Addison Russell

Predicting NLCS Game 3: Joe Maddon tinkers with Cubs lineup hoping to jumpstart offense

Predicting NLCS Game 3: Joe Maddon tinkers with Cubs lineup hoping to jumpstart offense

The Cubs are "due."

That's a funny thought in general. For anybody or any team to be "due," that's saying that everything will even out eventually.

That's often true in baseball. But that's over the course of a 162-game season, far and away the longest sample size in professional sports. 

In an abbreviated postseason series, there really is no such thing as "due" because the season's over before you get a chance to see things even out.

The baseball gods don't ensure that everybody gets the same amount of luck at the same time. The sample size is absolutely too small for that. Plus, the Cubs have had plenty of luck and caught their fair share of breaks already this postseason.

So while it's easy to point to some of the Cubs numbers and say things like "they're not going to hit .162 as a team forever," that's not necessarily true because there are only two guaranteed games left in the 2017 for Joe Maddon and Co. It is absolutely possible the Cubs' season is over before they get a chance to correct their offensive woes.

Though, it would be pretty stunning to see the Cubs offense finish a 9-game October stint with Jon Lester and Jose Quintana as the team's leading hitters (both are 1-for-4, .250 average). 

Like a deliriously-happy, champagne-soaked Theo Epstein said early Friday morning in our nation's capital, "we always hit eventually."

So if I'm a betting man (which I'm not, unless you count fantasy sports), I'm betting on the Cubs offense finally waking from their fall slumber. 

They're simply too good to continue these numbers. This team has combined for a .513 OPS, which is essentially a team of Andres Blancos, a 33-year-old backup infielder who defined "light-hitting" with a .192 average and .549 OPS in 144 plate appearances this season.

The urgency is now a very real thing with the Cubs, and that's something — maybe the ONLY thing — that has really motivated this 2017 squad. They've really only played well when they've had a sense of urgency and they did not have that the first two games in Los Angeles.

Which is understandable. After such a physically, emotionally and mentally draining Game 5 that didn't end until early Friday morning, the team had to travel all the way across the entire continental U.S. only to wind up getting diverted to New Mexico where they sat on the tarmac for five hours.

Every single starting pitcher on the team was exhausted and working on short rest, and that's not to say anything about Wade Davis, who gave everything he had just to get the Cubs to the NLCS.

The Cubs have now had a full day off to clear their heads, get back to center and find their mojo again.

I'm betting that's exactly what they've done, because this team has proved over and over again how resilient they are. I mean, really, a 2-0 deficit is nothing for a team that stared down a 3-1 deficit in the World Series a year ago.

In an effort to help jump-start the offense, Maddon has switched around the Cubs lineup for Game 3:

1. Ben Zobrist - 2B
2. Kyle Schwarber - LF
3. Kris Bryant - 3B
4. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
5. Willson Contreras - C
6. Jon Jay - CF
7. Addison Russell - SS
8. Jason Heyward - RF
9. Kyle Hendricks - P

Schwarber hitting second is how the Cubs won Games 6 and 7 of the World Series last year, though Zobrist was hitting fifth at the time. 

No Baez to start the game, as he's a bad matchup for Yu Darvish - who is tough on right-handers - and is in the midst of an 0-for-19 stretch to start the postseason.

Prediction

Cubs 5, Dodgers 2

The Cubs started out the two-game set in LA by having a few good at-bats against the game's best pitcher (Clayton Kershaw) before things got awful against the Dodgers bullpen.

But if we're talking about being "due," that Dodgers bullpen is due for a regression on some level. They've been absolutely incredible this postseason, allowing only one baserunner to the Cubs in eight innings thus far.

Breaking things down individually, there are positive signs for several guys:

—Kris Bryant struck out only three times in 8 at-bats in LA, which is actually an improvement considering he struck out 10 times in 20 at-bats in the NLDS.

—Addison Russell lined a homer to left off Rich Hill for the Cubs' only run in Game 2. He had some really good at-bats in Game 5 and the game's biggest hit when he doubled home two runs off Max Scherzer.

—Javy Baez walked in Game 2. I mean, if that's not enough of a reason for positivity, what is??

Either way, the Cubs offense has their hands full against Yu Darvish (10-12, 3.86 ERA) and Alex Wood (16-3, 2.72 ERA) the next two games and if they win one of those two, Kershaw awaits in Game 5 Thursday.

Breaking down where Cubs can turn NLCS around and beat L.A.

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USA TODAY

Breaking down where Cubs can turn NLCS around and beat L.A.

“Sometimes, you got to lay your marbles out there,” Jon Lester said Sunday night inside Dodger Stadium’s visiting clubhouse, before the Cubs flew home from Los Angeles down 0-2 in the National League Championship Series. “And you get beat.”

It will be extremely difficult for the Cubs to win four of the next five games against the Dodgers, starting Tuesday night at Wrigley Field. But the Cubs had the, uh, marbles to win last year’s World Series and have developed the muscle memory from winning six playoff rounds and playing in 33 postseason games since October 2015.

There is a cross section left of the 2015 team that beat the Pittsburgh Pirates and silenced PNC Park’s blackout crowd in a sudden-death wild-card game. While 2016 is seen in hindsight as a year of destiny, those Cubs still had to kill the myths about the even-year San Francisco Giants, survive a 21-inning scoreless streak against the Dodgers and win Games 5, 6, 7 against the Cleveland Indians under enormous stress.

There is at least a baseline of experience to draw from and the sense that the Cubs won’t panic and beat themselves, the way the Washington Nationals broke down in the NL Division Series.

· Remember the Cubs pointed to how their rotation set up as soon as Cleveland took a 3-1 lead in last year’s World Series: Lester, Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks would each give them a chance to win that night. The Dodgers will now have to deal with last year’s major-league ERA leader (Hendricks) in Game 3 and a Cy Young Award winner (Arrieta) on Wednesday night in Game 4.

“Obviously, we know we need to get wins at this point,” Hendricks said. “But approaching it as a must-win is a little extreme. We've just got to go out there and play our brand of baseball.

“Since we accomplished that, we know we just have to take it game by game. Even being down 3-1 (in the World Series), we worry about the next game. In that situation, we didn’t think we had to win three in a row or anything like that. We just came to the ballpark the next day and worried about what we had to do that day.”

· The history lessons only go so far when the Dodgers can line up Yu Darvish as their Game 3 starter instead of, say, Josh Tomlin. There is also a huge difference between facing a worn-down Cleveland staff in late October/early November and a rested Dodger team that clinched a division title on Sept. 22 and swept the Arizona Diamondbacks in the first round. Joe Blanton and Pedro Baez aren’t walking through that bullpen door, either.

“We’ve done it before. We’ve been there before,” shortstop Addison Russell said. “But this year’s a new year. That’s a different ballclub. We’re definitely going to have to bring it.”

· Outside of Kenley Jansen, can you name anyone else in the Los Angeles bullpen off the top of your head? No doubt, the Dodger relievers have been awesome in Games 1 and 2 combined: Eight scoreless innings, zero hits, zero walks and Anthony Rizzo the only one out of 25 batters to reach base when Jansen hit him with a 93.7-mph pitch.

But the Dodgers are going to make mistakes, and the Cubs will have to capitalize. Unless this is the same kind of synthesis from the 2015 NLCS, when the New York Mets used exhaustive scouting reports, power pitching and pinpoint execution to sweep a Cubs team that had already hit the wall.

“Their bullpen is a lot stronger than it was last year,” Kris Bryant said. “They’re really good at throwing high fastballs in the zone. A lot of other teams try to, and they might hit it one out of every four. But this team, it seems like they really can hammer the top of the zone. And they have guys that throw in the upper 90s, so when you mix those two, it’s tough to catch up.”

· Bryant is not having a good October (5-for-28 with 13 strikeouts) and both Lester and Jose Quintana have more hits (one each) than Javier Baez (0-for-19 with eight strikeouts) during the playoffs. But we are still talking about the reigning NL MVP and last year’s NLCS co-MVP.

Ben Zobrist is clearly diminished and no longer the switch-hitting force who became last year’s World Series MVP. Kyle Schwarber doesn’t have the same intimidation factor or playoff aura right now. But one well-timed bunt from Zobrist or a “Schwarbomb” onto the video board could change the entire direction of this series and put the pressure on a Dodger team that knows this year is World Series or bust.

“We need to hit a couple balls hard consecutively,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Once we’re able to do that, we’ll gain our offensive mojo back. That's all that’s going on.

“I inherited something from my dad, and that was patience. So you’ve got to be patient right now. You’ve got to keep putting the boys back out there. You keep believing in them, and eventually it comes back to you.”

· Maddon is a 63-year-old man who opened Monday’s stadium club press conference at Wrigley Field by talking about dry-humping, clearly annoyed by all the second-guessers on Twitter and know-it-all sports writers who couldn’t believe All-Star closer Wade Davis got stranded in the bullpen, watching the ninth inning of Sunday’s 1-1 game turn into a 4-1 walk-off loss.

By the time a potential save situation develops on Tuesday night, roughly 120 hours will have passed since Davis threw his 44th and final pitch at Nationals Park, striking out Bryce Harper to end an instant classic. Just guessing that Maddon will be in the mood to unleash Davis.

Predicting the NLCS: Why Cubs will win Game 1 and take the series

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AP

Predicting the NLCS: Why Cubs will win Game 1 and take the series

Get ready for another sighting of the Cubs in the World Series.

After more than seven decades without one of baseball's most iconic franchises, the Fall Classic will once again feature Joe Maddon's team in 2017.

(Either that, or this column will look pretty funny 8 days from now, but hey, that's the nature - and fun - of predictions.)

What it boils down to simply is this: Would you want to bet against the Cubs? I mean, seriously.

The baseball gods clearly seem on their side lately, as the Cubs have caught several breaks from that fifth inning against Max Scherzer to Jose Lobaton's foot coming off the bag to Anthony Rizzo's bloop hit dropping, leading to his epic "RESPECT ME!" montage

And that's just this week.

The breaks keep coming for the Cubs, as they'll face the Los Angeles in an NLCS rematch without the Dodgers' best everyday player. 

Corey Seager's absence (back injury) is a huge loss for the Dodgers offense. The reigning NL Rookie of the Year and two-time All-Star hit .295 with an .854 OPS, 22 homers, 77 RBI and 85 runs. He did not record an extra-base hit in last year's NLCS against the Cubs, but did hit .286 with a .375 on-base percentage.

[RELATED - Cubs NLCS roster]

The whole idea of experience and "been there before" is overblown, but the Cubs keep proving it does count for something, rising above adversity and continuing to drive forward no matter how many punches they take.

"It's never easy, but experience is the best teacher in that," Jason Heyward said during the Cubs' celebration in the visiting locker room at Nationals Park early Friday morning. "You have to do it. You don't have a choice. Either you get over it, or you dwell on it and it sinks your ship.

"We know we can't do that. If you're gonna go down, go down turning the page. Go down competing, go down in that moment. Can't dwell on what happened before."

Heyward has been a steadying force in helping this Cubs team "turn the page" over the last two seasons. One of the lasting images of that epic Game 5 will be his reaction on the final out - taking a few steps, clutching his jersey and letting out a primal scream after four hours and 37 minutes of tortured nerves. 

And once again, the Cubs found a way to win a ridiculous, intense game. Because that's what they do.

"Two hundred 40 baseball games a year or whatever - our players grind through all year and our front office guys pull the all-nighters," president Theo Epstein said. "This is what it's all about.

"Now our guys are establishing that identity of finding a way to win this time of year. There's no better thing to be known for and they've earned it. I'm proud of them."

The 2017 Dodgers are essentially the 2016 Cubs: a team with World Series expectations from the outset, got out to an insane start, added an impact pitcher before the trade deadline (Yu Darvish - LA; Aroldis Chapman - 2016 Cubs) and won more than 100 games as the best team in baseball (104 - LA; 103 - 2016 Cubs).

But like the Cubs say, to be the best, they gotta beat the best. And the Dodgers are currently the best. 

Here's how the Cubs will line up against Kershaw in Game 1:

1. Jon Jay - RF
2. Kris Bryant - 3B
3. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
4. Willson Contreras - C
5. Albert Almora Jr. - CF
6. Addison Russell - SS
7. Kyle Schwarber - LF
8. Javy Baez - 2B
9. Jose Quintana - P

The lineup looks exactly like how the Cubs lined up against lefty Gio Gonzalez in Game 5 of the NLDS...save for one major difference: Kyle Schwarber.

Schwarber has never faced Kershaw, but there's reason to be optimistic. Schwarber made great contact (114 mph exit velocity) off a lefty in his long pinch-hit appearance in Game 5, just missing a home run by a matter of a few feet.

Kershaw is also actually tougher on righties than lefties, which is surprising for a southpaw. Lefties are hitting .248 with a .734 OPS against him, homering once every 19 at-bats. Righties are hitting only .203 with a .570 OPS and homering once every 42.42 at-bats.

Maddon is hoping Schwarber can give the Cubs a run or two with his bat early, and then look for Heyward to come into the game for defense with Jay switching over to left field.

As for Ben Zobrist's absence in the lineup, beyond Kershaw's reverse splits, Maddon also pointed to Zobrist's ineffectiveness from the right side this season - he's slashing just .179/.261/.292 (.553 OPS) and hit just one homer all year. Zobrist hasn't looked right from that side since an awkward swing hurt his wrist in the middle of the season.

Prediction

Cubs win Game 1 and take the series in six games again. 

Let's start with Game 1: The Cubs already had the tough task of trying to beat the best pitcher in the game (Kershaw) and now will have to do that after a whirlwind week that included a detour on the way from D.C. to L.A. They're exhausted - physically and mentally - while the Dodgers have had almost the entire last week off.

So of course the Cubs are going to win Saturday night. Why? Because it's baseball and it's impossible to predict, so narratives are thrown out the window all the time.

Watch the Cubs follow the 2016 script - ride high off an epic win in the NLDS, take the first game from the Dodgers and then feature a lull in the middle few games before roaring back and taking the series.

But this Dodgers team is quite a bit different than last year's NLCS runner-up. 

Cody Bellinger is a legit star in the middle of that order and the clear NL Rookie of the Year. And the Dodgers rotation is healthier than it was at this time a year ago, plus the addition of Darvish.

Albert Almora Jr. should be in for a big opportunity in this series, likely starting three of the first four games against the southpaws. Almora has elevated his play and given the Cubs a big boost in the latter part of the season, including a big hit in Game 3 of the NLDS and a pair of quality plate appearances in Game 5 off Gio Gonzalez.

But Almora isn't my pick for NLCS MVP. Instead, I'm betting on one of the Cubs' middle infielders, with Addison Russell continuing his clutch ways while Javy Baez (the co-NLCS MVP last fall) is due for an offensive breakout after going 0-for-14 in the NLDS.

In fact, the entire Cubs offense is due for a breakout after the NLDS, so even though the Dodgers pitching is elite, look for the bats to wake up after pushing across runs in so many different ways Thursday night.

"We gotta play a really clean game," Epstein said. "But we always hit eventually. We got through the series and we didn't always get the big hit. I think that bodes well. We're gonna hit. We got too many talented hitters. 

"I think we'll raise our game. This time of year, it's about finding a way to win. That's what it's all about."