Choking is the psychological and/or physical reaction to heightened expectations, even when those expectations are warranted due to, say, a 97-win regular season. Choking stifles even the best hitters and can be partial or complete, with partial choking allowing some—although inadequate—gasps of offense. Prolonged or complete choking results in a failure to advance in the postseason.
Choking can be caused by:
*The unexpected reintroduction of a slumping player into the everyday lineup. Said player struck out three times and left four men on base on Thursday. See "Kosuke Fukudome."
*Uncharacteristic starting pitching performances by two 14+ game winners in two must-win games. See "Ryan Dempster" and "Carlos Zambrano."
*An NLDS record-tying four fielding errors on one's home field. See "Mark DeRosa," "Derrek Lee," "Ryan Theriot," and "Aramis Ramirez."
*A leadoff hitter batting .111 this postseason. See "Alfonso Soriano."
*An "untouchable" 1-2 closing combo giving up three runs in their first postseason appearance together. See "Carlos Marmol" and "Kerry Wood."
*A superior opponent with a seasoned postseason manager and roster. See "L.A. Dodgers," "Joe Torre," "Derek Lowe," and "Manny Ramirez."
Choking, if caught early enough, can usually be treated by shuffling the lineup or a momentum-changing play.
There's nothing superstitious or magical about a 100-year drought, but the comparison to the championship teams of 1907-08 were uncanny.
The Cubs drew comparisons to historic Cubs teams all year: Most wins by a certain point in the season, best record in baseball latest in the season...the list goes on. The players also had historic years for individual players, from Z's no-hitter to Geovany Soto being the first rookie starting catcher for the NL in the All-Star Game.
Since his conversion to a starter, Dempster began the 2008 season 10-0 at home, a first in Cubs history. He didn't stop there, pitching career bests in wins and ERA. You can look up all the facts and figures that you want about the man, but nothing tells you how his season is going more than Dempster's calm, collected demeanor on the mound every start.
Ryan Dempster promised Cubs fans a World Series Championship in the preseason, and, like most predictions from players, his comments were taken with a grain of salt. The Cubs' funnyman insisted he wasn't kidding around.
The additions of Fukudome, Johnson, and Edmonds gave the Cubs their best outfield defense in recent memory. Gone are the weak spots of Sammy Sosa and Moises Alou (2003) and Jacque Jones and Cliff Floyd (2007). Soriano, the one weak spot, even made some rifle throws to the plate for assists.
Even amidst the banner year for the Cubs, there were signs of frustration.
Derrek "Double Play" Lee hit into 25 on the season, while Ryan Theriot has 16 (good for second and 14th in the NL, respectively). If you say that they have that many double plays due to the baserunners in front of them, then they should also have quite a few RBIs too, right? Wrong: Neither player leads the team in RBIs, and they're not even in the top 20 in the National League.
Even at the height of Chicago's season, haters were trying to take the Cubs down. Astros manager Cecil Cooper is using every excuse in the book for why his team was no-hit on Sunday night by the Cubs' Carlos Zambrano.
"It was a long travel day and Hurricane Ike," Astros manager Cecil Cooper told the Associated Press. "That's what I put it on. That and having two days off. I'm not saying he wasn't good."
Having two days off? The Chicago Cubs also had two days off, while Zambrano was pitching on 12 days rest.
In April 2008, Moisés Alou was quoted as saying, "Everywhere I play, even now, people still yell, 'Bartman! Bartman!' I feel really bad for the kid....You know what the funny thing is? I wouldn't have caught it, anyway."
It seemed that for a few months, Cubs fans could forget the goats and the black cats and the rest of the hocus pocus. "Not one person here believes in any of that (stuff) about a curse or a hex or garbage like that," GM Jim Hendry said on Sept. 20.
Yes. If Bob Howry blows another inning of middle relief by allowing two runs to the Brewers, raising his ERA to 5.35. He was in the final year of his contract, but Lou tapped him to be on the postseason roster based on his stellar "performance."
Sept. 28th's loss came after lights-out performances from the rest of the bullpen (except for Marshall, who walked a runner home).
Howry made headlines all year on Cubs.com:
"What's wrong with Howry?"
"Howry struggling to find consistency."
"Howry having his troubles in July."
"Howry...[has] rough April for Cubs."
When the Mets blew their postseason chances, Cubs fans gloated. The gloating would be short-lived, however.
ESPN's Jayson Stark posted the official ESPN prediction for the World Series: The Cubs over the Red Sox. "I could guarantee you right now," said Boston's Sean Casey, "that we'd set a record for [TV] ratings. It'll be nuts, man. Just nuts."
Stark believed that both the Red Sox and Cubs had similar lineups and deep rotations, but the series would be won by the bullpens. "Marmol and Wood combined for 198 strikeouts in 153 2/3 innings—making them the only bullpen duo in baseball that averaged over 11 K's per nine innings apiece."
The only problem? The Cubs and the Red Sox would have to make it to the World Series first...
Ryan Dempster (0-1), making his first postseason start with the Cubs in Game One of the NLDS, walked the bases loaded in the third and fifth innings. He pitched out of it in the third, but gave up a grand slam to the left-center bleachers to L.A.'s James Loney in the fifth. Dempster looked more like the tightrope-walking closer than the top-of-the-rotation ace that he transformed into in the 2008 season.
Dempster couldn't close out the inning, and three Cubs pitchers combined to give up three more runs, including a solo shot by Manny Ramirez.
So much for retiring the nickname "Dumpster."
Even beloved Chicago icon Jim Belushi couldn't wake the bats up in Game One of the NLDS with a rousing rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" during the seventh inning stretch. "We can win this one!" he shouted. The Cubs might have had a chance to win if they had played like the team that won 97 games during the regular season.
The Dodgers' Greg Maddux was tabbed by Joe Torre for mop-up duty in Game One of the NLDS. The 42-year old former Chicago Cub retired three batters in order in the ninth inning. It was a token appearance for Maddux, and only the seventh time coming out of the bullpen in his career.
For Cubs fans, "Mad Dog" Maddux's return to Wrigley Field was a bittersweet kick to the groin. With the game already out of reach, Torre gave the nod to the ex-Cub Cy Young winner to take the mound. It was a move that was more psychological than strategic; there was no save opportunity, just a chance to eat an inning and keep L.A.'s regular bullpen fresh for the rest of the series.
If this was college football, Torre would have been penalized for taunting.
It would be Maddux's final appearance at Wrigley Field—he retired after the season.
No single player embodied the Chicago Cubs' stagger than "All-Star" outfielder Kosuke Fukudome. After a disappointing second half of the regular season, Fukudome struck out four times in the postseason, with just one hit in 10 at-bats.
The Cubs' 2008 season ended with their ninth consecutive postseason loss. Everyone saw it coming, even the fans.
It didn't hurt any less.
...the Chicago Tribune, for their 2008 retrospective "This is the Year!" It was produced and rushed to booksellers the week the Cubs entered the playoffs in order to capitalize on fan excitement.
The "historic" 2008 team, as the Tribune called them on the cover, will go down in history—just not for the right reasons.
On the back cover, the Tribune promised to take you "Inside the Quest for the Title" that would "send their legions of fans to baseball heaven for the first time in a hundred years."
The only way the Cubs sent anyone to heaven in 2008 is if their meltdown caused long-suffering fans in poor health to have heart attacks and die.