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Levine: Humbling Ending For 'Extremely Proud' Cubs

By Bruce Levine--

CHICAGO (CBS) -- The NLCS and the 2015 season all but ended for the Cubs on the 24th pitch by right-hander Jason Hammel on Wednesday evening at Wrigley Field.

It was on that pitch that the beleaguered Hammel allowed a three-run homer to Mets first baseman Lucas Duda, Two pitches later, catcher Travis d'Arnaud followed with a solo blast. Just like that, it was a 4-0 lead for New York, and the clock was accelerated on the end of Chicago's season.

It was only a matter of time before the Mets finished off an 8-3 win to sweep the NLCS and advance to the World Series for the first time in 15 years. Illustrating just how lopsided and ugly it was, the Cubs never led once in the series.

"I felt I had executed a pitch," said Hammel of not getting a strike-three call earlier on Duda. "The mistake (the home run pitch to Duda) can't happen after that. I still have to make quality pitches. Obviously, I feel terrible, and that I let the teammates down. I let the city down."

Suddenly, a fabulous Cubs season was over after 97 regular-season victory and four more in the postseason, including an NLDS win against the rival Cardinals. The sweep by the Mets pointed out some of the glaring weaknesses in the Cubs' system. As the organization moves forward toward sustained excellence, more pitching is needed in the minor leagues and at the big league level. Hammel went just 1 1/3 innings Wednesday, allowing five runs, all earned, on four hits and two walks.

The success of Chicago's season wasn't undone by the white-wash in the NLCS. And it's no secret that the team's front office's mantra for the last 14 months has to add pitching depth.

A decision of whether to shop -- and eventually trade -- some of the Cubs' young hitting inventory will be explored immediately by president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer, as free agency begins the week after the World Series ends.

Will the Cubs be in the market for one of the big-time arms? Will owner Tom Rickett's money be thrown at David Price, Zack Greinke or Johnny Cueto? Can the franchise envision bringing back former Cub Jeff Samardzija?

All of these needs and questions will be explored as the organization continues its rebuild and climb. Epstein has said on more than one occasion that this year's team outperformed expectations by a wide margin. The Cubs improved in the standings by 24 games after a 73-win campaign in 2014. That was the largest increase in games won year over year of anyone in baseball. Counting the wild-card game win, the Cubs were victorious in two two postseason series, which had never been accomplished by the franchise.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon did a masterful job of getting this team into postseason. He brought along the promising young position players and hit the whip hard on the bullpen from midseason through early October. The price paid was the lack of emphasis on the three starting pitchers not named Jake Arrieta or Jon Lester. As the innings diminished for the Nos. 3-5 starters, so did their confidence to go deep into games. This weakness was exposed by a Mets team that was playing at a different level in the playoffs.

No one should complain about the results of 2015. Maddon will likely be rewarded with the NL Manager of the Year award. Another manager would have been lucky to win 81 games with conventional coaching techniques and approaches. Maddon was at his best in keeping it real on a daily basis for his club.

Kris Bryant will win a bunch of rookie awards after a record-setting season. Arrieta is the favorite to win the NL Cy Young award.

"I am extremely proud of everyone in here," Arrieta said before leaving the clubhouse Wednesday. "You see the guys tearing up. They understand the magnitude of what we have just gone through. Everybody had done their part, otherwise we would not have been in this position. There is a tremendous group of people in this clubhouse. When you combine that with talent, that goes a long way."

The feeling in that clubhouse is this isn't the end of anything except the 2015 season. The building blocks continue to be put in place at Clark and Addison.

Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.

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