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Nightengale: Cubs’ Meltdown Signals the End of the Joe Maddon Era

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Umpire Joe West and Chicago Cubs manager have words during a baseball game. Photo: AP

By Bob Nightengale |

It happened once again. Only this one was more painful.

Another September collapse for the Chicago Cubs.

A year ago, they blew a five-game lead in September, lost Game 163 to the Milwaukee Brewers to lose the NL Central and 24 hours later, dropped the wild-card game against the Colorado Rockies.

This time, they won’t even get to October for the first time since 2014.

It may be the official first day of fall, but winter has already arrived in Chicago.

So break out the heavy coats, long underwear and gloves, and sit back, because the Cubs are about to make changes.

Lots and lots of changes.

Joe Maddon, who had a sensational five-year run in Chicago, will be gone, with a few of the coaches headed out of the door.

The entire team, outside of shortstop Javy Baez, catcher Willson Contreras and starter Kyle Hendricks, could be placed on the trade block.

By the time they show up in Mesa, Ariz., for spring training in February, this team may barely be recognizable to the one that won the 2016 World Series.

The Cubs’ front office, after watching this team play.500 baseball (51-51) since May 31, were contemplating an overhaul, anyway, but along came the Wrigley Field Massacre over the weekend, and now they can’t start the off-season quick enough.

This is a team that had a 3.5-game division lead on the Cardinals on Aug. 9.

They opened this past weekend three games back, and ended it seven games out.

The Cubs suffered their first four-game sweep against the Cardinals at Wrigley Field since Warren Harding was president in 1921, officially eliminating them from the NL Central race.

Considering they trail the Milwaukee Brewers and Washington Nationals by four games in the wild-card race, it should be only a formality when those faint dreams are squashed too.

And now the changes will swiftly be coming, starting with Maddon.

The Cubs front office isn’t solely blaming Maddon, beleaguered closer Craig Kimbrel or their late rash of injuries for this lost season, but president Theo Epstein and his front-office team haven’t been this frustrated since their arrival in 2011.

It’s humiliating to have the highest payroll in the National League, which will require them to pay a luxury tax, and completely miss the playoffs. Their payroll dwarfs the Cardinals and the Brewers .

Perhaps just as painful, the Cubs were easily the most aggressive team at the trade deadline in the division, particularly with the acquisition of slugger Nick Castellanos, who has hit 15 homers with 35 RBI in just 48 games.

And yet, the team that didn’t do a damn thing at the deadline, the Cardinals – whose only move was shedding payroll by dumping infielder Jedd Gyorko – outclassed them these final two months, going 30-11 after the All-Star break.

The Cubs don’t plan to address Maddon’s future until the season ends, but they didn’t need to put on a poker face, already telegraphing their decision for the past year. They refused to grant him an extension last winter, engage in contract talks at any point all season, and still haven’t discussed his future.

Epstein’s recent comments on his radio show, saying how the Cubs have badly underachieved, playing uninspired baseball, and don’t believe injuries can be used as an excuse, were all the words needed to reinforce what is coming ahead.

Maddon will be out.

David Ross, the most famous backup catcher in Cubs’ history, could be in.

Maddon, the only manager to lead the Cubs to four consecutive playoff berths, and the first since 1908 to win a World Series, shouldn’t have to wait long before landing one last gig.

The San Diego Padres, who fired Andy Green, are well aware of Maddon’s dazzling resume with young and talented teams. The New York Mets love their stars, and would steal back page headlines with Maddon running the show. The Philadelphia Phillies are desperate to win, and if they decide to dump Gabe Kapler, bringing Maddon back home to Pennsylvania would be a coup.

“I’ve had a blast this year,’’ Maddon told reporters Sunday before their final home game. “I’m not just saying that. I had a great time since I’ve arrived.’’

The Cubs’ players will publicly support Maddon in interviews this last week, just like every team does when their manager is on the hot seat. Come on, when’s the last time a player called for a manager’s firing? Every player knows the drill. Even those who believe that Maddon’s message may be getting old and that new blood and energy is needed, would never dare say it publicly.

At least the Cubs, delay the inevitable this week. They have a three-day vacation to Pittsburgh starting Tuesday where the hapless Pirates await. The last time the Cubs saw these guys, they outscored them, 47-15. And the Pirates have only gotten worse with All-Star closer Felipe Vazquez now sitting in jail with charges of sexually assaulting a child.

And while the Cubs should win in Pittsburgh, the Nationals finish the season with five games against the Phillies in Philadelphia, and three against the contending Cleveland Indians. The Brewers have a three-game series against those pesky Cincinnati Reds, before going to Colorado.

That playoff door could be kept slightly ajar.

Yet, as much sheer pleasure the Cardinals got by clinching a playoff berth on the Cubs’ home field, imagine doubling their joy by officially eliminating the Cubs from the postseason in front of their own fans at Busch Stadium this weekend.

Last call has come on these Cubs’ championship legacy.

This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter and Facebook.

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