Turning the clock back 14 years, the Chicago Cubs were set to embark on what would eventually become a successful campaign after the surprise showing the year prior. The first year of the Lou Piniella era culminated in an NL Central title – followed by a prompt exit in the National League Division Series, leaving fans with a sour taste in their mouths.
Determined to build off the positives the team saw in 2007, the winds picked up early in the campaign as the Cubs breezed through April with a record of 17-10, surprisingly neck-and-neck with the St. Louis Cardinals who amassed a successful calendar month of their own with a record of 18-11. For the Cardinals, it wasn’t necessarily downhill from there, as they finished the month of May with a two games above .500 record giving them a total of 33-24 at the time, but more rather uphill for the Cubs, leaving the Cardinals in the dust in the process as they themselves finished May with a division-leading mark of 35-21.
Backed by a team ERA of 3.87 and a combined team slash of .278/.354/.443, the Cubs were well on their way to defend their throne in the NL Central and dive deeper in the postseason after that first-round sweep they endured at the hands of the Arizona Diamondbacks the previous year. The Cubs payroll grew from $101,670,332 in 2007 to $120,345,833 in 2008 and the success of spending to win now showed early.
The Cubs went on to have eight All-Stars in 2008 in Aramis Ramirez, Kerry Wood, Ryan Dempster, Carlos Marmol, Alfonso Soriano, Kosuke Fukudome, Geovany Soto and Carlos Zambrano. Wood, now receiving closing duties in the latter stages of his career and his last year of his first stint with the Cubs organization, recorded a career-best 34 saves in his first year as closer. Dempster, the club’s best starter of the season, finished with a 17-6 record to go along with a 2.96 ERA and 206 2/3 innings of work, landing sixth in Cy Young Award voting.
Soriano earned the last All-Star nod of his career and went on to finish the season with a respectful .280/.344/.532 line, coupled with 29 home runs and 75 RBI. Ramirez had an incredible season as he finished with a line of .289/.380/.518 and 27 home runs while driving in 111.
Chicago Cubs: Another division crown – followed by more disappointment
Ultimately, the Cubs were crowned NL Central champions once again, finishing with a record of 97-64, 7 1/2 games up on the Milwaukee Brewers. Unfortunately, Chicago’s October woes returned in the postseason as the pitching fell apart, allowing 17 runs in the first two games of the NLDS to the Los Angeles Dodgers. In Game 3, the door was slammed shut on the season as history had repeated itself in the form of a first-round sweep. The Cubs mustered just six total runs of offense across the three-game series. They did not make the postseason again until 2015.
For the team that seemingly had its foot on the gas, winning back-to-back division championships, they sure pulled the emergency brake rather quickly – and returned to earth in a big way the following year. In 2009 the Cubs finished 8 1/2 back and plummeted further from there.
With Piniella winning Manager of the Year and the team boasting so many All-Stars, it’s hard to explain why management decided to not stay aggressive and keep going for it. 2008 serves as an unfortunate reminder in the not-so-recent past to what can happen when you prematurely pull the plug when a team is on the brink of taking that next step.