I remember seeing an analysis a year or two ago that showed that World Series teams usually have three things in common: strong starting pitching, an excellent closer, and excellent defense. Offense is less important than any of those three factors.
Based on those four factors, the Cubs looked like the team to beat this year in the NL. And going into the playoffs, they still looked like the team to beat. Jayson Stark, among others, picked them to finally go the World Series. The Cubs had three excellent starting pitchers, a very good closer, and excellent defense.
So how did the team rated the best in the NL get swept by a team with a .519 winning percentage, a team they had beaten 5 of 7 times during the regular season?
Iin the clutch, two of the starters failed, and the defense failed.
It seems Dempster just didn't have the fortitude of a Carpenter or a Gibson, etc.; the pressure seemed to get to him, leading him to give far more walks than he did per game during the season.
Then with Zambrano on the mound, the emotionally volatile narcissist, and erratic performer over the last half of the season, the Cubs seemed to tense up, and they made a record number of errors.
Being in a deep hole by the third game, the pitching and defense returned to normal, but the hitters seemed to be pressing against a very good pitcher, and that was the end of the series.
Reminding players of the "curse" by having a Greek Orthodox priest sprinkle holy water on the field before the first game at Wrigley probably didn't help put the team in the right frame of mind either. Sports psychologists tell us that athletes perform much better when they aim for success rather than when they aim for avoiding failure.
But aiming to avoid failure has become the definitive value and a core tradition of Cub culture.
The Cubs don't need a lot of different players, other than to replace Fukedome with an impact lefthanded hitting outfielder. Otherwise, the Cubs have an excellent lineup that needs only some tweeking.
Nor do the Cubs need a new manager. Piniella is very good.
What the Cubs seem to need is to replace their culture of avoiding failure with a culture of anticipating success. A real change in culture, not just the adoption of "Cubs swagger".
Imagine what a Pujols or Gibson would do for that team. Fortunately, the Cards have Pujols, and they have a deep tradition, going all the way back to the Gashouse Gang right up to the present of "Playing a hard nine". Cardinal players in this era, like those since the 1920's, play like they have a chance to beat anyone, even when the odds seem stacked against them.
The Cardinal culture of winning seems to be a key factor in the Cardinals having been the most dangerous NL team in the World Series in the last 100 years. In the four Series they have lost in their nine since the end of World War II, there was either a fluke (in '68 superb outfielder Curt Flood slipping in center field against the Tigers in game 7, and in '85 the umpire's blatantly bad call at first base), or the team was deflated by a major injury just before the Series began (losing Vince Coleman in a tangle with the tarp in '87, losing Chris Carpenter to a nerve problem in 2004). Even with those mishaps and missteps, the Cardinals are 5-4 in the World Series since WWII and 10-7 in their last 100 years.
Meanwhile, the Cubs have been losers of their last 12 final post-season series, including 7 World Series losses from 1908 to 1945. Hardly anyone alive today remembers a Cub World Series victory. No wonder the Cubs have a culture of losing. Until that culture changes, it looks like a good bet that their tradition of ultimate futility will continue, even in years when the team has the talent to win.