With a four-game sweep that took Chicago’s playoff odds from likely to long-shot, the Cardinals put the Cubs’ season in the trash like an uneaten commemorative cake. Due to the Cubs’ recent run of success, and the painful way the club lost four, one-run games at home (while holding the lead or being tied in the ninth inning in three of those games), their fall is the most-attention grabbing aspect of the series (and we’ll get to that). But the sweep was massive for the Cardinals in its own right. Look at the Cardinals’ odds to win the division in the second half:
While the Cardinals still have some work to do, the division title is very likely theirs after failing to make the playoffs the last three seasons. At the beginning of the series, the team had some ground to cover, with a 58% chance at the division. Losing the first game of the series likely would have taken those odds below 50%. Despite the Brewers winning four straight, the Cardinals were able to push their chances upward due to their three-game lead over Milwaukee with just six games to go, while also eliminating their rival from division contention. The series might be viewed as microcosm of the season for St. Louis. The Cardinals offense was typically inconsistent, scoring nine runs in one game, and just nine total runs in the other three. Jack Flaherty pitched fantastically, continuing his run as the NL’s best pitcher in the second half. The bullpen was solid despite multiple short starts from the rotation, and the defense played its part, turning seven double plays.
A year ago, the Cardinals played the role of the Cubs. After going 39-23 in the second half after firing Mike Matheny just before the All-Star Break, the Cardinals got their playoff odds up to 79.5% with series against the Brewers and Cubs to close the season. But the Brewers swept the Cardinals in St. Louis, dropping the team’s playoff odds down to 19.6%. When they dropped the opener to the Cubs, those odds fell under 1% and their season was essentially over in four games. Speaking of a season essentially ending after four tough games:
The Cubs playoff odds hadn’t dropped below 35% since they finished the 2014 season 73-89. If you think a team dropping more than 50 percentage points in four games calls the playoff odds into question, consider that the Cubs odds of getting swept were 3.4%. The Brewers odds of winning four straight games at the same time was 12.5%. The odds of both happening at the same time are 0.4%, around one in 240. That’s what it took for the Cubs to enter the series with 58% playoff odds and leave it under 3%. And it’s actually worse than that for the Cubs when we consider the Cubs’ in-game chances.
Here’s the win expectancy graph for Thursday’s game:
In the ninth inning, the Cubs’ win expectancy was just above 60% and their playoff odds at that moment were roughly the same. An inning later, Matt Carpenter — relegated to the bench and entering the game only because Kolten Wong injured his hamstring — hit a homer. The Cardinals won, taking their division odds up to 82% with the Cubs’ playoff odds dropping to 41%.
Friday was a little worse:
The Cubs had a roughly 70% chance of winning the game with a 1-0 fifth inning lead. Their playoff odds were around 44% at the time. Yadier Molina, who looked like he might have to come out of the game after taking a foul ball between the legs, hit a bases loaded single to drive in two runs. The bullpen did the rest, and the Cardinals division odds moved up to 89.4% with the Cubs’ playoff odds moving down to 21.4%. Saturday was a disaster:
The Cubs took their game odds over 75% in four separate innings, including over 87% in the bottom of the eighth, with their playoff odds at an estimated 26%. Craig Kimbrel entered the game and two pitches later, Yadier Molina and Paul DeJong hit homers to give the Cardinals the lead. Carlos Martinez, pitching in his fourth straight game after being hospitalized for asthma-related respiratory issues following a series in Colorado, closed out the ninth inning with a 99 mph fastball to strike out the mostly injured Javier Báez. It was Martinez’s second-fastest pitch of the season.
Sunday might seem inevitable in hindsight, but it didn’t have to end like this:
The Cubs took the lead in the sixth and in the bottom of the eighth, and their win expectancy reached over 87%. Then, as has happened to the Cardinals before when down to their last time at bat, a triple went over the head of an outfielder who might have been playing too shallow and got a bad read on the ball. Tyler O’Neill pinch ran for Jose Martinez and scored on a shallow Dexter Fowler fly ball. A single by Tommy Edman and a double by Paul Goldschmidt gave the Cardinals the lead. Andrew Miller finished off the sweep.
It would be unfair to call the series a microcosm of the Cubs’ season. The team was 51-26 at home heading into the series. The Cubs’ offense put up a 109 wRC+ during the season, with equally good numbers in medium- and high-leverage situations. The bullpen wasn’t good all year, but it wasn’t generally terrible. The team was 19-23 in one-run games entering the series. The Cubs have played like an 85-90 win team all season long. That’s not how they played over the weekend.
But it would be fair to say that the sweep highlighted some of the Cubs’ deficiencies that have been present since April. The bullpen has been a known issue since last October but the team ignored the problem until June when they put all their eggs in the Craig Kimbrel basket. That failed. The Cubs’ stars have played well, but Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Javier Báez have all been dinged up at various points this season; that showed up all at once over the weekend. Chicago has had little to no starting pitching depth all season long and were forced into a bullpen game on Saturday without Cole Hamels. And while Alec Mills pitched well, expecting a clean game from David Phelps and company was never realistic.
Where the Cardinals go from here is obvious. They are headed to the playoffs, and despite the resurgent Brewers, they are very likely going to win the division and have Jack Flaherty lined up for two potential games in the division series. They’ll hope to get good news on Kolten Wong’s injury, but have a 2018 MVP candidate in Matt Carpenter coming off the bench to take his spot in the lineup.
As for the Cubs, Joe Maddon’s contract is up. The team has little on the farm to help them next year, and the only players with trade value are the types of players winning teams build around. They do have gobs of cash. If they do next-to-nothing like they did this past offseason, they’ll have a shot at the playoffs again next season. If they use some of the cash banked from massive revenues the last five years plus the new revenues coming from the upcoming Cubs-owned network, the Cubs will be in a very good position to get back to the playoffs. But on a rainy Sunday, neither the triumphs of the recent past nor the old refrain asking fans to “wait til next year” likely provided much comfort in the shadow of standings that signaled the season was all but over.