Loney delivers while Cubs don't

LOS ANGELES -- Cubs fans reached their century mark of despondence with Alfonso Soriano's check-swing strikeout to end the game, a halfhearted attempt to thwart history when only a full cut with Thor's hammer would tame these cruel demons. Such is the nature of this dubious 100-year championship drought for the Cubs, whose woes continued with a series-ending 3-1 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 3 of the National League Division Series.

In the end, the cursed goat didn't lead to Chicago's demise. Instead, the Cubs did themselves in with a lineup full of tamed bats. They scored just six runs in the three games, or as many runs as Dodgers first baseman James Loney delivered in two series-defining at-bats: the first, a grand slam in Game 1 at Wrigley Field that quieted a raucous crowd and put an entire town on edge; the second, a two-run double in Saturday's game that gave the Dodgers a lead in Game 3 they did not relinquish.

"We scratched the surface of how good this kid is going to be," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said of Loney. "He reminds me a lot of Bernie Williams, and sometimes he makes you scratch your head and other times you want to hug him."

The Dodgers utterly dominated this series. In sweeping the Cubs, they trailed in just three of the 27 innings played. The three Dodgers starters (Derek Lowe in Game 1, Chad Billingsley in Game 2 and Hiroki Kuroda in Saturday's Game 3) combined for a 1.00 ERA in 19 innings pitched.

"You can play playoff games from now until the next 100 years, and if you score six runs in three games it will be another 100 years [until the Cubs win the World Series]," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "I'm not frustrated. I'm just stating facts that are honest and true. I want to do more than play the part of the good loser."

The team that sent the Cubs packing had not won a playoff series since 1988 and had won just 84 games, the fewest of any playoff team this season. How it did so is a testament to Los Angeles' astute moves near the trade deadline (the acquisitions of Manny Ramirez and Casey Blake), to streaky play (their 19-8 record to end the season) and to sheer dumb luck. Only a year ago these Dodgers were done in by a divided clubhouse, a rift between young players and veterans that seemed irreparable. Vestiges of that division still remain, even with Torre's sage leadership.

"There's some separation between the young guys and the veterans," Blake admitted while drenched in champagne. "Hopefully [this series win] will help things out. I just try to go about my business. If any of the younger guys wants to talk to me, I'm available."

So far, Blake said, only a few players have made a passing attempt to pick his brain.

Add to this combustible mix perhaps the biggest individual clubhouse distraction of the modern era, Ramirez, whose insubordination in Boston was so complete that he asked to be traded from the Red Sox with a handmade sign in the middle of a game on national television.

Ramirez, who appears to have received a lobotomy at the Boras Corp. headquarters in nearby Newport Beach, has become a leader on this team (!). His hustle on Saturday -- he tagged up from first and advanced to second on what was only a moderately deep fly ball in the third inning -- was only the latest example of his value to the Dodgers.

Such is the luck of grabbing a player who's aiming for a multiyear, multimillion-dollar contract. Remarkably, Ramirez fell into the Dodgers' lap, and instead of causing their downfall, he has been the reason for their surge. Ramirez was such a polarizing figure that he grabbed all the attention in the clubhouse. But his temperament wasn't a major source of concern for Dodgers executives.

"In reality, in talking about it with [Dodgers GM] Ned [Colletti], we had a great deal of confidence that with Joe here and with the coaching staff, we felt our core group of guys had jelled before Manny arrived," Dodgers owner Frank McCourt said in his explanation of the Ramirez trade.

Ramirez was a force in this series: He hit two home runs and had a .500 batting average and a gaudy .643 on-base percentage. Each successive game he has played has increased the difficulty of the Dodgers' decision on whether to bring back the soon-to-be free agent. The Dodgers already might have passed the threshold of whether it would be a public relations disaster not to make Ramirez a legitimate contract offer after the season.

"I know everyone would love for me to comment on Manny's status next year, but I'm not going to do it," McCourt said just outside the clubhouse, where puddles had gathered from spilled champagne, beer and ice water.

I think they did a very good job, and we didn't do anything.

--Cubs left fielder Alfonso Soriano

That the Dodgers broke their own playoffs jinx -- they had won just one playoff game since 1988 before this series -- shows that perhaps the baseball gods do have some mercy.

"This was a series of the jinxes," Los Angeles outfielder Andre Ethier said.

But there is no bigger jinx in baseball than the one that continues to haunt the Cubs. Players with reddened eyes moped around the losing clubhouse. Some players could not move from the dugout several moments after the game had ended. They tortured themselves by watching the Dodgers celebrate.

This surely was the year for the Cubs, whose 97 wins were tops in the National League. Perhaps that's why the loss was so painful. Even Soriano, who is usually soft-spoken, carried an edge in his voice.

"I think they did a very good job, and we didn't do anything," a testy Soriano said.

For Cubs fans, Soriano will serve as the goat. He hit just .071 (1-for-14) with four strikeouts. But really it was an entire team that failed (to the tune of a .240 average and .282 on-base percentage). Chicago had just nine total extra-base hits, three of them from Derrek Lee, the only player who excelled (.545 average).

"They just outplayed us," Cubs catcher Geovany Soto said. "I'm not going to lie."

For Cubs fans, it was just another check swing to the gut.

Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.