Cubs need Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo to produce or else their reign as defending World Series champs is over

bryzzo.jpg
USA TODAY

Cubs need Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo to produce or else their reign as defending World Series champs is over

Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo are the yin and yang of the Cubs lineup, the right- and left-handed forces that feed off each other, two huge building blocks for a World Series team, the smiling faces of the franchise, an ideal brand for social media and two friends close enough that Rizzo became a groomsman at Bryant’s Las Vegas wedding in January.

With the defending champs now down 0-2 in a best-of-seven National League Championship Series – and the Los Angeles Dodgers looking like an updated version of the 2016 Cubs – winter is coming if Bryzzo Souvenir Co. doesn’t start producing soon.

Like Tuesday night in Game 3 at Wrigley Field. Take away the 9-8 outlier against the Washington Nationals – where an intentional walk, a passed ball on a swinging strike three, a catcher interference and a hit by pitch sparked a big rally – and the Cubs have scored 11 runs in six playoff games this October.

“Everybody in the lineup, they feel the same way: When you don’t produce, it’s like you let the team down,” Bryant said. “But that’s not the right way to feel, because not one person makes or breaks the team.

“I put that in perspective all the time, and realize it’s not what you do in the playoffs, it’s what the team does. And, obviously, we haven’t been getting it done so far in the series. But this is a totally unselfish team. I don’t think anybody here is pouting or down on themselves.”

Bryant (.179 average) has struck out 13 times in 28 postseason at-bats while working only one walk and hitting zero homers. Rizzo – who shouted “RESPECT ME!” at Dusty Baker and the Nationals during the divisional round and went 0-for-6 over the weekend at Dodger Stadium – dismissed the idea that he feels any extra responsibility to jumpstart the offense.

“I think that is selfish if you did,” Rizzo said. “One through nine, all 25 guys, we got to get going. Our pitching is doing a heck of a job. You need help from everyone in the lineup, not just one or two guys.”

But Bryant and Rizzo can certainly make Joe Maddon’s job a lot easier, not forcing the pinch-hitters as early for Kyle Hendricks and Jake Arrieta, creating some breathing room for the middle relievers or just getting the lead and taking the guesswork out of the equation: Give the ball to All-Star closer Wade Davis.     

Even without launching home runs, Bryant and Rizzo also happen to be very good on the bases, with enough speed and instincts to make things happen when the Dodgers keep putting zeros on the scoreboard. The Cubs are already sacrificing offense for defense at second base (Javier Baez) and in right field (Jason Heyward) and don’t have their World Series MVP (Ben Zobrist) in peak condition.    

Bryant is exceptionally available to the media, and usually shrugs almost everything off with an upbeat answer, but even he sounded and looked a little different in terms of tone and body language on Sunday night in Dodger Stadium’s visiting clubhouse.

Whether it was the nature of that walk-off loss – Where’s Wade? – or the reality of a different Dodger team or the jet lag, the Cubs seemed a little shell-shocked.

It was almost exactly a year ago when Bryant stood in the same room in front of the cameras and purposely said, “Nope,” when asked if there was any sense of panic creeping into the clubhouse after seeing Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill in back-to-back shutouts.

[MORE: Wade Davis won't second-guess Joe Maddon]      

But Bryant even admitted that defending a World Series title is more taxing than chasing a championship ring.  

“I wouldn’t say emotionally or mentally,” Bryant said. “Physically, yeah, I think some guys are tired. It’s been a really long year, (but) you only notice that before and after the game.

“During the game, there’s so much adrenaline and the fans cheering that you don’t really notice it. But then you sit down after a game, you feel pretty tired and beat. And then you wake up and do it all over again the next day.”

That has been the story of 2017 for Bryant, who followed up an MVP campaign with a 29-homer/.946 OPS season that drew attention for his lowered RBI total (73). But just like Rizzo, he has a tenacious competitive streak and a unique ability to separate one pitch from the next. The Cubs need all of that now, or else their reign as defending World Series champs is about to end.   

“I’ve put some good swings on some balls, but sometimes you just get beat,” Bryant said. “Sometimes you go through good stretches, bad stretches, stuff like that. I realize it’s all part of the game.

“It just stinks. You want to go out there and perform right now, because if you perform now, you’re winning. But you can’t force it.”

Cubs-Dodgers Game 2 prediction: Baby steps for Cubs offense

Cubs-Dodgers Game 2 prediction: Baby steps for Cubs offense

Everything seemed awfully rosy in the first few innings for the Cubs Saturday night.

They were having good at-bats off Clayton Kershaw - including a two-run homer from Albert Almora Jr. - and Jose Quintana was dealing.

But everything changed quickly and all the Cubs' postseason issues reared their ugly head: too many walks, bullpen unreliability, punchless offense.

The Cubs didn't have a baserunner the last 2/3 of the game and had absolutely no answer for the Dodgers bullpen.

But the offense will break out at some point. Theo Epstein was sure of that and there's no reason not to think the same. 

The Cubs had baseball's best offense in the second half of the season, averaging 5.7 runs per game while posting a .273/.352/.459 slash line with an .811 OPS. 

The Cubs hitters are simply too good to keep having results this poor. They scored nine runs in Game 5 of the NLDS, but most of those without a hit thanks to a slew of Washington errors. 

In the other five games of the postseason, the Cubs have just 10 runs, averaging two runs a game.

Bullpen issues aside, that is not a good recipe for success.

The Cubs offense struggled through the first few games of the postseason last fall before eventually breaking out at Dodger Stadium in L.A. They clearly are hoping that is in the cards once again Sunday evening.

Here's the lineup they'll roll with as they face Rich Hill:

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

The Cubs need more from every offensive player, but they especially need to see their big boppers step up. Bryant, Rizzo and Contreras have been awfully quiet the last few games.

Prediction

Cubs 4, Dodgers 2

This isn't the breakout game for the Cubs offense, but they had so many good at-bats early in Saturday's game, I bet they get back to that point and cash in a bit more in Game 2.

Baby steps. Then the offense really finds its groove again later this week at Wrigley Field.

5 depressing stats that highlight Cubs' postseason struggles

5 depressing stats that highlight Cubs' postseason struggles

Let's get something out of the way first:

The Cubs are in the National League Championship Series and only trailing 1-0 after one game in which the team was mentally and physically drained following a lit, emotional NLDS Game 5 and subsequent cross-country journey from the east coast to the west coast which also included an emergency stop in New Mexico. Oh yeah and the Cubs also were forced to face the best pitcher on the planet.

So there's no reason for Cubs fans to run for the hills waving their arms in panic and yelling obscenities. 

Also worth noting: This is a best-of-7 series, so there's not quite as much randomness and there is more time for the Cubs to right the ship and clinch their second straight World Series bid.

But for right now, things are bleak and here are the main reasons why:

Jose Quintana has the second-highest postseason batting average on the Cubs.

Everybody is complaining about the bullpen, and they are due their fair share of frustration from the Cubs' fanbase over the last six games. More on that to come.

But the offense has been horrendous in October. They finished the NLDS with a .180 batting average and somehow went DOWN in Game 1 of the NLCS.

The Cubs are now hitting .172 (31-for-180) as a team with only Albert Almora Jr. (3-for-9) and Quintana (1-for-4) hitting above .222.

Batting average isn't everything, of course, but hits are still the best way to score runs and scoring runs is still necessary to wins.

The Cubs scored 9 runs in NLDS Game 5. They have 10 runs in the four other postseason games combined.

Besides Game 5, the Cubs have averaged 2 runs per game this fall.

Sure, all six of those games have been started by National League Cy Young finalists (Clayton Kershaw, Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, Gio Gonzalez), but the Cubs keep reiterating that if they want to be the best, they gotta beat the best. They just aren't beating the best offensively this fall.

It's not like they faced scrubs in the magical 2016 World Series run, either, forced to face Kershaw twice plus Corey Kluber three times in the World Series and Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto on the NLDS.

Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo have combined for 18 Ks and only 3 BBs.

That's a 6:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. 

In the 2017 regular season, the two superstars combined for 218 strikeouts compared to 186 walks. That's a 1.17:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. 

You want to know why the offense has struggled? Its two best hitters have regressed mightily.

But they have found ways to drive in 8 runs and of course, there are still at least three games to climb out of their funk.

Rizzo was off to a rough start to the postseason last year, too, and found his groove again at Dodger Stadium. Matt Szczur isn't around to lend Rizzo his bat again, but can the face of the Cubs find his groove in Hollywood Sunday?

Four Cubs relievers have combined for a 17.06 ERA and 3.16 WHIP.

Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Hector Rondon and John Lackey have combined to surrender 12 earned runs, 20 baserunners and four homers in 6.1 innings. 

Lackey and Rondon just pitched for the first time Saturday, combining to get 6 outs while allowing two hits, a walk, a run and a homer.

It's Edwards and Montgomery that are killing the Cubs out of the bullpen. Two of the most important relievers in Maddon's bullpen have struggled to gain any semblance of rhythm this October and that needs to change immediately if the Cubs have any visions of heading to Houston or New York later this month.

Wade Davis has saved three games and bailed the Cubs out big time in Game 5 Thursday, but he's still allowed seven baserunners (three walks and four hits, including a homer) and two runs in 4.1 innings, so he's been far from a shutdown reliever, too.

Brian Duensing and Pedro Strop have combined to allow only three baserunners in 4.2 innings (two walks and a hit) and just one run. So maybe they see their number called more as this NLCS moves along.

The starting rotation has just a 1-1 record.

Wins are a completely overrated stat, but the Cubs starters have been absolutely incredible this postseason.

Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jake Arrieta and Jose Quintana have teamed up for this stat line in their starts: 1.99 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 19 hits, 7 earned runs, 14 walks, 30 strikeouts in 31.2 innings.

That's the kind of line that should elicit far more than a 1-1 record, especially when going up against the high-powered offenses of Washington and Los Angeles.