Cubs' quest to repeat as champs finally runs out of gas

CHICAGO -- There will be plenty of time to pick apart the carcass of the Chicago Cubs' 2017 postseason, but it won’t take a deep sabermetric dive to understand why their chances of repeating as champions went down in flames. Their five-game loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series was all about a bullpen that imploded and an offense that sputtered -- specifically MVP candidates Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.

“It reminds me of two years ago against the Mets,” Bryant said late Thursday. “We got really good, then next year we won the World Series. So sometimes maybe you have to get beat a little bit so you’re not complacent.”

Boy, did the Cubs get beat, and more than a little. They scored eight runs against the Dodgers, all via the long ball, losing 11-1 in Game 5. According to Elias Sports Bureau research, it’s the first time a team playing four or more games in the playoffs scored all its runs in a series on home runs. The Cubs were unable to produce one rally, going 0-for-14 with runners in scoring position.

Rizzo, in particular, never looked like himself, striking out eight times before finally making contact in Game 5. Even then, he hit three balls into the shift, ending a season-long trend of pulling it way too much. Bryant finally went deep -- after the Dodgers led 9-0 -- but he also looked out of sorts. Both will have an offseason to figure out what went wrong.

“You don’t know how long these good times will last, and obviously we’re in the heart of good times now, to be a Chicago Cub, but it definitely stings,” Rizzo said. “There are no excuses. You have to play better.”

Bryant and Rizzo weren’t the only culprits. The entire offense shut down, including veteran Ben Zobrist. The 2016 World Series MVP failed to reach base even once in the NLCS.

“We didn’t put great at-bats together,” Zobrist said. “The opposition had something to do with that.”

The Dodgers indeed deserve a lot of credit for executing a game plan to perfection while the Cubs simply could not match them on the mound, particularly out of the bullpen. Nothing is more demoralizing than a relief staff that continually gives away runs via free passes and making its manager look really bad in the process. That was the case this October, as seemingly no arm Maddon called upon came through for him. The Cubs issued a mind-boggling 53 walks in 10 postseason games.

But Maddon refused to accept the negatives, as three consecutive NLCS appearances isn’t exactly the easiest thing to accomplish, particularly with a young team.

“I looked out at the field, and I looked at the birth certificates that are playing different positions tonight,” Maddon said. “I loved it. So my point is, heads up, we're going to keep getting better.”

Added Rizzo: “We’re going to consistently compete for years to come. That’s what this organization has been built on. We want to compete every single year. We’re in the position to do that.”

The task ahead for the front office is to examine the small sample size of the postseason and compare it to what went on over 162 games.

Two initial questions emerged after watching the regular season and playoffs unfold: Does a top-rated, run-producing offense actually need tinkering considering its issues when facing elite pitching during the playoffs? And is there a deeper problem with the bullpen than just a few extra walks? For 2½ of the past three postseasons, the Cubs' offense hasn’t been good. The relief staff was more about the here and now, and no one was immune to its problems. The final objective for the offseason revolves around the starting staff. The Cubs need to fill some holes.

Those questions will get answers in the coming days and months, but for now the Cubs have to come to terms with relinquishing their attempt to repeat as World Series winners. Perhaps their 2016 hangover lasted longer than anticipated, which forced them into urgency mode later than they would have wanted. Maybe three years of postseason baseball simply caught up with them.

“It wasn’t smooth sailing this year as it was last year,” Rizzo said. “When you’re grinding in July and August, instead of on cruise control, it’s a lot different feeling come September and October.”

In reality, the first round against the Washington Nationals probably led to the second-round loss more than anything. The five-game division series taxed the Cubs' starting staff, which forced them into shorter starts in Games 1 and 2 of the NLCS. The Cubs weren’t able to steal a win in Los Angeles, then came home and simply played a bad Game 3, leaving them with no margin for error. All the while, their bullpen was awful -- and the Cubs were, of course, facing a great team.

“They totally beat us,” Bryant said.

The Cubs might be done for this season, but they vowed to return. Watching the Dodgers celebrate on the Wrigley Field infield brought back memories.

“In that moment it reminded me of last year when we were there,” Albert Almora Jr. said. “In that spot against them -- I’m going to let that sink it and learn from it.”

The dream of a historic repeat ends, but the fight continues. The window to be that dynasty is still open and getting to the postseason three straight years counts -- but winning it all is now all that matters.

“We still feel like we’re capable of World Series championships,” Zobrist said.

Just not this year.