Cubs look out of their element as Indians close in on World Series title

Cubs look out of their element as Indians close in on World Series title

The TV screens inside the Wrigley Field clubhouse instructed Cubs players to be dressed by 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, or roughly 90 minutes before first pitch in a World Series elimination game, give or take another commercial break for Fox.

“Don’t change a thing,” Kris Bryant said, and maybe a superstar player who never gets too high or too low is exactly right. Manager Joe Maddon already printed enough T-shirts for these occasions from “Embrace The Target” to “Do Simple Better” to “Try Not To Suck.”

But the Cubs are experiencing a system-wide failure at the worst possible time. The Cleveland Indians crashed their Wrigleyville block party and could be popping champagne bottles and chugging beers as Sunday night turns into Halloween morning.

If a franchise staging its first World Series event since 1945 initially felt like Times Square on New Year’s Eve – as Cubs president Theo Epstein accurately put it – then this feels like the head-splitting hangover.

A 7-2 loss on Saturday night left the Cubs staring at the brink of elimination, trying to become the first team since the 1985 Kansas City Royals to come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the World Series.

“I guess our backs are against the wall,” Anthony Rizzo said, “but we’ll come out fighting.”

The All-Star first baseman didn’t make any guarantees this time, not when the Indians have forced this lineup out of its element. Rizzo came through with an RBI single against Corey Kluber in the first inning and doubled off the Cy Young Award winner in the sixth. But otherwise Kluber looks like the World Series MVP, winning Games 1 and 4 while giving up one run in 12 innings and putting up 15 strikeouts against one walk. 

This just doesn’t look like the same team that steamrolled the National League on the way to 103 wins and handled the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers in October. As much as Kluber disrupts and freezes hitters with his two-seam fastball and off-speed arsenal, the Cubs still found their way around and through Madison Bumgarner and Clayton Kershaw, supposedly the best pitchers on the planet at that moment.

[MORE: In Big Boy Game, John Lackey can’t stop Cubs from reaching brink of elimination]

Young players like Javier Baez and Willson Contreras admitted to feeling anxious, wanting to win here so bad that the game accelerated on them. Playing a little out of control would be the side effects to all the energy they provided this team throughout October.

“(We’re) getting outside of ourselves,” said David Ross, who will catch Jon Lester knowing that Game 5 could be his last night before retirement. “They’re having a hard time slowing the moment down – at-bat to at-bat – and staying in what we do best.

“I faced Kluber the other night and I know I chased a few balls outside the zone, so you got to give some credit to the pitcher. But I see a lot of early swings, a lot of 1-2-3 swings.

“We’ve done a real good of putting together lengthy at-bats all year long. And right now, (in) the moment, (it’s) us wanting to do so much for these fans. I really think that’s where it comes from.”

The question isn’t so much if Bryant will be the NL MVP – it’s whether or not the Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s vote will be unanimous. But the steadiest player for the team that led the majors in defensive efficiency committed two errors in a second-inning sequence that saw the Indians score two runs (one earned) and take the early lead that would shorten the game with 6-foot-7 lefty Andrew Miller waiting in the wings. 

A bullpen that helped the Cubs earn 33 come-from-behind wins allowed the deficit to balloon to six runs by the time Miller gripped the ball in the seventh inning. That meant less urgency and lower stress if the Indians need Miller to bounce back again in Game 5, when lights-out closer Cody Allen will now be rested and ready. 

What had been such a patient, grinding lineup made Miller throw all of seven pitches in the seventh inning. It became a garbage-time homer in the eighth inning when Dexter Fowler lined a Miller slider into the left-center field bleachers and scored the first run off Miller during this postseason.

[SHOP: Buy a "Try Not to Suck" shirt with proceeds benefiting Joe Maddon's Respect 90 Foundation & other Cubs Charities]

Remember Maddon’s old adage when talking about last year’s New York Mets: To beat good pitching you have to pitch better than good pitching. John Lackey has mostly been a spectator during the “Big Boy Games,” giving up three runs within the first three innings in front of a crowd of 41,706 and putting up a 4.85 ERA in three postseason starts this October.

“There are scouts on everybody nowadays,” Lackey said. “You can’t get away with anything, the way numbers and metrics and all stuff is out there nowadays. You got to be able to make some adjustments. And right now, they’re doing that better than we are.”

The Cubs will draw confidence from Lester starting Sunday night opposite drone enthusiast Trevor Bauer, with Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks lined up for if-necessary Games 6 and 7 at Progressive Field, where folk hero Kyle Schwarber can be the designated hitter. But this is a team that is used to playing from ahead. And the Indians are 10-2 during these playoffs and looking to make their own history.

“We got to win tomorrow,” Rizzo said. “That’s the bottom line. We got to do whatever we can to win the ballgame tomorrow. And that’s it. There’s no looking past that. Do anything we can to win the ballgame. And then we figure it out from there.”

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

MESA, Ariz. — The first thing Kyle Schwarber told his new hitting coach?

"His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.'"

The Cubs hired Chili Davis as the team's new hitting coach for myriad reasons. He's got a great track record from years working with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, and that .274/.360/.451 slash line during an illustrious 19-year big league career certainly helps.

But Davis' main immediate task in his new gig will be to help several of the Cubs' key hitters prove Schwarber's assessment correct.

Schwarber had a much-publicized tough go of things in 2017. After he set the world on fire with his rookie campaign in 2015 and returned from what was supposed to be a season-ending knee injury in time to be one of the Cubs' World Series heroes in 2016, he hit just .211 last season, getting sent down to Triple-A Iowa for a stint in the middle of the season. Schwarber still hit 30 home runs, but his 2017 campaign was seen as a failure by a lot of people.

Enter Davis, who now counts Schwarber as one of his most important pupils.

"He's a worker," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "Schwarbs, he knows he's a good player. His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.' He said last year was just a fluke year. He said, 'I've never failed in my life.' And he said, 'I'm going to get back to the player that I was.'

"I think he may have — and this is my thought, he didn't say this to me — I think it may have been, he had a big World Series, hit some homers, and I think he tried to focus on being more of a home run type guy as opposed to being a good hitter.

"His focus has changed. I had nothing to do with that, he came in here with that focus that he wants to be a good hitter first and let whatever happens happen. And he's worked on that. The main thing with Kyle is going to be is just maintaining focus."

The physically transformed Schwarber mentioned last week that he's established a good relationship with Davis, in no small part because Schwarber can relate to what Davis went through when he was a player. And to hear Davis tell it, it sounds like he's describing Schwarber's first three years as a big leaguer to a T.

"Telling him my story was important because it was similar," Davis said. "I was a catcher, got to big league camp, and I was thrown in the outfield. And I hated the outfield. ... But I took on the challenge. I made the adjustment, I had a nice first year, then my second year I started spiraling. I started spiraling down, and I remember one of my coaches saying, 'I'm going to have to throw you a parachute just so you can land softly.' I got sent down to Triple-A at the All-Star break for 15 days.

"When I got sent down, I was disappointed, but I was also really happy. I needed to get away from the big league pressure and kind of find myself again. I went home and refocused myself and thought to myself, 'I'm going to come back as Chili.' Because I tried to change, something changed about me the second year.

"And when I did that, I came back the next year and someone tried to change me and I said, 'Pump the breaks a little bit, let me fail my way, and then I'll come to you if I'm failing.' And they understood that, and I had a nice year, a big year and my career took off.

"I'm telling him, 'Hey, let last year go. It happened, it's in the past. Keep working hard, maintain your focus, and you'll be fine.'"

Getting Schwarber right isn't Davis' only task, of course. Despite the Cubs being one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball last season, they had plenty of guys go through subpar seasons. Jason Heyward still has yet to find his offensive game since coming to Chicago as a high-priced free agent. Ben Zobrist was bothered by a wrist injury last season and put up the worst numbers of his career. Addison Russell had trouble staying healthy, as well, and saw his numbers dip from what they were during the World Series season in 2016.

So Davis has plenty of charges to work with. But he likes what he's seen so far.

"They work," Davis said. "They come here to work. I had a group of guys in Boston that were the same last year, and it makes my job easier. They want to get better, they come out every day, they show up, they want to work. They're excited, and I'm excited to be around them.

And what have the Cubs found out about Davis? Just about everyone answers that question the same way: He likes to talk.

"I'm not going to stop talking," he said. "If I stop talking, something's wrong."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion


SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

Carmen DeFalco (ESPN 1000) and Jordan Bernfield join Kap on the panel. Anthony Rizzo returns to the Cubs after an emotional weekend home while Tom Ricketts expects another World Series parade. Plus Hall of Famer Andre Dawson joins Kap to talk about his Cubs reunion and how the current crop unsigned free agents compares to his experiences with collusion.