The Cardinals and Cubs were tied for first on Aug. 6, but what happened that month was the difference. St. Louis was bolstered by the additions of Matt Holliday, Mark DeRosa, Julio Lugo and John Smoltz, and went 20-6 in August while the Cubs lost six of seven to start the month, and went 11-17.
"[The Cardinals] went out and added four really nice pieces to the [roster] and basically pulled away from anybody," Lou Piniella said. "They've got a good team and they deserve credit for the way they've played. Our ballclub, a couple right touches and we're right back."
Piniella's optimism is because the Cubs were able to stay in the race despite injuries to key players. Consider that the projected lineup was together for four games out of 156 games. Four. Aramis Ramirez, the one player they could least afford to lose, missed two months because of a dislocated left shoulder suffered May 8. Geovany Soto not only struggled with a sophomore slump but was sidelined with a strained left oblique. Alfonso Soriano was hampered by a sore left knee. Ryan Dempster broke his big toe jumping over the dugout fence to celebrate a win at Wrigley Field. Outfielder Reed Johnson fractured his left foot when he fouled a ball off it in late July.
"If you looked at the list of players who have missed a month or more, it's astounding," Piniella said.
Nobody picked up the slack. Five other third baseman filled in for Ramirez, yet he will finish second on the team in RBIs.
The Cubs had some momentum heading into a four-game series against the Rockies on Aug. 7, but Carlos Zambrano scratched himself after back problems flared up in warmups. Chicago lost three of four to Colorado, while the Cardinals kept winning.
Zambrano showed what he can do on Sept. 25 in San Francisco with a masterful two-hit shutout. But he has an emotional side, and also was ejected for arguing with an umpire and bashing a Gatorade dispenser. He served a six-game suspension and spent two turns on the disabled list. Plus, there was the dubious revelation after winning his 100th game in June that he will retire at the end of his contract in 2012. Zambrano also admitted he was "lazy" and not doing his exercises.
Interleague Play didn't help. The Cubs went 6-9 against American League teams, including a 2-4 mark against their crosstown rivals, the White Sox. The Cubs struggled against winning teams (1-5 vs. Philadelphia, 3-5 vs. Los Angeles, 2-4 vs. Colorado). They'll finish with a winning record against the Central Division, except for the Cardinals. St. Louis took the season series, 10-6.
Piniella tried to address problems as quickly as he could. On Aug. 18, he switched closers and replaced Kevin Gregg with Carlos Marmol. The previous day, Gregg had served up a game-tying RBI double to San Diego's Chase Headley in the ninth and a three-run walkoff homer to Kyle Blanks. The closers job is Marmol's in 2010.
The 2009 season is one Milton Bradley would like to forget. Hyped as the player who would bring balance to the right-handed lineup, the outfielder brought nothing but discord. He got into a shouting match with Piniella on June 26 at U.S. Cellular Field against the White Sox, and was told to go home. He returned, but his tumultuous season ended Sept. 20 when Cubs general manager Jim Hendry suspended Bradley for the final 15 games.
"The only real negativity here is his own production," Hendry said of the outfielder, who batted .257 with 40 RBIs.
The Cubs struggled to deliver with men in scoring position, and will finish more than 150 runs off last year's pace when they led the NL with 855 runs scored. And, as Piniella likes to say, if you don't score runs, you don't win. Bottom line, that's why the Cubs will be headed home after Sunday's regular-season finale.
The Cubs had the marquee names, yet only Derrek Lee was consistent, and he had to overcome a .189 April. Names don't win games. Production wins games, Piniella said.
"You have to play on the field and drive in runs and hit with men on base," Piniella said. "We've been basically a team that hasn't done that with the consistency everybody thought we would. I thought we would be better coming out of Spring Training. I didn't anticipate the injuries we've had. I said that was an important consideration for us, because we weren't very deep. I knew that. At the same time, we could've had better performances by a few players."
Despite not retaining the division title, the Cubs did post a winning record for the third straight season, the first time they've done that since 1967-72. Piniella is the first manager to guide the team to a winning record in his first three seasons since Charlie Grimm did so from 1933-37.