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Weekend wipeout sweeps away last shreds of Cubs’ championship legacy

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CHICAGO — There was a time when the sight of rain at a Chicago Cubs game would elicit a smile and bring back a happy memory. After all, rain is associated with the team’s 2016 World Series championship, as much as anything that went down in their Game 7 victory over the Cleveland Indians.

On that night, the Cubs rallied around each other during a late-inning rain delay, famously led by right fielder Jason Heyward.

Fast-forward to Sunday. At Wrigley Field. With rain falling once again, just as it did on that November night nearly three years ago, the Cubs were again trying to rally. This time, around starter Yu Darvish, as well as their own legacy. For the second straight day, they had a ninth-inning lead against their archrivals, the St. Louis Cardinals. And again, they lost it.

And in doing so, they lost who they were. The Cubs who won that championship are gone forever — leaving behind only the memory of a dominant team. Some players will remain — though likely not the manager — but the vibe won’t ever be the same.

And that’s a good thing.

As these things go, the Cubs need a shakeup of epic proportions. The math says they still have a chance at the playoffs, but no one really believes that. Not after losing five consecutive one-run games and six overall at home.

At Wrigley Field. In the hunt for the playoffs.

The Cubs folded.

Using a twist of a Joe Maddon saying, there is little doubt they let the pressure of the moment exceed the pleasure of the game.

“No matter what the end results end up being, the character is not determined by the final results,” veteran Ben Zobrist said as philosophically as possible. “It’s determined by how you go about the process. We do believe in the process here.”

But that process might be broken. It’s possible that it began to break the day the Cubs won that World Series, but first, it started to bend. And then bend some more, in 2018, and slowly but surely, the team — and its players — lost what set them apart in 2016.

“It’s hard to pinpoint anything,” Maddon said of the breakdowns this season. “Lot of guys are having really good seasons. We’ve lost a lot of one-run games. Is that the lack of a hit or is that lack of a pitch? I don’t know.”

It’s a lack of everything, including the fundamentals of the game. Some numbers lie, but some don’t: The Cubs lead the majors in outs made on the bases, are third in the NL in errors and have the worst save rate in the NL in the ninth inning or later, blowing an MLB-worst 15 of 50 opportunities. They do some things well, such as hitting home runs and shutting down the opponent during blowout wins.

In perhaps the most misleading statistic of any team, the Cubs actually rank third in bullpen ERA in the NL. But take a shovel and dig just below the surface — not very far at all — and you see the underbelly of a bullpen that has been a mess. In high-leverage situations — you know, close games — the Cubs’ relief crew is last in the NL in walk rate (13.6%) and K/BB ratio (1.6), 12th in WHIP (1.50) and opponents’ OPS (.856). Talk about the pressure exceeding the pleasure.

It happened over and over again to the Cubs this season. Not good enough to run away from teams, they also weren’t good enough to grind their way to a better season.

Then came the injuries. Baseball has a cruel way of revealing who you really are over the course of 162 games. And so do the baseball gods. What they told the Cubs over and over again — including Maddon — was that they weren’t good enough or deep enough to play sloppy baseball and still win enough games. The team fought back on that notion, reinforcing the roster by calling up hot-shot Double-A prospect Nico Hoerner to fill in for the ailing Javier Baez. And before that, the front office traded for doubles machine Nick Castellanos. We’re deep enough now, they thought.

Still, it wasn’t enough.

Neither was a heroic return to the field for their ailing captain, first baseman Anthony Rizzo. Days after spraining an ankle, he was back to lead the team to greatness.

They haven’t won since his return.

Of course, there is nothing they can do about injuries, but the issues facing the team came long before anyone got hurt. A lot of them came when the front office didn’t properly equip itself with a closer to start the season. And either Craig Kimbrel is simply struggling because he got a late start or this is who he is. Either way, it’s a problem for the Cubs. That’s what happens when you mess with the baseball gods. Signing a pitcher midseason who had been struggling at the end of the previous year is a recipe for disaster. That is, unless, you’re sure those workouts at a local high school have proven his readiness.

The manager isn’t off the hook, either. How many more runs do the Cubs score if they don’t lead the league in outs on the bases? How many runs do they save — as well as pitches they subsequently wouldn’t have to throw — if not for being at the top of the league in errors? Does a manager have no influence in these areas? Does he not affect young players? When shortstop Addison Russell came up from the minors, in 2015, Maddon was praised for the environment he set for him to succeed. Is criticism unfair when that player regresses? When several others do, as well?

Perhaps no single person is emblematic of the Cubs’ regression than center fielder Albert Almora Jr. The very first draft pick of the Theo Epstein regime — No. 6 overall — is a shell of himself. Once an up-and-coming gold glover who could at least mash lefties, he has been relegated to backup to the backup duty. On Sunday, he entered the game in the ninth inning only to misplay the very first ball he saw. It led to the Cardinals’ win and the Cubs’ collapse.

Pressure. Exceeding. Pleasure.

“We want to win the World Series,” a dejected Almora said after that play. “The chances of that are getting slim.”

Slim has left the building. Miracles are the only thing left, for this season and perhaps for Almora as a Cub. But make no mistake, he isn’t the only player who has regressed.

As for Maddon, he’ll go out as the Cubs’ manager confused about several things, but he really shouldn’t be. When you’re not good enough and you’re not playing sharp, strange things occur. Maddon has wondered: Why is the Cubs’ record in road night games (19-35) so bad? It’s simple, because the team isn’t good enough, and those losses have to show up somewhere, right? It means nothing that it has happened more at night and on the road. It’s an oddity, not the big reason for the Cubs’ woes. There’s more.

“Statistically, if you look at all of the numbers, it doesn’t correspond to where we’re at,” Maddon said. “We’ve had a lot of good individual years offensively. We’ve had starting-pitching issues recently. And then the bullpen has been maligned, but look at the overall numbers with the bullpen, they’re actually really, really good.”

It’s inconceivable, with all the metrics available to the team and manager, that anyone would look at those high-leverage numbers and believe the bullpen has been “really, really good.” But Maddon is right about individual performances. They’ve had some good ones, before the injuries hit. But it’s a further indictment on the group that they haven’t played better as a team.

“It’s hard to cull it down to one particular event or moment or thought,” Maddon said. “It’s difficult.”

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MLB rejects 114-game plan, tells union no counteroffer

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Major League Baseball has rejected the players’ offer for a 114-game regular season with no additional salary cuts and told the union it did not plan to make a counterproposal, sources confirmed to ESPN.

Players made their proposal Sunday, up from an 82-game regular season in management’s offer last week. Opening Day would be June 30, and the regular season would end Oct. 31, nearly five weeks after the Sept. 27 conclusion that MLB’s proposal stuck to from the season’s original schedule.

MLB told the union it had no interest in extending the season into November, when it fears a second wave of the coronavirus could disrupt the postseason and jeopardize $787 million in broadcast revenue.

While management has suggested it could play a short regular season of about 50 games with no more salary reductions, it has not formally proposed that concept. Earlier this week, multiple players told ESPN that they would not abide a shorter schedule, with one saying, “We want to play more games, and they want to play less. We want more baseball.”

The Athletic first reported on MLB rejecting the players’ offer.

Teams and players hope to start the season in ballparks with no fans, and teams say they would sustain huge losses if salaries are not cut more. The sides agreed to a deal March 26 in which players accepted prorated salaries in exchange for $170 million in advances and a guarantee that if the season is scrapped each player would get 2020 service time matching what the player accrued in 2019.

That deal called for “good faith” negotiations over playing in empty stadiums or at neutral sites. The union has said no additional cuts are acceptable.

MLB’s May 26 proposal would lower 2020 salaries from about $4 billion to approximately $1.2 billion, establishing a sliding scale of reductions. Players at the $563,500 minimum would get about 47% of their original salary, and those at the top — led by Mike Trout and Gerrit Cole at $36 million — would receive less than 23%.

The union’s offer would have salaries total about $2.8 billion, leaving each player with about 70% of his original salary.

Information from ESPN’s Jeff Passan and The Associated Press was used in this report.

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Pirates’ Chris Archer out until 2021 after surgery

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Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander Chris Archer underwent surgery Tuesday to address thoracic outlet syndrome and will not pitch again until 2021.

The Pirates announced Wednesday that Archer had the operation after “consulting with several leading vascular and orthopedic surgeons in recent weeks.”

The surgery was performed in St. Louis by Dr. Robert Thompson. The Pirates say Archer is “projected to return to full competition for the 2021 season.”

The Pirates scratched Archer from a scheduled spring training start this past February because of neck tightness. He returned on March 6, however, and threw two scoreless innings in a spring game against Toronto.

Archer, 31, was a two-time All-Star with the Tampa Bay Rays but struggled last year in his first full season with the Pirates, going 3-9 with a 5.19 ERA in 23 starts.

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Fantasy Insights – Will Kevin Newman outperform Josh Bell for Pirates?

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Spring is here and Eric Karabell misses baseball, so he is going to write about all 30 MLB teams, covering myriad player values and his general thoughts for what he hopes will ultimately be a fruitful 2020 season.

Next up, the Pittsburgh Pirates!

Top fantasy storyline: One lonely Pirate is likely to go in the first 15 rounds of a standard mixed league, and that is All-Star first baseman Josh Bell, who slugged 37 home runs and knocked in 116 runs last season. Nearly a third of the home runs came in a magical June, when he blasted 12 and hit .390. The entire year prior, Bell hit 12 home runs with 62 RBIs. Yeah, quite a change. Fantasy managers like power, of course, but Bell had a poor second half, hitting .233 with only 10 blasts, so there is reasonable concern this is not a safe, reliable player after all.

What’s new: Longtime outfielder

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