'A lot to be proud of': Cubs' wild season comes just shy of playoffs

October 1st, 2023

MILWAUKEE -- The ending to this Cubs’ season carries a sting that will last both for the players who lived it and the fans who were along for a wild roller-coaster ride of a campaign. The fact that the disappointment exists is a testament to how far the ballclub climbed out of a deep early-season hole.

Now, there will be debate about whether the 2023 Cubs season can be deemed a success due to the forward progress made in a year viewed from the jump as a springboard to a sustained run of contention. In the wake of a 10-6 win on Saturday over the Brewers, a victory that could not stave off postseason elimination, it was hard for the big picture to take priority over the present frustration inside the visitors’ clubhouse in Milwaukee.

“Both things can be true,” Cubs second baseman Nico Hoerner said. “I do see the direction that we're headed and I'm really excited and optimistic. But what I feel in the moment is definitely stronger.”

As the eighth inning was getting underway at American Family Field, a smattering of cheers from the local fans spread throughout the ballpark. In Pittsburgh, the Marlins had finished off a win over the Pirates, clinching the final National League Wild Card spot that slipped from Chicago’s grasp.

With one game to go in the regular season, the Cubs remained 1 1/2 games behind Miami, bringing an official end to the North Siders’ October dreams. Once that became reality, Cubs starter Jameson Taillon -- who worked the last four frames to save a taxed bullpen -- was asked by manager David Ross if he wanted to continue pitching.

“I didn't really know the scenario,” Taillon said, “until Rossy was like, 'Hey, you know the situation, right?’ I figured what that meant. And then he just asked if I wanted to keep going, and I didn't think it was worth using anyone else down there.”

It was an example of how this veteran-led roster for the Cubs often was willing to put the team ahead of personal accomplishment. That was the idea behind Chicago bringing in October-tested players like Dansby Swanson, Cody Bellinger, Yan Gomes and others to show the way for a club pulling out of a rebuild.

“It was a big deal for us this year, creating a winning culture and a close-knit group,” Gomes said. “And we did that. We definitely did that.”

The Cubs looked like a playoff-bound team back on Sept. 6, when a sweep of the Giants had Chicago just 1 1/2 games behind the NL Central-leading Brewers. At that point, the Cubs had gone 50-28 since falling 10 games under .500 on June 8. The Braves (52) and Orioles (50) were the only other MLB teams with 50-plus wins in that span.

From there, the Cubs lost 14 of 16 games, free-falling out of the Wild Card field.

“There’s a lot to be proud of,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “Right now, it's just disappointment. I think we can all feel that. We can all soak that in, remember how that feels, use that this offseason to get better and continue to grow. And come back next year and take another step forward.”

There is a foundation of youth with an improved farm system that looks primed to continue feeding the Major League team in the years to come. Core players like Swanson, Hoerner, Ian Happ and Seiya Suzuki are locked in on contracts for multiple seasons.

The Cubs have a homegrown arm in Justin Steele who blossomed into a Cy Young candidate this year. Center fielder Cody Bellinger -- who will be a key free agent for the North Siders -- looked rejuvenated and will undoubtedly get some down-ballot MVP consideration.

“We all wanted and expected to be in the postseason,” Bellinger said. “We thought we had the group. We had a great team. We were playing unbelievable baseball in July to even put us in this situation. It could have went either way. We fought 'til the very end.”

There were also shortcomings in a variety of areas that will need to be examined and addressed in the coming months.

“There's a million ways you can paint the picture,” Steele said of this season. “You can look at it as a failure -- we didn't make the playoffs. You could also look at as we were looking 50-50 whether to sell or trade at the Deadline. We made a really good push, made a move and then we went on a run and we put ourselves in a position to compete for a playoff spot. That's really exciting stuff. For me, I look at the season as a success.”

That does not erase the sting.

“This would be a really fun team to compete with in the playoffs and pop champagne with,” Taillon said. “This is a great group.”