Cubs

For Cubs, it looks like 2015 all over again as Dodgers ready the brooms in NLCS

For Cubs, it looks like 2015 all over again as Dodgers ready the brooms in NLCS

These 2017 Cubs aren’t who they were back in 2015.

But if the Los Angeles Dodgers, up 3-0 in this NLCS after Tuesday night’s 6-1 win at Wrigley Field, sweep away the Cubs on Wednesday, fans will have trouble recognizing the difference.

Just one defeat away from suffering the same fate the pre-World Series Cubs did two years ago, the similarities are most definitely present, chiefly in that the bats have gone completely silent against an elite pitching staff.

Of course you’ll remember that four-game set with the New York Mets, when a young starting rotation looked like it was entering a decade-long stretch of dominance by carving up the then-upstart Cubs. Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom combined to limit the Cubs to five runs over 20.1 innings in the first three games of that series. The Cubs chased Game 4 starter Steven Matz before he completed five innings, but they still mustered only three runs in an 8-3 loss that completed the sweep. And that bullpen had itself a darn good series, too.

The Cubs hit .164 in those four games and reached base at a grotesque .225 clip.

Flash forward to now, and the Cubs are on the verge of another sweep, their offense experiencing similar problems. The batting average through the first three games is .160, the on-base percentage even worse than it was two years earlier, a nasty .202.

And much like in the 2015 NLCS, the Cubs' biggest boppers are struggling mightily. Kris Bryant was 3-for-14 against the Mets, he's 3-for-12 against the Dodgers. Anthony Rizzo was 3-for-14 against the Mets, he's 1-for-10 against the Dodgers. Kyle Schwarber was 2-for-14 against the Mets, he's 1-for-6 against the Dodgers.

“Of course we expected more,” manager Joe Maddon said after the game. “The Dodgers have pitched well. It’s somewhat surprising. I don't want to use the word disappointing. Our guys are working really hard. They’ve pitched well, hit a couple balls well. But overall, the three games, I guess their relief pitchers have pretty much thrown a no-hitter against us, so they’ve been pretty good.”

It’s true that in three games against the Dodgers, the Cubs already have hit more home runs than they did in the five-game NLDS against the Washington Nationals. But after grabbing early leads with home runs in each of the first three games of this series — off the bats of Albert Almora Jr., Addison Russell and Schwarber, respectively — there’s been little, if any, further damage against a Dodger pitching staff that has looked downright filthy.

The best performance by a starting pitcher came in Game 3, with Yu Darvish turning in the kind of outing the Dodgers envisioned when they made a deadline deal for the former Texas Ranger back in July. Darvish threw 6.1 innings of one-run ball Tuesday, the only real blemish being Schwarber’s first-inning, opposite-field Schwarbomb.

Darvish was so good that in a tight 3-1 game in the sixth inning, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts let his starter bat with the bases loaded. Darvish made his skipper look like baseball’s all-time genius, drawing a four-pitch walk from Carl Edwards Jr. to force in a run. But, of course, what he did on the mound was far more impactful. He kept the Cubs looking outmatched, something that was a common occurrence against that Mets staff back in 2015.

Yes, there are differences. There’s no doubt the squads are two very different groups. And while Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill were very good in their starts, particularly Hill, the Dodgers haven’t featured a string of sensational performances like that Mets team did. Instead, as Maddon mentioned, the Dodgers’ strength has been the bullpen.

After going oh-fer against Dodgers relievers in the first two games, the Cubs finally snapped their streak with two ninth-inning hits against Ross Stripling on Tuesday. But they’re still just 2-for-34 in three games.

But the biggest difference of all between 2015 and 2017? The expectations.

Two years ago, the Cubs had yet to smash that 108-year World Series curse and were fresh off the franchise’s first postseason series win in more than a decade, just the franchise’s second since capturing the 1945 pennant. The Cubs’ second-half surge that season had them playoff party crashers, a much different role than the defending champs.

This time around, the Cubs entered the season as favorites to repeat. The first half was a big disappointment in the eyes of most fans not so much concerned with the effects of the World Series hangover and more focused on getting back to partying in early November. The second half was more like what was expected. And so while the Dodgers — and the Nationals, for that matter — were better regular-season teams, according to the 162-game records, there were expectations on the North Side for the Cubs to do it all over again.

Instead, with one more showing like this by a slumbering Cubs offense against an elite Dodgers pitching staff, the sweep will be completed at Wrigley Field — and it will be 2015 that happens all over again.

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

Spring training baseball games are up around the bend, but before the boys of summer get into organized action, two of the team’s new coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey sit down with Kelly Crull.

Plus, Vinnie Duber joins Kelly to discuss these baseball conversations including the memorable first words of Kyle Schwarber to Chili Davis, “I don’t suck!"

Listen to the full episode at this link (iOS users can go here) or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

MESA, Ariz. — We know Willson Contreras doesn’t like baseball’s new pace-of-play rules.

He isn’t the only one.

“I think it’s a terrible idea. I think it’s all terrible,” Jon Lester said last week at spring training, before the specifics of the new rules were even announced. “The beautiful thing about our sport is there’s no time.”

Big surprise coming from the Cubs’ resident old-schooler.

The new rules limit teams to six mound visits per every nine-inning game, with exceptions for pitching changes, between batters, injuries and after the announcement of a pinch hitter. Teams get an extra mound visit for every extra inning in extra-inning games. Also, commercial breaks between innings have been cut by 20 seconds.

That’s it. But it’s caused a bit of an uproar.

Contreras made headlines Tuesday when he told reporters that he’ll willingly break those rules if he needs to in order to put his team in a better position to win.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If I have to pay the price for my team, I will,” Contreras said. “There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? … You have to go out there. They cannot say anything about that. It’s my team, and we just care about winning. And if they’re going to fine me about the No. 7 mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”

Talking about pace-of-play rule changes last week, Cubs manager Joe Maddon said his team would adapt to any new rules. In Chicago baseball’s other Arizona camp, a similar tune of adaptation was being sung.

“Obviously as players we’ve got to make adjustments to whatever rules they want to implement,” White Sox pitcher James Shields said. “This is a game of adjustments, we’re going to have to make adjustments as we go. We’re going to have to figure out logistics of the thing, and I would imagine in spring training we’re going to be talking about it more and more as we go so we don’t mess it up.”

There was general consensus that mound visits are a valuable thing. So what happens if a pitcher and catcher need to communicate but are forced to do it from 60 feet, six inches away?

“Sign language,” White Sox catching prospect Zack Collins joked. “I guess you have to just get on the same page in the dugout and hope that nothing goes wrong if you’re out of visits.”

In the end, here’s the question that needs answering: Are baseball games really too long?

On one hand, as Lester argued, you know what you’re signing up for when you watch a baseball game, be it in the stands at a ballpark or on TV. No one should be shocked when a game rolls on for more than three hours.

But shock and fans' levels of commitment or just pure apathy are two different things. And sometimes it’s a tough ask for fans to dedicate four hours of their day 162 times a year. So there’s a very good reason baseball is trying to make the game go faster, to keep people from leaving the stands or flipping the TV to another channel.

Unsurprisingly, Lester would rather keep things the way they are.

“To be honest with you, the fans know what they’re getting themselves into when they go to a game,” Lester said. “It’s going to be a three-hour game. You may have a game that’s two hours, two hours and 15 minutes. Great, awesome. You may have a game that’s four hours. That’s the beautiful part of it.

“I get the mound visit thing. But what people that aren’t in the game don’t understand is that there’s so much technology in the game, there’s so many cameras on the field, that every stadium now has a camera on the catcher’s crotch. So they know signs before you even get there. Now we’ve got Apple Watches, now we’ve got people being accused of sitting in a tunnel (stealing signs). So there’s reasons behind the mound visit. He’s not just coming out there asking what time I’m going to dinner or, ‘Hey, how you feeling?’ There’s reasons behind everything, and I think if you take those away, it takes away the beauty of the baseball game.

“Every game has a flow, and I feel like that’s what makes it special. If you want to go to a timed event, go to a timed event. I’m sorry I’m old-school about it, but baseball’s been played the same way for a long time. And now we’re trying to add time to it. We’re missing something somewhere.”

Whether limiting the number of mound visits creates a significant dent in this problem remains to be seen. But excuse the players if they’re skeptical.

“We’ve got instant replay, we’ve got all kinds of different stuff going on. I don’t think (limiting) the mound visits are going to be the key factor to speeding this game up,” Shields said. “Some pitchers take too long, and some hitters take too long. It’s combination of a bunch of stuff.

“I know they’re trying to speed the game up a little bit. I think overall, the game’s going as fast as it possibly could. You’ve got commercials and things like that. TV has a lot to do with it. There’s a bunch of different combinations of things. But as a player, we’ve got to make an adjustment.”