Jason Heyward

Cubs-Dodgers NLCS Game 4: The beginning of the end

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USA TODAY

Cubs-Dodgers NLCS Game 4: The beginning of the end

Once again, baseball has proved it's far too wacky to predict.

It's not just the Cubs offense that's been slumping: I've gone 0-for-3 in predictions for each game of the NLCS thus far.

So what's the point in throwing out a prediction again? Based on the last four days, it would be easy to pick the Cubs to lose and that's what I would do, but I've been wrong the first three games, so what do I know?

I never thought the Cubs would get swept in this series. They're too talented, too experienced, too deep to get steamrolled.

But they're also completely worn out and it's showing. The mood in the locker room and the body language on the field is not at all indicative of the same team that showed legendary resiliency last fall.

That's OK. It's understandable. The Cubs have played more games and pitched more innings than any other team in baseball since the start of 2015. 

After all, they are human. 

There is something to be said for a lack of pressure. The Cubs have absolutely nothing to lose right now and they've procastinated all season, playing their best baseball only when they've been backed into a corner.

"Nobody's expecting us to come back except the guys in this room," Kris Bryant said. "I don't know if it's a comforting feeling, but it takes a little pressure off us because nobody expects us to do it."

Bryant also aptly pointed out that if any group can become the second team in baseball history to climb out of an 0-3 hole in a seven-game series, it's the team that ended a 108-year championship drought by erasing a 3-1 deficit in the World Series.

But Bryant said these things without much conviction Tuesday night in the Cubs home clubhouse. 

It looks like these guys left everything in D.C. after that epic Game 5. 

But if I'm wrong again and these Cubs are going to get another entry into the baseball history books, it starts Wednesday night against Alex Wood. Here's the lineup they'll roll with:

1. Albert Almora Jr. - CF
2. Kyle Schwarber - LF
3. Kris Bryant - 3B
4. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
5. Willson Contreras - C
6. Addison Russell - SS
7. Javy Baez - 2B
8. Jon Jay - RF
9. Jake Arrieta - P

Dodgers starter Alex Wood is a pretty neutral pitcher, really good against both right-handers and lefties. So it makes sense that Almora and Schwarber are both in the lineup and atop the order, as they've had the best plate appearances of anybody on the team in this NLCS.

It also makes sense that Jason Heyward is not in the lineup, as his postseason numbers with the Cubs have been downright icky. 

Heyward deserves a ton of credit for his clubhouse leadership, that rain delay speech and incredible defense in the outfield. But he's hitting .109 with a .186 on-base percentage and .156 slugging percentage in 70 postseason plate appearances in a Cubs uniform. That's a .342 OPS.

Barring a curveball with more break than his own, this will be Arrieta's last start in a Cubs uniform, which is maybe the biggest storyline of the game after the whole will-the-Cubs-swept-out-of-the-NLCS-for-the-second-time-in-three-years thing.

When Arrieta started Game 4 of the NLDS, he admitted he couldn't help but take a moment or two to look around Wrigley Field and try to take it all in. This is the place that turned his career around.

Arrieta is also a gigantic reason this Cubs team has played so many games these last three seasons, winning the Cy Young in 2015 and beating the Cleveland Indians twice on the road in the World Series.

It'll be great to see the reaction from the crowd and his own reaction when he steps out to the mound and whenever it is he walks off the bump to the third base dugout.

Cubs need Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo to produce or else their reign as defending World Series champs is over

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USA TODAY

Cubs need Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo to produce or else their reign as defending World Series champs is over

Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo are the yin and yang of the Cubs lineup, the right- and left-handed forces that feed off each other, two huge building blocks for a World Series team, the smiling faces of the franchise, an ideal brand for social media and two friends close enough that Rizzo became a groomsman at Bryant’s Las Vegas wedding in January.

With the defending champs now down 0-2 in a best-of-seven National League Championship Series – and the Los Angeles Dodgers looking like an updated version of the 2016 Cubs – winter is coming if Bryzzo Souvenir Co. doesn’t start producing soon.

Like Tuesday night in Game 3 at Wrigley Field. Take away the 9-8 outlier against the Washington Nationals – where an intentional walk, a passed ball on a swinging strike three, a catcher interference and a hit by pitch sparked a big rally – and the Cubs have scored 11 runs in six playoff games this October.

“Everybody in the lineup, they feel the same way: When you don’t produce, it’s like you let the team down,” Bryant said. “But that’s not the right way to feel, because not one person makes or breaks the team.

“I put that in perspective all the time, and realize it’s not what you do in the playoffs, it’s what the team does. And, obviously, we haven’t been getting it done so far in the series. But this is a totally unselfish team. I don’t think anybody here is pouting or down on themselves.”

Bryant (.179 average) has struck out 13 times in 28 postseason at-bats while working only one walk and hitting zero homers. Rizzo – who shouted “RESPECT ME!” at Dusty Baker and the Nationals during the divisional round and went 0-for-6 over the weekend at Dodger Stadium – dismissed the idea that he feels any extra responsibility to jumpstart the offense.

“I think that is selfish if you did,” Rizzo said. “One through nine, all 25 guys, we got to get going. Our pitching is doing a heck of a job. You need help from everyone in the lineup, not just one or two guys.”

But Bryant and Rizzo can certainly make Joe Maddon’s job a lot easier, not forcing the pinch-hitters as early for Kyle Hendricks and Jake Arrieta, creating some breathing room for the middle relievers or just getting the lead and taking the guesswork out of the equation: Give the ball to All-Star closer Wade Davis.     

Even without launching home runs, Bryant and Rizzo also happen to be very good on the bases, with enough speed and instincts to make things happen when the Dodgers keep putting zeros on the scoreboard. The Cubs are already sacrificing offense for defense at second base (Javier Baez) and in right field (Jason Heyward) and don’t have their World Series MVP (Ben Zobrist) in peak condition.    

Bryant is exceptionally available to the media, and usually shrugs almost everything off with an upbeat answer, but even he sounded and looked a little different in terms of tone and body language on Sunday night in Dodger Stadium’s visiting clubhouse.

Whether it was the nature of that walk-off loss – Where’s Wade? – or the reality of a different Dodger team or the jet lag, the Cubs seemed a little shell-shocked.

It was almost exactly a year ago when Bryant stood in the same room in front of the cameras and purposely said, “Nope,” when asked if there was any sense of panic creeping into the clubhouse after seeing Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill in back-to-back shutouts.

[MORE: Wade Davis won't second-guess Joe Maddon]      

But Bryant even admitted that defending a World Series title is more taxing than chasing a championship ring.  

“I wouldn’t say emotionally or mentally,” Bryant said. “Physically, yeah, I think some guys are tired. It’s been a really long year, (but) you only notice that before and after the game.

“During the game, there’s so much adrenaline and the fans cheering that you don’t really notice it. But then you sit down after a game, you feel pretty tired and beat. And then you wake up and do it all over again the next day.”

That has been the story of 2017 for Bryant, who followed up an MVP campaign with a 29-homer/.946 OPS season that drew attention for his lowered RBI total (73). But just like Rizzo, he has a tenacious competitive streak and a unique ability to separate one pitch from the next. The Cubs need all of that now, or else their reign as defending World Series champs is about to end.   

“I’ve put some good swings on some balls, but sometimes you just get beat,” Bryant said. “Sometimes you go through good stretches, bad stretches, stuff like that. I realize it’s all part of the game.

“It just stinks. You want to go out there and perform right now, because if you perform now, you’re winning. But you can’t force it.”

Predicting the NLCS: Why Cubs will win Game 1 and take the series

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AP

Predicting the NLCS: Why Cubs will win Game 1 and take the series

Get ready for another sighting of the Cubs in the World Series.

After more than seven decades without one of baseball's most iconic franchises, the Fall Classic will once again feature Joe Maddon's team in 2017.

(Either that, or this column will look pretty funny 8 days from now, but hey, that's the nature - and fun - of predictions.)

What it boils down to simply is this: Would you want to bet against the Cubs? I mean, seriously.

The baseball gods clearly seem on their side lately, as the Cubs have caught several breaks from that fifth inning against Max Scherzer to Jose Lobaton's foot coming off the bag to Anthony Rizzo's bloop hit dropping, leading to his epic "RESPECT ME!" montage

And that's just this week.

The breaks keep coming for the Cubs, as they'll face the Los Angeles in an NLCS rematch without the Dodgers' best everyday player. 

Corey Seager's absence (back injury) is a huge loss for the Dodgers offense. The reigning NL Rookie of the Year and two-time All-Star hit .295 with an .854 OPS, 22 homers, 77 RBI and 85 runs. He did not record an extra-base hit in last year's NLCS against the Cubs, but did hit .286 with a .375 on-base percentage.

[RELATED - Cubs NLCS roster]

The whole idea of experience and "been there before" is overblown, but the Cubs keep proving it does count for something, rising above adversity and continuing to drive forward no matter how many punches they take.

"It's never easy, but experience is the best teacher in that," Jason Heyward said during the Cubs' celebration in the visiting locker room at Nationals Park early Friday morning. "You have to do it. You don't have a choice. Either you get over it, or you dwell on it and it sinks your ship.

"We know we can't do that. If you're gonna go down, go down turning the page. Go down competing, go down in that moment. Can't dwell on what happened before."

Heyward has been a steadying force in helping this Cubs team "turn the page" over the last two seasons. One of the lasting images of that epic Game 5 will be his reaction on the final out - taking a few steps, clutching his jersey and letting out a primal scream after four hours and 37 minutes of tortured nerves. 

And once again, the Cubs found a way to win a ridiculous, intense game. Because that's what they do.

"Two hundred 40 baseball games a year or whatever - our players grind through all year and our front office guys pull the all-nighters," president Theo Epstein said. "This is what it's all about.

"Now our guys are establishing that identity of finding a way to win this time of year. There's no better thing to be known for and they've earned it. I'm proud of them."

The 2017 Dodgers are essentially the 2016 Cubs: a team with World Series expectations from the outset, got out to an insane start, added an impact pitcher before the trade deadline (Yu Darvish - LA; Aroldis Chapman - 2016 Cubs) and won more than 100 games as the best team in baseball (104 - LA; 103 - 2016 Cubs).

But like the Cubs say, to be the best, they gotta beat the best. And the Dodgers are currently the best. 

Here's how the Cubs will line up against Kershaw in Game 1:

1. Jon Jay - RF
2. Kris Bryant - 3B
3. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
4. Willson Contreras - C
5. Albert Almora Jr. - CF
6. Addison Russell - SS
7. Kyle Schwarber - LF
8. Javy Baez - 2B
9. Jose Quintana - P

The lineup looks exactly like how the Cubs lined up against lefty Gio Gonzalez in Game 5 of the NLDS...save for one major difference: Kyle Schwarber.

Schwarber has never faced Kershaw, but there's reason to be optimistic. Schwarber made great contact (114 mph exit velocity) off a lefty in his long pinch-hit appearance in Game 5, just missing a home run by a matter of a few feet.

Kershaw is also actually tougher on righties than lefties, which is surprising for a southpaw. Lefties are hitting .248 with a .734 OPS against him, homering once every 19 at-bats. Righties are hitting only .203 with a .570 OPS and homering once every 42.42 at-bats.

Maddon is hoping Schwarber can give the Cubs a run or two with his bat early, and then look for Heyward to come into the game for defense with Jay switching over to left field.

As for Ben Zobrist's absence in the lineup, beyond Kershaw's reverse splits, Maddon also pointed to Zobrist's ineffectiveness from the right side this season - he's slashing just .179/.261/.292 (.553 OPS) and hit just one homer all year. Zobrist hasn't looked right from that side since an awkward swing hurt his wrist in the middle of the season.

Prediction

Cubs win Game 1 and take the series in six games again. 

Let's start with Game 1: The Cubs already had the tough task of trying to beat the best pitcher in the game (Kershaw) and now will have to do that after a whirlwind week that included a detour on the way from D.C. to L.A. They're exhausted - physically and mentally - while the Dodgers have had almost the entire last week off.

So of course the Cubs are going to win Saturday night. Why? Because it's baseball and it's impossible to predict, so narratives are thrown out the window all the time.

Watch the Cubs follow the 2016 script - ride high off an epic win in the NLDS, take the first game from the Dodgers and then feature a lull in the middle few games before roaring back and taking the series.

But this Dodgers team is quite a bit different than last year's NLCS runner-up. 

Cody Bellinger is a legit star in the middle of that order and the clear NL Rookie of the Year. And the Dodgers rotation is healthier than it was at this time a year ago, plus the addition of Darvish.

Albert Almora Jr. should be in for a big opportunity in this series, likely starting three of the first four games against the southpaws. Almora has elevated his play and given the Cubs a big boost in the latter part of the season, including a big hit in Game 3 of the NLDS and a pair of quality plate appearances in Game 5 off Gio Gonzalez.

But Almora isn't my pick for NLCS MVP. Instead, I'm betting on one of the Cubs' middle infielders, with Addison Russell continuing his clutch ways while Javy Baez (the co-NLCS MVP last fall) is due for an offensive breakout after going 0-for-14 in the NLDS.

In fact, the entire Cubs offense is due for a breakout after the NLDS, so even though the Dodgers pitching is elite, look for the bats to wake up after pushing across runs in so many different ways Thursday night.

"We gotta play a really clean game," Epstein said. "But we always hit eventually. We got through the series and we didn't always get the big hit. I think that bodes well. We're gonna hit. We got too many talented hitters. 

"I think we'll raise our game. This time of year, it's about finding a way to win. That's what it's all about."