Dan Hayes

Sluggish offense plus Dodger pitching equaled disaster for Cubs in NLCS

Sluggish offense plus Dodger pitching equaled disaster for Cubs in NLCS

Your National League Championship Series final: Cubs 8, Enrique Hernandez 7.

When the Cubs look back at why they struggled in the NLCS and what they’ll need moving forward, many questions are likely to involve fixing an offense that was dormant for almost all of the postseason.

Thursday night’s 11-1 loss in Game 5 of the NLCS to the Los Angeles Dodgers put an exclamation point on a lopsided series, one in which the Cubs were outscored 28-8. Hernandez nearly matched the Cubs’ entire output in the clincher with three home runs and seven RBIs. While the pitching shares much of the blame, a Cubs offense that produced a .168/.240/.289 slash line and scored 25 runs this postseason is perhaps an even bigger culprit.

“(The Dodgers) pitched very, very well from start to finish,” said utility man Ben Zobrist. “It was tough to overcome that. We are going to get our homers. But as a whole, I felt like they kept us off-balance and they kept us from having good quality at-bats consistently. When we did get something going it wasn’t much. It was one run here or there or a couple runs here or there. But they pitched a great series, kept us from really exploding like they can as an offense.”

The Cubs’ bats have been ice cold for the entire postseason. Aside from a nine-run showing in their Oct. 12 NLDS-clincher over the Washington Nationals, the Cubs never appeared to be as formidable a bunch as they were in 2016.

Their scores by game entering Thursday’s loss were: 3, 3, 2, 0, 9, 2, 1, 1 and 3.

By the time the Dodgers plated two early runs off Jose Quintana, the Cubs looked to be in for an uphill battle against three-time Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw. That condition was upgraded to next-to-impossible by the time Hernandez blasted a grand slam off Hector Rodon in the third inning to put the Dodgers up 7-0.

As it were, the Cubs finished with four hits and didn’t score until Kris Bryant homered to make it 9-1 in the fourth inning. It was Bryant’s first round-tripper of the postseason.

The struggles of Bryant and teammate Anthony Rizzo were well-documented. The pair produced a combined .169/.210/.206 slash line with two home runs, nine RBIs, three walks and 28 strikeouts in 81 plate appearances. Bryant thought it had to do with a team that was worn down running into outstanding pitching.

“It’s a little of both,” Bryant said. “It took a lot out of us that first series, some really good pitching with the Nationals. Obviously with the Dodgers, too. I think they had a group of players that really turned it on at the right time and were clicking whereas we didn’t. That was the difference. But a ton of credit to them, they just flat out beat us.”

Bryant and Rizzo weren’t alone in their struggles.

The leadoff position alone went from a force of life in 2016 with Dexter Fowler to virtually no production this postseason. Jon Jay, Albert Almora and Zobrist went a combined 4-for-36 with three hit by pitches from the leadoff spot.

Catcher Willson Contreras (.748) was the only Cubs regular to finish with an OPS above .700. Javier Baez produced a .451 OPS, Zobrist registered a .416 and Jason Heyward finished at .403.

By comparison, the Dodgers have six players with at least 20 plate appearances this postseason with an .800 or better OPS. That doesn’t of course count Hernandez, who made only his fourth start of the postseason and went nuts. He homered off Jose Quintana in the second inning to give Los Angeles a 2-0 lead. His grand slam in the third after Quintana exited put the game out of reach. And Hernandez’s ninth-inning blast off Mike Montgomery to center was icing on the Dodgers’ cake.

Figuring out how to remedy their offensive issues figures to be one of the Cubs’ top priorities this offseason. One way the team could help jumpstart Bryant and Rizzo is by acquiring a better leadoff hitter, something they lost when Fowler departed via free agency last winter. The team saw its production from the leadoff spot drop from an .815 OPS in 2016 to .745 in 2017.

“We did enough to beat Washington and that’s all you need in the postseason,” Rizzo said. “We didn’t do enough to beat the Dodgers. They pitched better than we hit. End of story.

“They’re good. There’s no excuses. You’ve got to play better. But at the end of the day, it is what it is. It’s baseball. You hit the ball at the guy or you don’t.”

Cubs plotting their path for a comeback: 'We're not ready to go home'

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USA TODAY

Cubs plotting their path for a comeback: 'We're not ready to go home'

Their lofty goals include a weekend in sunny SoCal, but Anthony Rizzo thinks the only way to achieve them is for the Cubs to stay focused on the minor details. To realize the nearly impossible, the Cubs believe they can’t get too far ahead of themselves.

Frankly, that’s a good idea.

Even though the Cubs managed to stave off elimination on Wednesday night, they’re still in a very bad way. The Cubs’ chances of repeating as World Series champions are technically alive courtesy of a 3-2 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series. But it doesn’t change the fact that if the Cubs are to become only the second team in 36 tries to overcome a 3-0 series deficit, they’ll have to do it with a stagnant offense and a shaky bullpen.

“You can’t think about the big picture in these games,” Rizzo said. “You’ve got to go one pitch at a time. It doesn’t matter what you did that pitch before, you’ve gotta go to the next one and move on.

“We want to have a good weekend in LA. We want to go to LA this weekend and get out there and play some more baseball. We’re not ready to go home.”

The Cubs know they’re up against long odds. They’re aware that a number of teams have been in their position before and failed miserably. Only the Boston Red Sox have overcome a 3-0 deficit when they rallied to topple the New York Yankees in the 2004 ALCS.

Still, the Cubs have managed to stay loose and focused despite their predicament.

“We're not putting pressure on ourselves,” outfielder Kyle Schwarber said. “We're just going out there and we're worrying about playing our game. We're not panicked.”

Perhaps it’s because they’ve been here before. It could be their manager and his ability to keep things loose. Or maybe it’s just that this group has experienced it all together over the past two-plus seasons.

For whatever reason, the Cubs are comfortable.

“We’ve dealt with a lot of failure,” shortstop Addison Russell said. “We’ve dealt with our backs against the wall. It’s just about how you mentally prepare and I feel like with the bunch of guys we have, they’ve been on that run with us.

“I would say it’s a little bit more familiar to contain all the eagerness and anxiousness.”

[MORE CUBS-DODGERS: 'I might come running out of the clubhouse in my jockstrap']

There have been a ton of tribulations for this group to absorb.

Heading into Wednesday’s contest, the Cubs had the lowest batting average (.172) of any postseason team that had played eight games. Their .255 on-base percentage was the third-worst of those 145 teams and the 2.63 runs per game was fifth.

Javy Baez lifted the team’s spirits on Wednesday as he broke out of his postseason slumber with two solo home runs. Willson Contreras also delivered a bolt from the heavens with a 491-foot solo homer off the scoreboard.

“It’s just good energy,” Rizzo said.

Still, the Cubs couldn’t pull away, which left them in a position where they needed Herculean efforts from Jake Arrieta and Wade Davis. And it won’t get any easier on Thursday with Clayton Kershaw on the mound.

Then there’s the bullpen, which entered Game 4 with 23 walks issued, the most ever by any postseason team that had played eight games. Aside from Davis, who Joe Maddon ruled out for Game 5, Cubs relievers have been mostly shaky.

That’s not a good formula for a team that has constantly found itself in a number of close ballgames.

But those are the details the Cubs know they must avoid thinking about if they want to spend another weekend at Dodger Stadium. Instead of focusing on their flaws, they’re embracing the moment.

“I want there to be pressure,” Maddon said. “I want there to be a carrot at the end of the stick. I want all of that. I talk about never putting the pressure to exceed the pleasure, just meaning to handle the moment.

“We started this with a trip to Omaha, Nebraska (in spring) … and now we are here, coming on October 19th.

“It’s a lot of time in between. So, there’s a lot of different moments that occur Some are pressurized, and that’s good. Otherwise you’re home cooking steaks right now.”

Why Cubs' bullpen struggles could damage their chances of rallying in the NLCS

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USA TODAY

Why Cubs' bullpen struggles could damage their chances of rallying in the NLCS

If the Cubs hope to comeback and reach a second straight World Series, they won’t only have to overcome a lackluster offense. The bullpen has been equally unreliable for much of the postseason.

The team’s rotten relief surfaced yet again on Tuesday night when reliever Carl Edwards Jr. issued a bases-loaded walk to counterpart Yu Darvish. It’s one of 23 walks issued by Cubs relievers during the 2017 postseason, the most ever by any team through its first eight playoff games.

Edwards’ sixth-inning, run-scoring walk of Darvish was one of many Cubs miscues in a 6-1 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series. But the moment was squarely in the spotlight as it opened the floodgates, brought out the boo birds and left more questions than answers for the Cubs, who now trail the series 3-0.

“I’m still confident,” Edwards said about his team’s chances. “There’s no need to change it. I wouldn’t sit here and say ‘We’re going to lose.’ … We’re still confident. We’re ready. Like I said, it’s a very fun sport and the tables can turn at any time.”

The Cubs need to flip those tables over pretty quickly if they want to repeat. Fixing an offense that has produced 2.75 runs per game in the playoffs is chief among the Cubs’ concerns.

But even if the Cubs offense puts on a hitting clinic, it’s October and tight games are inevitable. With that in mind they’ll also need more dependability from a group of relievers who has a 6.35 ERA and 23 walks against 24 strikeouts in 28 1/3 playoff innings.

Walks were a constant issue for the Cubs bullpen in the regular season when they averaged 4.25 per nine innings. But that number has increased 7.62 in the playoffs.

The problem surfaced at the wrong time Tuesday as manager Joe Maddon pulled Kyle Hendricks for Edwards with two on and no outs in the sixth and the Cubs trailing 3-1. Edwards sandwiched a pair of outs around a walk to Austin Barnes that loaded the bases. Joc Pederson’s flew out for the second out, which appeared as if it would bring pinch-hitter Curtis Granderson to the plate. But the Dodgers stuck with Darvish and it worked as Edwards threw four straight balls to bring in a run.

Darvish — who only walked once before in 39 career plate appearances — became the first pitcher to walk with the bases loaded in the postseason since Philadelphia’s Larry Christenson in Game 3 of the 1977 NLCS against the Dodgers.

Edwards recovered to strike out Chris Taylor, but walked off the mound to a chorus of boos.

“I thought C.J. was the right man,” Maddon said. “It's just the walk there, the walk, two walks really hurt us. Otherwise, he didn't give anything up.”

[MORE CUBS-DODGERS: Record-setting futility and the 5 biggest things from Cubs-Dodgers Game 3]

It was another lowlight for a ‘pen that has seen John Lackey surrender Justin Turner’s three-run, game-winning homer on Sunday, Wade Davis’ slip up against Michael Taylor in the NLDS and countless other struggles. Mike Montgomery allowed two runs (one earned) late Tuesday to raise his postseason ERA to 23.18.

The team’s performance is in direct contrast with the lights out Dodgers bullpen. Los Angeles relievers have a 1.21 ERA with 23 strikeouts and only two walks in 22 1/3 innings.

The Cubs will have to take on some of their counterparts’ qualities in order to pull off an improbable rally. But Edwards said he and his teammates aren’t shaken.

“They’ve just been very, very good at their jobs,” Edwards said. “It’s not frustrating at all. It’s just making pitches and I didn’t, but it was just today.

“Come back tomorrow and win. There’s more in us to keep striving (for). The thing is, we won’t give up. I don’t care what happens.”