Chicago Cubs' breakout season ends with sweep in NLCS

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CHICAGO (AP) The pain and disappointment struck Kyle Schwarber as hard as any of his monstrous home runs in these playoffs. And yet, he could not help but see the long-term benefits.

There sure were plenty for the Chicago Cubs this season.

They were so hot down the stretch they had their long-suffering fans thinking this just might be their year.

The Mets swept that notion away.

The Cubs lost 8-3 on Wednesday as New York wrapped up a four-game sweep in an NL Championship Series that had Chicago's faithful eagerly hoping for more. Instead, the Cubs' World Series championship drought that dates to 1908 will last another year.

''There's a big pit in my stomach right now, saying, `What if? What if we won four games to go to the World Series? What if we won the World Series?''' Schwarber said. ''That's `what if?' This is reality.''

And yet?

''We know what it takes to get here,'' Schwarber said. ''We were four wins away from going to the World Series a year out of not having a very good record. The experience was brand new, coming into spring training and not knowing anyone. A lot of positives to take away from this season.''

The reality is the long-suffering Cubs emerged as one of the best teams in the game. They just weren't good enough to win it all. Not this year, anyway. But there's plenty of hope.

The Cubs finished with the third-best record in the majors and stormed into this series with 12 wins in 13 games. Even though they were shut down by the Mets pitching staff and never led in the NCLS, the Cubs insist this is a start, not an end.

They believe they are poised for even bigger things in the years to come with young sluggers such as Anthony Rizzo and rookies Kris Bryant and Schwarber - who came up from the minor leagues for good about midway through the season - powering their lineup.

Besides those big boppers, they can point to front-line starters in Cy Young candidate Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester, not to mention a fun-loving manager who happens to rank among the majors' best in Joe Maddon.

''It was a good year,'' Bryant said. ''It didn't end the way we wanted to. But there's a lot of positives to be taken from it. I think that's good going into next year.''

After five straight losing seasons and a painful rebuild under president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, this was the payoff: 97 wins. Their first postseason appearance since 2008. Their first trip to the NLCS since 2003. And the Cubs' first playoff series-clinching victory at Wrigley Field, against the hated St. Louis Cardinals, no less.

Schwarber hit home runs to the Allegheny River in Pittsburgh and to the top of Wrigley Field's right-field videoboard while setting a franchise record with five long balls in these playoffs.

But after eliminating St. Louis and the Pirates - the only two teams that finished with better records this season - the Cubs managed just eight runs against the Mets' stingy staff.

Arrieta and Lester lost the first two games of the NCLS, too, and the Cubs fared no better sending Kyle Hendricks and Jason Hammel out, either. Hammel last just one batter into the second inning Wednesday night and was booed as he left the mound.

Afterward, Maddon was asked what his wish list for next season looks like. He noted that Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer will call those shots, but then made clear his priority.

''You're going to look at always to augment your pitching, always,'' Maddon said. ''It's probably more of a pitching-oriented kind of thing, but you'd have to talk to them about it. I'm a pretty good company guy. Whatever they decide to do, I'll be there for them.''

Despite the quiet loss in the NLCS, it will be viewed as a good year for Epstein, Maddon and the Cubs.

They expected to be better - but this good? Maddon's arrival and Lester's $155 million deal signaled the Cubs were serious after young players started to arrive last year. But Bryant and Schwarber kicked things to another gear.

''I want them to understand and embrace all that they have done well this year,'' Maddon said. ''Just don't look at these last couple games and focus on that at all. See how far we've come within a very short period of time, understand the personal growth and the team growth that occurred, and also understand we go to spring training next year, we can really just jump right on it. We know what we want to do and how we want to do it.''