The Cubs were then three outs away from being on the wrong side of that history, then two, then one, and then a season that started with World Series hopes ended on the third day of October, just after midnight Central time, with a 2-1 defeat to the Rockies.
“No,” said Cubs center fielder Albert Almora Jr., quickly and firmly, when asked if a 95-win season could still be considered a success. “No. We lost. But there are a lot of positives. But it’s not a success unless we win. That’s just the mind-set that we have here.”
Two autumns ago, in an October much like this one, the Cubs were everyone’s favorite team. Then, they were seeking their first World Series title in 108 years. Then, each passing victory was a threat to their unwanted history. Then, each night at Wrigley was filled with wonder about whether it could finally be the year to break the curse. Then the Cubs won it all. Then Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant and Jon Lester would forever be the players who brought a championship to generations of fans who had never experienced one. Then those fans poured onto Addison Street and Clark Street and flooded Wrigleyville like the roots of a decades-old tree, dancing deep into a November night, finally.
That was then.
This, heading into Tuesday night, was now: After falling three wins short of the World Series in 2017, at the hands of the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Cubs again rolled out one of baseball’s best teams. They returned their entire core. They added Daniel Murphy to their lineup and Cole Hamels to their rotation over the summer. But they stumbled down the stretch, allowing the Milwaukee Brewers to chip away at a comfortable five-game lead and turn the NL Central race into exactly that.
The Cubs still could have won the division at home Monday, in the 163rd game of the season, but they could not retire Christian Yelich, or rattle reliever Josh Hader, or do anything to rescue a 3-1 loss that bumped them into the wild-card contest as the Brewers soaked the visitors’ clubhouse in beer before returning to Milwaukee to await Tuesday’s winner.
Now the Cubs’ postseason hopes, the sign of fall in this baseball-crazed town, more than yellow leaves or long sleeves or iced coffee turned boiling hot, were distilled into one game against the Rockies. And now that wonder inside Wrigley, long ago replaced by the stiff expectation for success, was watered down to worry, that one playoff game could be it this time, that the Cubs’ run could end right as it began.
“After we won in 2016, it was kind of World Series or bust attitude,” Bryant, one of the Cubs’ cornerstones, said after the loss. “I mean, that’s the right attitude to have, you play to be the last team standing. You don’t want to play to just make the playoffs.”
To chase that standard, to reclaim the admiration that once followed this team like a shadow, the Cubs turned to Lester, the 34-year-old left-hander who has always gotten better when the moment’s gotten bigger.
Lester struck out nine hitters in six innings and gave up just one run on a Nolan Arenado sacrifice fly in the first. But Rockies starter Kyle Freeland, making his first playoff appearance, pitching on just three days’ rest, was somehow even better. The 25-year-old lefty retired 12 consecutive hitters from the second to the fifth. He mixed a fastball and slider to keep the Cubs off balance and the crowd on edge. He slipped into a jam in the sixth, only after David Dahl let a routine flyball drop along the right field line, but worked out of it by getting Rizzo to bounce into an inning-ending double play.
“I think tonight it was Kyle Freeland’s fault,” said Murphy, a smirk on his face, when asked how a stacked offense scored just two runs in the 22 innings that defined their season across Monday and Tuesday. “He threw the ball really well and runs weren’t exactly easy to come by for them either.”
Wrigley was reeling. A “Let’s go Cubbies” chant came and went. So did a few others, from tired throats and into the cool wind, as the eighth wore on. Then Baez lined a two-out double into the left-center field gap, and pinch runner Terrance Gore raced home from second, and Baez screamed at the Cubs’ dugout as the fans leaped and hugged and sung “MVP! MVP!” in unison all around him.
Pedro Strop held the Rockies scoreless in the ninth, leaving the go-ahead run at second, but the Cubs could not win it in the bottom half. So on came extra innings and a scoreless 10th and a hug — really, a hug — between Baez and Arenado, between second and third base, on a fielder’s choice in the 11th that only gave way to more baseball. The Cubs ran out of position players to bring off the bench. Maddon plugged in Hamels and Hendricks, both starters, for relief appearances. The Rockies almost rotated their entire bullpen onto the mound.
“We didn’t make it easy on ourselves,” said Story, the Rockies’ shortstop, once his team’s third game in three cities in three days had tilted their way after four hours and 55 minutes. “That’s for sure.”
The crowd stood for most of the 10th, 11 and 12th, but relented to shaking knees in the 13th, sitting down in the worn seats and bleachers as the Rockies took another round of hacks. Those hacks led to Wolters’s go-ahead single and soon a long, quiet walk for the fans, away from their last look at Wrigley until 2019, into the first hour of Wednesday morning and toward the Cubs’ longest winter in years.