they maintain their 1 1/2 game lead because they hold the tiebreaker against the Cubs by winning the season series.
The Cubs still can do it but need a miracle finish against a division-winning Brewers team that’s now nine games ahead of them and also hope the Pirates beat the the Marlins the next two games.
A season that was within their grasp only three weeks ago gradually slipped away, making this a slow-motion collapse.
“We’ll reflect on the season when it’s over,” Ian Happ said. “Now we’re focused on winning a baseball game (Saturday). We have a group that hasn’t quit all year. It isn’t going to happen tomorrow. Probably play a close game and have everybody on the edge of their seats. But we’ll come out and do it again.”
Another large contingent of Cubs fans was on hand Friday in the crowd of 39,216 to see if the team that already had been pronounced dead a handful of times in 2023 could take the first step in an improbable comeback after the devastating sweep in Atlanta.
They almost did. Happ’s game-tying home run in the top of the ninth gave them new life, but the Cubs couldn’t come up with another run and wound up with only six hits.
Dansby Swanson and Cody Bellinger were both hitless in four at-bats.
“Just playing bad, which I own,” Swanson said. “Obviously come to work every day with the expectation of playing well. I just haven’t performed in moments recently. It sucks and definitely (is) something I’m working on. It’s not happened. We have two more chances.”
The idea that the Brewers were salivating over knocking the Cubs out of the postseason was overblown, left fielder Christian Yelich told me before the game.
“It’s not really our focus,” he said. “The only thing we’re focused on is trying to play our best version of baseball and stay competitive as a team. We’ve got the playoffs coming up in a few days, and you want to finish on a high note, keep up that intensity.”
Manager Craig Counsell downplayed the idea as well.
“We want to play good baseball, and that’s the mission every single night,” he said. “I don’t know if there is anything extra there.”
Still, it would be a feather in their cap to help put the final stake in the Cubs season, and it figures to be a strange final weekend in a ballpark many Cubs fans think of as their second home.
Yelich was prepared to hear it from them, as he has since becoming a Brewer in 2018. He has replaced Ryan Braun as the most hated player by Cubs fans and is a verified Cub killer with 17 home runs and an .813 OPS against them in his career.
Like Braun, Yelich doesn’t mind playing the part of villain. The more boos, the merrier.
“You understand being part of the Brewers, that comes along with it,” he said. “You hear everything. It’s part of being a major-league player in some of those rivalries.”
The roof at American Family Field was open for the game on a cool, early-fall night. The last time the Cubs were in town in early July featured the famous “Roofgate” incident in which Cubs manager David Ross was livid about the closing of the roof during play despite no sign of rain. The Brewers insisted there was no ill intent and that the possibility of showers was the reason for the decision.
Counsell said Friday that the roof generally stays open unless it gets below a certain temperature that he couldn’t reveal.
“You’d laugh, but I can’t say it,” he said.
Hearty Wisconsinites apparently don’t like it too chilly in their ballpark. Imagine that.
The Cubs would like to stick around for a while, which would mean they made it to the postseason and started a wild-card series here Tuesday.
But that doesn’t seem likely now. They had plenty of chances but didn’t take advantage.
“It’s obviously frustrating,” Swanson said. “Nobody wants it more than us.”
But wanting it more hasn’t worked out for the Cubs, who will have a long offseason wondering how it all fell apart.