'It's just different' for Cubs as skid reaches 9
PITTSBURGH -- Every game the Cubs have played under manager Joe Maddon has meant something. From Opening Day in the 2015 season through Wednesday night, and including the past four trips to the postseason, each game had October implications on the line.
It was a run of 807 games in the regular season and 36 in the playoffs, including that 2016 World Series triumph that ended the franchise's 108-year championship drought. It was a run that came to a close on Thursday, when the Cubs arrived to PNC Park with nothing on the line except an eye toward next year.
"It's like going to Spring Training games," Maddon said prior to Chicago's 9-5 loss to the Pirates. "It's awful."
Maddon said his pregame process was the same. The manager pored over the numbers in relation to Pirates starter Joe Musgrove and did what he could to match up the Chicago lineup accordingly. Even so, the Cubs fielded a lineup that -- to use Maddon's own description of the day at hand -- had the look of a Spring Training order.
Nicholas Castellanos was given a day off to rest his legs after all those extra-base hits since being acquired from the Tigers. Anthony Rizzo was allowed to halt his courageous comeback from a gruesome right ankle injury. Dealing with injury issues of their own, Kris Bryant and Javier Báez were given pats on the back and told to rest up for 2020.
There was no Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, Ben Zobrist or Willson Contreras. Rookie Nico Hoerner -- called up from Double-A Tennessee earlier this month out of necessity -- was finally allowed to sit on the bench and take in a Major League Baseball game, though he did collect a pinch-hit RBI single in the seventh inning.
"Don't forget, we're missing some folks," Maddon said. "And you're missing that motivation. So, it's different. It's just different."
The Pirates -- the same team the Cubs scored 47 runs and launched 14 homers against in a Sept. 13-15 sweep at Wrigley Field -- then sent Chicago to its ninth consecutive loss. It marks the longest losing streak for the Cubs since a 12-game skid that ran from May 15-27, 2012. Chicago lost 101 games that year and grabbed Bryant with the No. 2 overall pick in the MLB Draft the following summer.
"I feel disappointment in myself," said Cubs lefty José Quintana, whose season ended with seven runs (five earned) allowed in five innings. "Tonight was a big night for me. I tried to get a really good chance to stop the losing streak. It's frustrating."
On the other side, Musgrove said the Pirates took some satisfaction from being part of the series that ended Chicago's playoff hopes.
"Absolutely," said Musgrove, who worked six innings on Thursday night. "Our goal was to try to play the dream-wrecker and go out and ruin people's seasons. A big focus for us these last couple weeks was to not let the standings or where we are in the ranks or the fact that we're eliminated affect the way we go out and play the game."
Now, the Cubs have to determine how they want to approach the next three games.
Beginning Friday night, Chicago will finish its season with a three-game series against the Cardinals at Busch Stadium. St. Louis is currently one game ahead of the Brewers for the National League Central race, so Maddon does want to see his players take a serious approach to the next three games. That said, the manager will not be able to field a full lineup.
"Listen, we're going into St. Louis, these games matter for two teams," Maddon said. "And that's why I would like to believe we should play some pretty good baseball. … You just put your best foot forward."
Maddon said Castellanos, Contreras and Schwarber are in the plans for Friday's game against the Cardinals. In terms of some late-season experimenting, the Cubs plan on taking a look at Hoerner at second base and perhaps in center field. Come Spring Training next year, Hoerner might be in the mix for a job at one of those spots.
There are other things that can be drawn from this season with 2020 in mind. Veteran lefty Cole Hamels said one important lesson for the players who will be back next season is to remember that every game matters from No. 1 through No. 162.
"In this city, this type of organization, with the expectations for this type of franchise," Hamels said, "you have to stay a little bit more on it. Giving away games early in the year, it's understanding that they will come back and bite you.
"I think sometimes you think that it won't and you can always make up for it, not realizing that those are big moments, even if it's April 1, June, September. They are all equal. And it's hard I think for players to understand."