MILWAUKEE — It was the 23rd hour of the 29th day of the ninth month of the year when the 2023 Cubs’ championship dreams died an unofficial death.
Maybe a bit melodramatic, but we’ll go with it.
It was agonizing and yet not unexpected. Sudden and yet, perhaps, overdue.
Earlier, 500-some miles away at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, the Marlins rallied for a four-run eighth inning that would hold up in a 4-3 win against the Pirates.
Then, the Brewers beat the Cubs in 10 innings by a matching 4-3 score. The Cubs were unable to get a ghost runner home in the top of the frame off a pitcher, Caleb Boushley, who was making his big-league debut. It took one batter — Carlos Santana, who had a big night — for the Brewers to shoo Cubs off the field with their heads down in dejection. Santana led off and plated Blake Perkins with a liner into the corner in left off Jose Cuas.
How many painful ways are there to walk off the field a loser? The Cubs (82-78), losers of four straight games and 14 of their last 20, seemingly are trying them all.
And now it’s all over, isn’t it?
The Marlins took a 1½-game lead over the Cubs for the third and final National League wild-card spot, and it’s the Marlins who hold the head-to-head tiebreaker and have a 162nd game yet to complete — in New York against the Mets — should they need it.
In other words: Thanks for playing, Cubs.
At least the Cubs showed some fight instead of folding after the game got away from them in the bottom of the fifth. Former Cubs catcher Victor Caratini led off with a sharp single to right off old friend Kyle Hendricks. After Brice Turang beat out a bunt, Cubs nemesis Christian Yelich drew a walk. That loaded the bases for William Contreras, who bounced into a forceout at second to drive in the game’s first run. Santana followed with a two-run triple to make it 3-0.
There were cheers at American Family Field at this point, but nothing resembling a playoff atmosphere. Fans here wearing Cubs gear seemed to sit and absorb it as though it had been inevitable.
On a night the Cubs needed him, Hendricks was unable to get out of the fifth.
On a night when the Cubs absolutely needed to win, it seemed their offense would be unable to get out of first gear.
But the Cubs put a pair of runs on the board in the eighth, making things exciting. Jeimer Candelario popped a solo homer and stood and watched it for several seconds, injecting some welcome attitude into the proceedings. Christopher Morel then doubled — make that tripled — to left, throwing caution to the wind by blowing around second and almost inexplicably grabbing a third base on the play because, well, why the heck not?
Had Morel been thrown out at third, it would have been viewed as the latest unforced error for a Cubs team that has been unable to avoid them down the stretch. Instead, he made it in safely as shortstop Willy Adames took the cutoff throw without even seeing Morel chugging toward third. Morel dove into the bag, then stood and prodded Cubs fans seated behind the visitors’ dugout to get wild and crazy.
Right then, the Cubs winning a ballgame and even finding their way to October baseball didn’t seem impossible.
Ian Happ led off the top of the ninth with a first-pitch homer off Boushley to tie it 3-3. Now, the Cubs dugout was fully animated. And after shortstop Dansby Swanson made a stellar defensive play to end the bottom of the ninth, he skipped from the dirt to the dugout. The Cubs had a chance — and maybe the upper hand, considering Brewers manager Craig Counsell was pulling no-names out of the bullpen.
Alas, the top of the 10th came and the Cubs just didn’t want to keep playing along. Candelario lined out to left, failing to advance Swanson from second. Morel walked — with Swanson taking third as ball four skipped away from the catcher — but Yan Gomes struck out and, after Mike Tauchman was intentionally walked, Patrick Wisdom struck out, too.
They’ll play again Saturday. Why? Because they have to.
Maybe next year.