Mike Nadel: As far as chokes go, this wasn't a Cubbie classic

Mike Nadel

Gotta hand it to 'em. When it comes to making us have to use the word "choke," nobody beats the Chicago Cubs.

When you go 2-for-27 with runners in scoring position in your three most important games of the season ... and when your team RBI leader takes an 0-for-12 collar ... and when your $136 million leadoff man keeps swinging at 57-foot sliders ... and when your "Big Three" sluggers squeeze their bats into sawdust while combining to drive in zero runs ...

And when your starting pitchers get rocked in consecutive games ... and when you play so poorly that the folks who call themselves "The Best Fans in the World" boo you off your home field ... and when you later lament that you had the talent but "just didn't get it done" ...

Mix that all together, add hemlock, and it's difficult to call it anything but choking.

Still, while getting swept out of the National League playoffs by the Arizona Diamondbacks was impressive -- especially when it involved hitting into four double plays in Saturday night's 5-1 series finale -- it really wasn't a Classic Cubbie Choke.

This was no 1969. Or 1984. Or 2003. Or 2004.

Frankly, this ballclub wasn't good enough to wear the Classic Cubbie Choker label.

These Cubs were more like the willing-but-not-quite-able gang of 1998, a decent team with too many shortcomings to avoid a first-round sweep.

Oh, and for all the curse-lovers out there: These Cubs also weren't good enough to be associated with all the mystical claptrap that has nothing to do with anything. So please spare us, OK?

Because it seemed this season's NL pennant could be captured by just about anyone --even Arizona or Colorado – fans were deluded into thinking these Cubs could pre-empt The Big 100th Anniversary Spectacular.

Sorry, folks. It's still scheduled for Oct. 14, 2008. Come dressed as Alfonso Soriano, Derrek Lee or Aramis Ramirez ... and get roundly booed!

"They paid their money so they can do whatever they want," said Soriano, Saturday's favorite target at the Angry Confines. "But I'm surprised because we played very hard for those fans."

True enough. The Cubs hustled and battled and rallied from a big division deficit to overtake the Milwaukee Brewers.

They just weren't good enough in the end, which shouldn't surprise too many people.

Although Tribune Co. poured some $400 million into the team after last year's last-place showing, these Cubs barely played .500 ball. If you'd ask manager Lou Piniella during a quiet moment, he'd tell you his club has glaring needs that the next owner must address if the Cubs are to be legitimate contenders.

In holding Lou's lads to six runs in the three games, Arizona exposed the Cubs as a one-dimensional offensive team featuring too many all-or-nothing swingers and a club without enough top-tier starting pitchers.

Lee said the Cubs were "streaky" all season, and he's right. When they were on, they were really on; when they weren't, it was ugly. That's why they went 85-77 instead of 100-62 (or even 90-72, as Arizona did).

So this series wasn't akin to Alex Rodriguez following a great regular season with another horrible postseason choke-job for the Yankees. This series was the Cubs being what they were all year.

"We've had some stretches where it was hard scoring runs," Piniella said. "They just caught us cold."

I have to laugh at the experts who are STILL talking about Piniella pulling Carlos Zambrano after six innings in Game 1. The joke now will be: "Good thing Lou saved Z for next season, huh?"

Hello! The Cubs lost because they couldn't score. Not scoring against Brandon Webb is one thing. Not scoring against high-ERA stiffs Doug Davis and Livan Hernandez ... that'll lose a series every time.

In the somber Cubs clubhouse, Mark DeRosa was almost inconsolable for his role in the season's final failure. With the score 3-1 in the fifth inning, he came up with the bases loaded. The crowd at Wrigley Field was as loud as it had been in years. He worked the count to 3-1 against Hernandez and then ...

"It was my best moment in sports, absolutely electric," DeRosa said. "Until I grounded into the double play."

And so Year 99 of the rebuilding plan is over, and the Cubs know they have more work to do.

"This is just the start, fellas," Piniella promised. "No matter how far you go, if you don't win the World Series you're gonna find disappointment. But we're gonna get better."

Here's hoping Sweet Lou is right. It's a lot more special watching the Cubs choke when they actually are good.

Mike Nadel (mikenadel@sbcglobal.net) is theChicago sports columnist for GateHouse News Service. Read his blog, The Baldest Truth, at www.thebaldesttruth.com.