PITTSBURGH—Manager Lou Piniella said before Friday night's game that if anyone knew at the end of spring training the Cubs would be tied for first place on Sept. 7, "I don't think anybody would've been too disappointed, especially with a team that lost a lot of ballgames last year."
But things have changed a lot since the end of March, and although the Cubs still were tied for first place with the Brewers after Friday's 6-1 loss to the Pirates, the frustration was palpable.
The Cardinals were a half-game back, pending the outcome of their late game in Arizona.
If the Cubs don't make it into the postseason, the season will be deemed a "wasted" campaign by many, including the players.
"Yes it would, with the group we have here," Derrek Lee said. "There's no excuse for us not to make the playoffs. It would be a huge disappointment. But let's not think about it now. The urgency is there. We're not saying, 'Oh, if we don't make it this year, there's next year.' We want to get there this year."
The Cubs didn't look much like a playoff team Friday night. Former Marist left-hander Tom Gorzelanny (14-7) held them to one run on six hits over seven innings.
"Hard to win with one run," Piniella said.
Time for a lineup switch?
"I don't know what we can do," he said. "Run the same people out there and see if we can get it done. Sooner or later, they have to start hitting."
Rich Hill fell to 8-8, yielding six runs on nine hits over six innings. Piniella said Hill was "not really good, not sharp," a description Hill didn't argue with.
In a very short postgame briefing, Piniella also pointed to the "sloppy" defense, which included a Mark DeRosa error and some lackadaisical fielding in left by Alfonso Soriano.
The Cubs are losing a chance to separate themselves from the pack, and it could lead to a very bitter off-season.
"It'd be very disappointing, only because we've gotten this far and everybody believes that we should be there," Cliff Floyd said. "We've had a taste of being in first place, and if the reason we didn't make it was something small like we didn't execute or something …
"If we were six games out and never got a taste of first, I think we could live with it. We went through a lot this year, but getting this far …"
Floyd, who sat against the Pirates left-hander, said the team needs to regain the confidence of its 29-13 stretch from June 3 to July 20.
"When we came to the park, we knew we were going to win," he said. "We're not at the point where we're just hoping [we'll win], but it's like, 'Man, I hope nothing goes wrong today.' There was a period where I didn't care what the other team did, they were losing that game. Hopefully, we'll get back to that in the next 2 1/2 weeks and separate ourselves."
The Cubs are fortunate to be playing in a division where they haven't been able to bury themselves, no matter how hard they have tried. That's why the players remain optimistic about their chances with 22 games remaining.
"We haven't played as well as we thought we would have," Lee said. "There's no rhyme or reason for that. But the whole key is just getting in. You saw that with St. Louis.
"No matter how you get in, just get in. That's what our job is now—to find a way to make it into the postseason."
The clock is ticking, and the Cubs can't afford to mail in performances like Friday's.
"These games are all very, very important now," Piniella said. "In this division, if you're fortunate enough to win four or five games in a row, you might be able to open up some ground. But we'll see what happens."