Cubs

Winter is coming for Cubs team that looks checked out of 2017

Winter is coming for Cubs team that looks checked out of 2017

Kyle Schwarber took a Babe Ruth swing on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, posed for a moment and dropped the bat out of his follow through, watching that Yu Darvish pitch soar 408 feet out toward the left-center field bleachers.

Those carefree Cubs relievers shown on the video board – wait, was that John Lackey bouncing around? – danced in the bullpen in the first inning. This is exactly what the Cubs wanted: Grab an early lead? Check. Get one of their big boys going? Check. Energize the crowd of 41,871? Check.

That sense of momentum lasted less than the time it takes to buy a beer or go to the bathroom at Wrigley Field, because the Los Angeles Dodgers look like the unstoppable force this October.

Now Wade Davis may never pitch in this National League Championship Series and Wednesday night could be Jake Arrieta’s final start in a Cubs uniform. Winter is coming after a 6-1 loss left the defending World Series champs looking mentally checked out of 2017.

The Cubs played AC/DC and Motley Crue in their underground clubhouse and answered questions about why they believe they can match the 2004 Boston Red Sox who took down the New York Yankee Evil Empire, becoming the only team to come back from an 0-3 deficit since the LCS expanded to a seven-game format in 1985.

But Kris Bryant’s glassy look and bloodshot eyes told a different story, the reigning NL MVP admitting how “draining” those five games felt against the Washington Nationals in Round 1.

“But you kind of expect that around this time when games mean a lot,” Bryant said. “It takes a lot of energy to get ready for these games, and at the end, you feel wiped out. It’s expected.”

But no one could have predicted this lack of buzz in Wrigleyville, which felt less than a lot of midweek games during the regular season. A silence fell over the old ballpark when Andre Ethier – who has three homers across the last two seasons combined – lined a Kyle Hendricks pitch off the video board in right field to lead off the second inning.

Hendricks – who has made 10 postseason starts across the last three years and kept the Dodgers completely off-balance last October on the night the Cubs clinched their first NL pennant in 71 years – watched in the third inning as Chris Taylor crushed another home-run ball that bounced off the roof of the batter’s eye in center field.

“I wouldn’t say we’re running out of gas,” shortstop Addison Russell said. “Every time we step on the field, I feel like we have a pretty good chance of winning. We’re going to come into the clubhouse tomorrow positive and just ready to strap it on.”

The Dodgers will be out for beer and champagne on Wednesday night and the chance to kick back and watch the Yankees and Houston Astros expend all their energy in the ALCS.

Dodger manager Dave Roberts – who pushed all the right bullpen buttons in Games 1 and 2 (eight no-hit/scoreless innings combined) – toyed with the Cubs by letting Darvish hit against struggling reliever Carl Edwards Jr. with a two-run lead and two outs and the bases loaded in the sixth inning.

Darvish showed bunt on all four pitches – and drew a four-pitch walk and slammed his bat to the ground in celebration. The fans booed after Edwards struck out Taylor on three pitches to end the inning.

“We were there just as much as any other game,” said Ben Zobrist, last year’s World Series MVP. “Mentally, there was no letdown. Physically, there was no letdown. It was just a matter of them capitalizing on some mistakes that we made. That’s part of the game. And they didn’t make a lot of mistakes.

“They played better baseball than us tonight. That’s why they got the W.”

The Cubs committed two errors in Game 3 and then had a National-style meltdown in the eighth inning, from Zobrist misjudging the flyball to right field that dropped in front of him, to Mike Montgomery throwing a wild pitch, to catcher Willson Contreras getting crossed up on a swinging strike three, his glove nowhere near Montgomery’s 92.7-mph fastball, which crashed into his right arm and ricocheted into the visiting dugout.

A three-run game became 6-1 – and head for the exits and then the offseason. There was Albert Almora Jr. in the ninth inning, driving a ball into the ivy in left field and sprinting right into lead runner Alex Avila at third base, bailed out only because Kike Hernandez waved his hand to signal a ground-rule double.

At least that made All-Star closer Kenley Jansen work the last three outs, accumulated stress that might benefit the Yankees or Astros more than the Cubs.

“They are done,” an NL scout wrote in a text message. “You can see it in their faces.”

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.