CHICAGO -- This was supposed to be the start of another deep October run for a core group craving more World Series glory. With the clock potentially ticking on their time together, this was going to be a month to make more memories.
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The frustration of not seeing that come to fruition could be found in the fifth inning on Friday, when Kyle Schwarber spiked his bat to the dirt in anger. His flyout stranded the bases loaded in a snapshot of what held this Cubs team back all season, and then again in a 2-0 loss to the Marlins in Game 2 of the National League Wild Card Series.
“We could've done more as a team,” Cubs catcher Willson Contreras said.
The young, surprising Marlins now get to move on to the NL Division Series against the Braves. The Cubs, on the other hand, head into an offseason that will be full of uncertainty about how the franchise intends to proceed with a core group nearing the end of club control.
It is a situation that was on the collective mind of the Cubs dating back to Spring Training, when new manager David Ross was already ushering in a new era for the franchise. The North Siders won the NL Central, marking their fifth postseason berth in six years, but there was urgency for the core to add another trophy next to its 2016 World Series hardware.
Instead, at the same time that Ross was holding his final postgame Zoom conference of the season, the Marlins were letting out celebratory shouts while posing as a team around the Wrigley Field mound.
“I'm proud of them,” Ross said. “This is a season like no other. And the way they came in every day and worked with a good attitude and energy, as their manager, I'm very proud of this group.”
In his final act after an NL Cy Young-worthy campaign, Yu Darvish did his part opposite Sixto Sánchez, Miami's flame-throwing rookie phenom. The Cubs starter pitched into the seventh, using his wide array of pitches to confound the Marlins' lineup, but Darvish's support never arrived. The offense remained quiet again and the ace could only do so much.
After scoring just one run in a Game 1 loss, the Cubs were blanked in their season-ending defeat. Dating back to 2017, Chicago has now scored no more than one run in six of its past eight postseason games. The Cubs have plated just 10 runs across those eight playoff affairs.
“You see Darvish out there,” Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said, “our whole pitching staff really, just carrying us, and us not being able to come through, it's just heartbreaking, it's upsetting, it's all of the above.”
In the seventh, Darvish finally flinched with two outs, when Garrett Cooper sent a slider rattling around the left-field bleacher seats for a solo home run. Three batters later, Magneuris Sierra delivered an RBI single to right field, giving Miami a two-run lead that held.
What stayed with Darvish was the fact that the loss eliminated the chance for Cubs veteran Jon Lester to take the mound in Game 3.
“Very sad right now,” Darvish said, “because my focus today was to have Lester pitch one more start at Wrigley. That was my goal today, and I couldn't make that happen. I'm very disappointed.”
Lester would become a free agent if the Cubs decline his $25 million option as expected. Rizzo has a $16.5 million team option for 2021, when Javier Báez, Kris Bryant and Schwarber will also be in their final year of club control. Contreras is under contractual control through ‘22.
Those realities will lead to plenty of speculation and trade rumors, especially given the endings of the past few seasons. Combine that with the unclear financial situation for the Cubs in the coming months, and it made this swift October exit even harder for the core players to absorb.
“Nobody knows their future. Nobody knows what's going to happen,” Bryant said. “I don't know my future, so I really just am being grateful for what I have right now in this moment.”
Sánchez lit up the Wrigley Field radar gun, firing seven pitches of at least 100 mph, per Statcast. That number rises to 16 triple-digit heaters by way of rounding up. Over five innings, the rookie righty never looked intimidated, challenging Chicago's lineup and ending with six strikeouts in his five frames.
“He came right at them,” Ross said.
The Cubs forced Sánchez to toil through 48 pitches across the fourth and fifth innings, but a run never materialized.
In the fourth, Contreras and Schwarber opened with consecutive walks, but the rally was quickly quashed. With one out, Jason Heyward pulled a pitch into right field and Contreras tried to hustle home from second. Right fielder Matt Joyce came up firing to the plate, nabbing Contreras for a momentum-halting out.
One inning later, Victor Caratini and Ian Happ connected for back-to-back one-out hits off Sánchez. The rookie then found himself in a bases-loaded, two-out jam after hitting Contreras with a pitch. That set the stage for Schwarber, who flied out to left to put another zero in Wrigley's old scoreboard.
“Just numb. It just sucks,” Rizzo said. “Offensively, we just couldn't get it going at all throughout the year.”
In a way, the final game was symbolic of the entire season.
The core offensive group of Báez, Bryant, Rizzo and Schwarber struggled to find their footing during the abbreviated campaign. They went a combined 0-for-15 in the final loss. Happ and Heyward -- the two offensive leaders this season -- had four of the Cubs’ five hits. And, as has been the case for most of 2020, the pitching was stellar.
“There's a lot of respect for what it takes to be a world champion in this clubhouse,” Heyward said. “This year, coming up short, I think there's just newfound appreciation for what it takes to do that.”
Jordan Bastian covers the Cubs for MLB.com. He previously covered the Indians from 2011-18 and the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian.