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Cubs shouldn't hang their heads

Coming off first title since 1908, club showed a lot of heart
MLB.com @philgrogers

CHICAGO -- Maybe you could have seen this coming, but the Cubs didn't.

When they ran onto the field to face Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers on a gorgeous Thursday night, center fielder Albert Almora Jr. and left fielder Kyle Schwarber bathed in the enthusiasm of Wrigley Field's bleacherites.

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CHICAGO -- Maybe you could have seen this coming, but the Cubs didn't.

When they ran onto the field to face Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers on a gorgeous Thursday night, center fielder Albert Almora Jr. and left fielder Kyle Schwarber bathed in the enthusiasm of Wrigley Field's bleacherites.

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Almora grabbed a ball that a fan threw to him and used it to play catch with right fielder Ben Zobrist, while Schwarber engaged in a little shadow boxing rope-a-dope.

They were excited about the chance to sting Kershaw and get the National League Championship Series presented by Camping World back to Dodger Stadium for its conclusion. But then Enrique Hernandez blasted homers in the second and third innings, and it quickly became time to say farewell to a champion.

Also to acknowledge what many had suspected since June, if not before

"It kind of felt like we switched roles [with the Dodgers] the last couple of seasons,'' Zobrist said. "They were well-rested all season. They took their division by storm. They were kind of in the same position we were in last year, coming into the Championship Series for the National League. … They deserve to go to the World Series.''

As for the Cubs, don't focus too long on the 11-1 loss in Game 5 that sealed the NLCS. Despite the one-sided nature of this series -- the Dodgers outscored the Cubs, 28-8 -- the bigger picture is that manager Joe Maddon's team went down swinging in a season that was special from the start because it followed the team's first World Series championship since 1908.

Video: NLCS Gm5: Maddon congratulates NL Champion Dodgers

"Coming off the last two years, and especially having won, the team that won for the first time in 108 years, it was very difficult for the guys to get jump-started in April and May,'' Maddon said. "I think that's legitimate. I don't think it's a stretch. I don't think it's hyperbole in any way. … We eventually got our thing together and started playing extremely well post All-Star break and especially in September.''

Sure, the goal was to get back to the World Series, and the Cubs fell short. But let's consider what they did:

Recovered from a 43-45 first half and a 5 1/2-game deficit at the All-Star break to win the NL Central, in the process joining the 2009 Phillies as the only World Series champs since '02 to win a division title the following season.

Beat the Nationals in an emotionally charged NL Division Series presented by T-Mobile.

As encores go, this may not have been Jimi Hendrix playing two uninterrupted hours at the end of Woodstock, but it was better than an American League Wild Card Red Sox team being swept by the White Sox in 2005, the year after Boston won its first World Series since 1918.

Video: NLCS Gm5: Zobrist on disappointing end to season

There's a parallel between the '05 Red Sox and the '17 Cubs beyond the obvious.

Because they were trying to catch the Yankees in a race that went down to Game 162, the Red Sox went into that postseason with their rotation jumbled. These Cubs were on their heels from the start of the NLCS because they couldn't beat Stephen Strasburg in Game 4 of the NLDS.

Had they won at Wrigley Field on Oct. 11, the Cubs would have had two days to prepare to face a fully rested Kershaw in the NLCS opener. But instead they had to fight through a 9-8 win in the deciding game of the NLDS in Washington and endure a difficult travel day before the opener at Dodger Stadium.

It may not have mattered that their pitching was tired and out of order because the Dodgers' pitching staff, from Kershaw through closer Kenley Jansen, was at the top of its game. The Cubs finished the NLCS hitting .156 and the postseason hitting .168.

Toss in a rattled bullpen that gave up 27 runs in 37 2/3 innings and it's remarkable that the Cubs were able to do what they did.

Video: NLCS Gm5: Rizzo on Cubs' 2017 season after loss

"This playoff run was just all heart,'' said Anthony Rizzo, whose 1-for-17 NLCS epitomized the lineup's struggle.

Maddon loves the unselfishness and cohesiveness of his players. The team joined its fans in celebrating the 2016 championship, but wasn't satisfied with winning once.

"This year for sure the challenge was the emotional exhaustion we experienced over the course of the offseason after what we experienced last year,'' Zobrist said. "That's tough to come back from and start off well in-season. We had a tough Spring Training and a tough start to the season, and that contributed to it. But no excuses. We're professionals.

"What was accomplished last year, it was difficult to put that in the rearview mirror the first half of the season. I think we did a good job in the second half of the season. Guys really worked like champions all year long. That's really all you can ask of yourself, to work like a champion every day, to try to focus like a champion, and guys did that.''

Video: NLCS Gm5: Bryant on Cubs' season after NLCS loss

The Cubs have won 311 games the past three seasons, regular season and postseason combined. These are the kind of totals they registered in their franchise's heyday, when Theodore Roosevelt and William H. Taft were in the White House.

They should feel good about their chances to be back here next October, with a young core that is just as talented and more experienced. They've got questions, of course, and they're not small ones.

President of baseball operations Theo Epstein will immediately tackle a series of personnel issues, mostly with the pitching staff. Jake Arrieta and closer Wade Davis are headed into free agency, John Lackey into either free agency or retirement and October highlighted the need to improve the bullpen.

But the mission will be the same in 2018 as it was in '17 -- hang another championship banner alongside the one that was raised in April.

Video: NLCS Gm5: Joe Maddon on Lackey's future with Cubs

"We're going to consistently compete here for years to come,'' Rizzo said. "That's what this organization has been built on. We want to have five or six years where we're consistently competing. We're built to do that. We're built to make a postseason run again, but it's not going to come easily.''

In his last at-bat of 2017, Rizzo lifted a long fly ball to right field off Jansen. It teased the crowd for a moment before dropping into Yasiel Puig's glove.

As Rizzo trudged back to the dugout, fans behind the dugout stood to applaud. They were in this with him, and not just for 162 games, but 172. It was a great ride, just not the ride of a lifetime.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com.

Chicago Cubs