ATLANTA — “Oh no!” Chicago Cubs fans groaned in unison Tuesday night, instantly recalling Ron Santo’s pained reaction to a dropped fly ball 25 years ago. That’s how hard this 7-6 loss to the Atlanta Braves landed after Seiya Suzuki lost track of a fly ball in the lights above Truist Park, leaving this team on the playoff bubble looking dazed and confused.
It’s not fair to pin all of this on Suzuki, who’s among the team’s most valuable players and hardest workers. One error in the eighth inning doesn’t explain the Cubs blowing a six-run lead, wasting a start from their best pitcher and dragging to the finish line with a depleted bullpen. The Braves haven’t won 101 games by accident.
But this viral moment will stick if the Cubs fail to make the playoffs.
Santo’s voice echoed after Sean Murphy lifted a ball into right-center field and Suzuki drifted over, waving off Cody Bellinger. Cubs pitcher Drew Smyly, who had given up two walks and thrown two wild pitches, punched his glove, assuming he would escape the jam with that catch. Suzuki positioned himself underneath the ball, stuck his glove in the air and squeezed it. Suzuki missed what would have been the third out, allowing two runs to score, flipping the Cubs’ one-run lead into a one-run deficit.
“We’re not going to highlight one mistake,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “There are other areas. We could have scored more runs. We had guys at third with less than two outs. We could have made some pitches earlier in the game. But we didn’t. We got to pick our heads up.”
Santo always understood how difficult the game is, playing 14 of his 15 major-league seasons with the Cubs, a body of work that was eventually recognized with a Hall of Fame induction after his death in 2010. But for generations of Cubs fans, Santo was also beloved for being so passionate and unfiltered on WGN Radio. Suzuki’s mistake brought about flashbacks to Santo’s “Oh no!” exclamation to Brant Brown’s drop on Sept. 23, 1998, which led to an 8-7 walk-off loss to the Milwaukee Brewers at County Stadium.
— Atlanta Braves (@Braves) September 27, 2023
“It happens,” Smyly said. “It happens to every single one of us. We’ve all made errors. All we can do is turn the page and come back tomorrow. We got five more games. Seiya’s been one of the best hitters in the league this whole month. He’s been carrying the team. We all support him and have his back.”
Now eliminated from the division race, the Cubs have to hang onto a wild card for this season to truly be considered a success. This team has shown too much collective will to go home happy after Game 162. Outstanding individual performances — such as Suzuki’s breakthrough as a hitter — can’t be taken for granted. It takes too much effort to get into this position — years of good scouting and player development, hundreds of millions of dollars in payroll, tireless work behind the scenes — to be OK with 82 wins and going golfing or fishing in October.
Playoff Week represents the dramatic conclusion to the Cubs’ 148th season of National League baseball, but the truth is the team has been operating with a sense of urgency for months.
“It’s felt a little bit that way for a long time now,” Ross said. “We’ve had to win for a long time.”
They have to keep winning or else this will go down with some of the most disappointing finishes in franchise history.
The Cubs couldn’t have scripted the start of this closing stretch much better, getting the bounces that made it look like this might be a blowout game to ride Justin Steele and rest their bullpen. Suzuki’s two-run triple — the result of Ronald Acuña Jr. trying to make a diving catch in right field — gave the Cubs a 4-0 lead in the third inning. Steele, though, couldn’t finish the sixth inning, and Ross took the ball from his ace after 90 pitches, leaving a shaky bullpen exposed against Atlanta’s high-powered offense. If it happened earlier in the night — or if the Cubs made a few more plays around him — Suzuki’s error could have been an afterthought.
“There’s multiple things that happen in a game that could go a different way and the result of the game could end up being different,” Steele said. “Everybody’s on his side. We’re picking him up. We wouldn’t be here without him. He’s just a great ballplayer, and we need him.”
Suzuki, through an interpreter, acknowledged the stadium lights were a factor but said he did not want to use that as an excuse.
“I was actually seeing it pretty well until the very last second,” Suzuki said. “I honestly thought it went into my glove. It was just that split second where it blurred my vision.”
These are moments that can shape legacies and either strengthen or weaken partnerships among the manager, the front office and ownership group. Getting a taste of winning in 2015 changed the Cubs organization. Those three playoff rounds boosted the budget for baseball operations in 2016, accelerated the growth of young players and sharpened the focus for a World Series campaign. Momentum can also shift in the opposite direction if there is a late-season collapse.
The 1998 Cubs made the playoffs as a wild card by winning Game 163, a tiebreaker that no longer exists in Major League Baseball’s format. These Cubs (82-75) don’t hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Arizona Diamondbacks (83-74) or Miami Marlins (81-75), which makes their wild-card position even more precarious. Brown, by the way, works as Miami’s hitting coach. While people make that connection in Chicago, the Cubs simply have to forget about Suzuki’s “Oh no!” moment.
“This team’s been really resilient with all the things that have been thrown at them all year,” Ross said. “It will be another test, for sure. But this team had their back against the wall all year and answered the bell.”
(Photo of Seiya Suzuki missing the ball as Cody Bellinger watches: John Bazemore / Associated Press)