By Bruce Levine–

CHICAGO (CBS) — It was just shy of a year ago that the Cubs celebrated their first National League pennant in 71 years at the expense of the Dodgers.

On Thursday night, ace Clayton Kershaw, little-known Enrique Hernandez and the Dodgers exacted their revenge on the hollowed ground of Wrigley Field. In a dominating performance, the Dodgers finished off the Cubs with an 11-1 victory in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series to earn their first trip to the World Series since 1988.

Perhaps we should’ve seen this coming. The Cubs’ grueling NL Divisional Series win against the Nationals went the distance and taxed their bullpen. That was followed by a cross-country flight from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles that took 12 hours because of a medical issue.

Throughout the NLCS, the Cubs’ play was sluggish. They refused to use any of that as an excuse. All that mattered was the Dodgers were clearly better.

“In the end, the Dodgers just out-executed us,” infielder/outfielder Ben Zobrist said after the Cubs were undone by Kershaw’s six strong innings and a three-homer night from Hernandez.

“That was it more than us being tired or having a rough go of it. They played better than us in the regular season, which is why they had home-field advantage. We were stretched in the first series to five tough games. We could have set ourselves up better. The bigger story is they out-executed us in the series.”

The Cubs were 43-45 and trailed the Brewers by 5.5 games at the All-Star break. They played quality baseball in the second half, but these Cubs never had the feel of a great team.

An NL Central title and exciting series win against the Nationals seemed apt for this team.

“It makes it easier to know we went out there and just got beat,” third baseman Kris Bryant said. “We did not beat ourselves with a lack of fundamentals. They just played a better series than we did. You just have to tip your hat to them.”

In quite an accomplishment, the Cubs have advanced to the NLCS three straight times, with a World Series sandwiched into between. This marked the first time the franchise had advanced to the playoffs for three consecutive seasons since 1906-’08.

There was nothing to be ashamed of in the aftermath of defeat late Thursday.

“I told our players that this year illustrates how important it is to get off to a good start,” manager Joe Maddon said. “We did not do that. We had to fight back, which we did. It is another lesson learned. You want to emphasize the importance of getting off to a good start next season. I wanted them to be cognizant of that.”

Finding a team with more fortitude than these Cubs of the past few years would be difficult. But they’ll have a different look next year. Almost assuredly, rotation members Jake Arrieta and John Lackey won’t return. Arrieta will enter free agency in several weeks and likely be priced out of the Cubs’ preferred range. Lackey is expected to retire after a 16-year career.

The next group will be tested in new ways. And when the sting of this exit subsides and that time comes, there’s every reason to believe the Cubs’ sustained success will continue and the championship window will remain open for years to come.

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

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