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


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.”

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Who was Theo Epstein’s first draft pick with the Cubs?

The answer to that trivia question will always and forever be Albert Almora Jr. picked sixth overall in the 2012 amateur draft.

In some ways, the young outfielder from Florida became the forgotten man in the stable of can’t-miss prospects that Epstein and top lieutenants Jed Hoyer and Jason MacLeod amassed since their arrival over six years ago. While players such as Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ zoomed through the minor leagues on their way to the majors, Almora took a different path – one that included seven different stops over parts of five developmental seasons before he broke into the big leagues during the 2016 season.

But Almora’s road to the majors began years before he was selected by the Cubs, when he began playing for Team USA as a 13-year-old. Over the next several years, Almora played for the Red, White & Blue seven times, his final appearance coming in 2015. The seven appearances are the most in the history of USA Baseball, and Almora recognizes the impact his time with the national squad had on his playing career.

“[It was] one of the best experiences of my life," he said. "Every year I had something special to play with, unbelievable guys, went to crazy places, and out of those six years, five of them came with a gold medal so that was pretty special as well. Also, that helped me in my baseball life, how to experience things and learn from those type of experiences.

“I’m a Cubbie and that’s what’s on my chest right now, but Team USA will always have a special place in my heart.”

While Almora carries those national team experiences with him every day, his main focus coming into the 2018 season is becoming a consistent difference-maker. Almora made only 65 starts during the 2017 campaign, and 63 percent of his at-bats last year came against left-handed pitching, against which he hit a robust .342. That led to a platoon role in a crowded outfield, with Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, Jon Jay, Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist all taking turns on the merry-go-round. But with the departure of Jay, Almora believes his time is near.

“I have the most confidence in myself that I can play every day, but I try not to think about that kind of stuff because it’s out of my control," Almora said. "All I control is like last year what I did; whenever I was given an opportunity, I tried to do my best and help the team win.”

Almora’s ultimate role on the 2018 Cubs remains to be seen, but there’s no question that Theo’s first Cubs pick will earn whatever role he ends up with, and the foundation of Almora’s journey to Clark and Addison was laid many summers ago during his time with Team USA.

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

News broke to Willson Contreras that the league will be limiting mound visits this upcoming season, and the Cubs catcher —notorious for his frequent visits to the rubber — is not having it.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If you have to go again and pay the price for my team, I will," he said.

The new rules rolled out Tuesday will limit six visits —any time a manager, coach or player visits the mound — per nine innings. But, communication between a player and a pitcher that does not require them moving from their position does not count as a visit.When a team is out of visits, it's the umpire's discretion to allow an extra trip to the mound.

But despite the new rules, Contreras is willing to do what's best for the team.

“There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? They cannot say anything about that. If you’re going to fine me about the [seventh] mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”