For the third straight year under Piniella, Chicago (83-78) will finish with a winning record, the first time the franchise has done that since 1967-72. In fact, it's only the second time the Cubs have posted three consecutive winning seasons in the last 70 years. But they're headed home, as the St. Louis Cardinals claimed the National League Central.
"I'm proud of one fact -- that our guys held together and played through the end," Piniella said. "I told them that in a meeting prior to the game. I told them to work hard this winter because next year, we're going to get after it again."
Piniella will head home to Tampa, Fla., for the first time since Feb. 12 to fish, golf and play with his grandkids. It's been a long and challenging season for the skipper, who had his regular lineup together for three games out of 160.
"I didn't realize it was that little," Lee said. "That makes it tougher. There's no excuses. Other teams had injuries. I think, overall, we just didn't play up to our standards."
The Cubs expected much more after winning 97 games in '08. They had to deal with injuries to key players such as Aramis Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Zambrano. Milton Bradley, signed in the offseason to a three-year, $30 million deal to provide balance to the lineup, brought nothing but discord and didn't produce.
"We didn't play up to our potential, and there are guys who are definitely disappointed, and we should be," shortstop Ryan Theriot said. "It is what it is, at this point. We played hard and fought this whole season, and we'll just regroup and get 'em again next year."
Dempster (11-9) gave up five runs on six hits over five innings. He struck out 10 and finished the season as the Cubs' leader with 172 Ks and 200 innings.
"I'd much rather have taken the 'W,'" Dempster said. "It's frustrating. You get to somewhere where you really didn't think you were going to get to, as far as personal goals of getting to so many innings, but winning a game is more important than any personal stat out there. It's definitely a bittersweet thing."
Fuld, who had gone 101 big league at-bats without an RBI, ended that skid when he connected on his first Major League homer with one out in the Chicago fifth off Doug Davis (9-14). Fuld picked up another RBI in the seventh when he grounded out, enabling Reed Johnson to score from third.
The crowd gave Lee a standing ovation as he came off the field in the eighth after his last at-bat. He batted .386 in September, and led the team with 35 home runs and career-high 111 RBIs.
"I've never had that happen," Lee said. "I definitely wasn't expecting it. I didn't know how to react. It was really cool."
In 2007 and '08, the Cubs' season ended abruptly when they were swept in the National League Division Series. This time, the end came slowly.
"There are eight teams going into the playoffs, and I congratulate them all," Piniella said. "But in a period of four, five, six, seven, eight days, four of them will be playing, and then two will be playing, and only one team will go home fully content."
And content is not how anyone would describe the way the Cubs were feeling on Sunday as they packed up their lockers, shook hands with teammates and headed home.
"We had a real good group of guys, and it's unfortunate that it came to an end as fast as it did," Dempster said. "That's just motivation for next year."