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.