During the lockout, a few blogs and even the team’s official site are re-running Cubs highlights from years past in an attempt to get through a dark period in baseball history by reminding us of how much fun the sport can be.
This is not that kind of list.
A few months ago, my friends Kevin McCaffrey and Adam Mamawala of the Away Games Podcast devoted part of an episode to the worst Cubs losses they’d ever seen in person. (I can’t imagine how the 2021 Cubs could inspire such a topic…) It proved to be a very entertaining trip down memory lane in spite of the painful memories they rekindled and I took it as a challenge.
After listening, I immediately jumped into our group text chat and sent them my recollections of the eight worst losses I’d ever seen at the ballpark. After observing what the likes of Antonio Alfonseca, Matt Karchner, and LaTroy Hawkins had done to me, they were dutifully impressed that I still retained the will to live, much less to continue watching baseball. A. Adam put it, “I will be actively angry at you if you don’t turn this into an actual article.”
So here is the first of an eight-part series taking you through the biggest baseball nightmares I have ever paid money for the privilege of witnessing. As Cub fans, we all have scar tissue from what our team has done to us and this is mine. I think you’ll agree it’s agonizing yet impressive. And I assume many of you have a similar list because this is the one thing we all share.
2017 NLCS Game 3: October 17, 2017
Dodgers 6, Cubs 1
Here’s how you can tell I’ve seen some horrific soul-crushing defeats: The loss that for all intents and purposes sealed the Cubs’ fate on the only World Series title defense we’ve known in our lifetimes is at the very bottom of the list. It doesn’t help that this was also the closest the greatest core we’ve ever known would come to getting back to the Fall Classic.
This game wasn’t a gut punch as much as it was three hours and 39 minutes of an entire ballpark’s hopes and dreams being slowly suffocated. By the time Ian Happ struck out to end it, the biggest upset of the evening was that I hadn’t decided to go goth. Instead of “Go Cubs Go,” we should have ended the night by singing “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”
Despite the team’s proclivity for stepping through a field of infinite rakes in October, the anticipation of playoff games at Wrigley Field is usually cause for celebration. And following the improbable and insane way the 2017 Cubs took down the Nationals in the NLDS, that should have made this evening even more exciting. But with the Cubs already down two games to none to a 104-win Dodgers juggernaut, I remember that something felt a bit off even before the night began.
The gloom was partly an extension of Game 2’s ending, with John Lackey giving up a three-run walk-off home run to Justin Turner. At the time, I was living in New York and watching that game with my friend Adam. As soon as Turner’s ball landed beyond the center field fence, we turned the game off so quickly that Lackey only had time to say “FU…”
We filled in the rest for him.
Just perfect, I thought. I’m flying home to see this wake in progress tomorrow.”
With that feeling of mounting dread as a backdrop, there was an air of apprehension in Wrigley before Game 3 even started. I was seated in the back of the right field upper deck and could see crowds of people lining up on Sheffield to get in. But it felt like no one was actually making an effort to get to their seats on time. When the Cubs’ starting lineup was announced along the third base line, the ballpark was maybe half-full. Those who were in the park were trying to work up enthusiasm but there was a sense we were putting too much effort into something we didn’t really believe in.
It didn’t help that the Wrigley PA brought serenaded the players with Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight.” Because nothing pumps a crowd up better than lyrics like “Well, if you told me you were drowning, I would not lend a hand…”
Bah gawd, that’s Jed Hoyer’s music!
Then Game 3 played out like what would happen if “In the Air Tonight” never actually got to the drum fill. It was a fulfillment of everything we feared it would be. There are few worse feelings in baseball than anticipating a playoff game with a sense of resignation and then nine innings later, realizing you were right.
Here’s what a morose march into oblivion this game was: I completely forgot the Cubs had a lead. Oh, I remembered that Kyle Schwarber crushed a solo home run in the 1st inning and that it brought a brief feeling of Hey, maybe there’s some life left in these champions yet! But as the years passed and my brain tried to repress this experience, I mistakenly assumed it tied the game. Looking back at my scorecard, though, there it is…an actual 1-0 lead for the Cubs. It seemed like a good way to start a must-win game and breathe a little life into the old ballpark…
Which lasted all of one batter into the top of the 2nd, as Andre Ethier immediately crushed any hope with a game-tying homer. Chris Taylor hit another solo shot in the 3rd to give the Dodgers the lead and they began pulling away with the Cubs offering almost no resistance. Ordinarily, the phrase “Kyle Hendricks against the Dodgers in the NLCS” is cause for one of the biggest celebrations in Chicago history. On this night, however, every fan’s mood matched the expression on The Professor’s face.
Meanwhile, it was Yu Darvish’s finest hour in a Dodgers uniform, shutting down the Cubs’ lineup with seven strikeouts and one run in 6.1 innings. But in what might be the only time this sentence could ever be written, Darvish’s best moment of the night came during an at-bat. With the Dodgers leading 3-1 in the 6th, the Cubs and Carl Edwards Jr. found themselves with two outs, the bases loaded, and the game on the line.
Dave Roberts decided to send the .059-hitting Darvish to bat for himself. Everyone in the ballpark knew what was happening—especially Edwards. The Dodgers were essentially taunting, “Bet you can’t throw it over the plate three times now that we’ve put THIS in your head!” It’s actually a well-known strategic maneuver in baseball history known as a “total dick move.” And it totally worked. Sigh.
As each Edwards pitch missed the strike zone, everyone in the ballpark could see the bases-loaded walk coming. And we were powerless to do anything about it. In that moment, the official Cubs hashtag permanently changed from #FlyTheW to #ThisIsFine. Once Edwards walked Darvish to force in a run, the Dodgers were only leading 4-1 but the game was for all intents and purposes over. It turns out that one of the most underrated depressing parts of baseball is knowing logically that a particular game isn’t out of reach but also realizing there’s no way in hell your team is going to pull it off. That’s what Game 3 turned out to be.
After everything ended, I got back on the L with my dad and my friend Eric. Ordinarily, all three of us like to talk and keep up a spirited and opinionated conversation. But we didn’t say anything for the entire ride home. Because what was there to say? The Cubs were being totally outplayed by a far superior team and while the series wasn’t technically finished, we all knew it was over. It turned out we’d just watched the entire 2017 NLCS in microcosm.
The 2017 Cubs just didn’t have what it took to beat the Dodgers, which is what happens when you employ players who follow the rules.