MILWAUKEE -- The collapse was as dramatic as the climb.
Nearly two months to the day the Chicago Cubs decided to add to their team instead of subtract at the MLB trade deadline, they were eliminated from postseason contention by virtue of a 7-3 win by the Miami Marlins over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Saturday night.
Miami and Arizona will join Philadelphia as the three wild card seeds in the NL while Chicago will be home for the playoffs.
The Cubs -- who FanGraphs gave a 92 percent chance of making the playoffs as recently as Sept. 6 -- played their worst brand of baseball at the most important time of the season. Defensive miscues and bullpen meltdowns were part and parcel to the Cubs demise.
In fact, Chicago blew five leads they held in the 8th inning or later in Sept, the most for the franchise in a single month in 50 seasons. Additionally, the Cubs have made 12 fielding errors so far in September, the most in baseball and the most for them in a single month since Sept. 2015.
"In the last two weeks, we had close games that we didn't come out on the right side of," second baseman Nico Hoerner stated. "Both high scoring games we didn't win and low scoring games we didn't win. When it came down to it, we made some uncharacteristic mistake as a group. Myself included."
No one was immune from those defensive miscues as gold glove caliber players like Dansby Swanson, Ian Happ and Hoerner all committed errors which led to runs. But none was bigger than right fielder Seiya Suzuki's miss on a fly ball in Tuesday's loss to the Atlanta Braves. The Cubs were leading 6-5 in the eighth inning before Suzuki whiffed on the ball, allowing two runners to score. The team was winless since that play until the victory over the Brewers on Saturday. It came after they were eliminated.
"Frustrating, especially being in every game against good teams and grinding our way but just not making it happen," Swanson said. "Just playing bad. Which I own. Just haven't performed in moments recently. Sucks."
Swanson, who signed a 7-year, $177 million deal with the Cubs last winter, was just 9 for 56 (.161) over the final two weeks of the season.
His and the team's play down the stretch was a far cry from the days leading up to the trade deadline in late July. That's when the team won eight in a row, forcing President of Baseball Operations Jed Hoyer to go for it. Instead of trading free-agents-to be Cody Bellinger and Marcus Stroman, Hoyer acquired infielder Jeimer Candelario and reliever Jose Cuas. It looked like the right decision as the Cubs continued their hot play into August, eventually taking over the second wild card spot in the NL. They went from 10 games under .500 in June to 10 games over .500 into August.
"We were playing unbelievable baseball in July to even put us in this situation," Bellinger stated. "It could have gone either way. We fought until the very end. The last few weeks were on the frustrating side than any of us wanted it to be."
At one time this month the Cubs were 3.5 games in front of the next wild card team but that lead began to evaporate shortly after labor day - a week where the Cubs alternated start times at Wrigley Field, playing day/night/day/night/day. They seemingly never recovered. Swanson wasn't the only player to hit the skids as Bellinger - a candidate for comeback player of the year - compiled a .686 OPS in the final weeks of the season. Despite the late year decline, the 28-year old should do well in free agency after signing a one-year, $17.5 million deal with the Cubs last offseason. His 133 OPS+ is the highest for him since 2019.
"I really tried to enjoy these last few weeks," Bellinger said. "Obviously, there is no prediction of the future. Playing for the Cubs organization and Wrigley Field was really special. These last few weeks I tried to embrace it, have fun with this group of guys and help this team win."
Bellinger will be remembered fondly by Cubs fans -- if he moves on -- but it's the final days of the season that will stick with them most. It included losses to the Braves and Brewers after both teams had clinched playoff spots and were resting pitchers. In defeats Wed-Fri, they lost games started by Darius Vines, AJ Smith-Shawver and Colin Rea. The former two are rookies while the latter is a journeyman former Cub. Earlier in the month, they lost 6 of 7 to wild card rival Arizona. Nothing went right.
"Am I surprised? Sure," manager David Ross said. "We haven't played our best baseball down the stretch."
The team's offseason will include a decision on long time starter Kyle Hendricks' contract option for next year. It calls for him to make $16 million. Stroman has an opt out in his deal or else he'll make $21 million if he stays. The team is expected to talk with Bellinger but his services will be well sought after.
Meanwhile, Jason Heyward's long-term deal finally comes off the books, giving the team more resources to shore up a leaky bullpen and add some more power - potentially from a regular first baseman. The organization has built up their farm system over the last several years while suffering through a couple of losing seasons until this one. The time could be right for a major trade from their prospect base to improve on the 83 wins they have going into the season's final day.
"It doesn't feel like it right now but there is a lot to be proud of from a lot of different guys," Ross said.
While some scrutiny is likely to fall on the manager after the September collapse, his team didn't necessarily underachieve over the course of the entire season. Hoyer already admitted he didn't give Ross a deep enough bullpen and injuries to key arms like closer Adbert Alzolay and veteran Michael Fulmer didn't help matters. The team was also short on position player depth having run through Eric Hosmer and Trey Mancini before settling on Christopher Morel for a more prominent role.
Overall, they exceeded their win total (78.5) set by Las Vegas but the collapse at the end makes everything that came before it less praiseworthy.
"We definitely dug ourselves out of a hole in the middle of the year and gave ourselves a chance to be in this position so yeah its sour we're out of it but at the same time there's a lot of positive things to take from this year," Gomes said.
Ross added: "You have to be great, consistently if you want get to the postseason and the World Series. We know that. We fell short of that. We took a step forward from last year and we have more steps to take."