Cubs

Remember this: At the Masters, no lead is safe

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Remember this: At the Masters, no lead is safe

From Comcast SportsNet
AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) -- The seven shots Rory McIlroy took on the 10th hole last year at the Masters remain a blur. So was the rest of his final round at Augusta National, where the 22-year-old from Northern Ireland made the wrong kind of history. He started with a four-shot lead. He finished 10 shots behind after an 80, the highest closing round by a 54-hole leader in 56 years. If nothing else, it was a reminder how tenuous a lead can be in the final round. Especially at the Masters. "It's a course that makes you really nervous," Geoff Ogilvy said. There is an art to playing Augusta, which explains why nearly 40 percent of the Masters have been won by eight players. For those seeking their first green jacket, let alone their first major, finishing it off can be a challenge. Greg Norman lost a record six-shot lead in 1996. Ed Sneed had a five-shot lead in 1979, and was still three shots clear with three holes remaining when he made three straight bogeys and lost in a playoff. Ken Venturi was on the verge of becoming the only amateur to win the Masters in 1956 when he blew a four-shot lead. Like McIlroy, he shot an 80. McIlroy's blown lead is enough of a memory going into the Masters. Adding to the emphasis is a bad habit of 54-hole leaders failing to win this year on the PGA Tour. Kyle Stanley had a three-shot lead playing the final hole at Torrey Pines when he spun a wedge into the water and three-putted for a triple bogey, losing to Brandt Snedeker in a playoff. A week later, Spencer Levin had a six-shot lead in the Phoenix Open when his game imploded on the back nine. He shot 75 and Stanley -- of all people -- rallied from eight shots behind to beat him. Charlie Wi lost a three-shot lead at Pebble Beach and Phil Mickelson won with a 64. The next week at Riviera, Mickelson and Keegan Bradley shared the 54-hole lead and both wound up losing to Bill Haas in a playoff. In 14 stroke-play events on the PGA Tour, only five players have gone on to win with at least a share of the third-round lead. With that kind of history, protecting a lead is not easy. "Not even close to easy, as we've seen," Nick Faldo said. He should know. Faldo is the only player with multiple Masters wins who has never had the lead going into the last day. Along with his win over Norman in 1996, he came from five shots down in 1989 and three shots behind in 1990, both times winning in a playoff. "That's the beauty of the Masters," Faldo said. "We come back every year, all those stories are compounded, from victory and failure. That's what makes it so special. The players will be reminded of it. Anything more than three or four shots, and you're making assumptions. If you were to carry a decent lead into Sunday, you'd need a steel-trap mind to survive." That was never a problem for Tiger Woods. He was either leading or tied going into the final round in all four of his Masters wins -- along with his other 10 majors. Woods never saw it as a burden, though. "The beauty of having a lead is that you can make those mistakes and still win," Woods said. "But the only problem is if some guys make a run and they get some momentum going, and you're going the other way, you give them a big shot of energy. You've seen some of these guys pull off some pretty low rounds. It doesn't take much. If you get off to a poor start and the other guy gets off to a quick start, four or five shots can be made up in a few holes." That's how it was for Woods last year, but only for half of his round. He made up a seven-shot deficit in nine holes, going out in 31 with a birdie-birdie-eagle stretch on the front nine as McIlroy stalled. Woods wasn't alone, of course. Charl Schwartzel started his round with a chip across the green for an improbable birdie, and holing a wedge from the third fairway for eagle. Three holes into the final round, McIlroy's lead already was gone. Jack Nicklaus never coughed up the lead going into the last round at a major, although twice he failed to win when he was tied -- at Turnberry in his epic duel with Tom Watson in 1977, and at Augusta when Charles Coody beat him in 1971. Even so, he remains annoyed at a blown opportunity in the 77 Masters, when he was tied with Watson and in the group right in front of his newest rival. He had 156 yards to the pin when he heard a big roar from behind -- Watson made birdie. "I changed my thought pattern, and I shouldn't have," Nicklaus said. "I had a 6-iron in my hand, planning to play it by the hole to the right and have that 15-foot putt right of the hole to win the golf tournament. I tried to stuff it in, hit it fat, hit in the bunker and let Watson play the last hole any way he wanted, which was really stupid. "I mean, here I am, 37 years old, and I still make a dumb mistake like that," said Nicklaus, who made bogey and lost by two when Watson took par on the 18th. "It's one of the few that I can turn around and kick myself for what I did." Stuart Appleby's demise at the Masters began early in 2007. He had a comfortable lead until taking a triple bogey on the 17th hole of the third round. With a one-shot lead over Woods on Sunday, he started with a tee shot into the trees for a double bogey. Appleby rallied to rejoin the lead until a 7-iron into the water on the 12th. Woods wasn't much better, and Zach Johnson wound up winning. "It's not 18 holes of golf, it's 18 holes of emotion," Appleby said. "If you can keep your emotions in check at a high level, you will be a world-class player. When you see a player struggling to finish, it's purely not keeping your emotions in check." McIlroy was that kind of player last year. When he looked back on tape, he noticed that he was looking at the ground, not walking with his head up and that boyish bounce in his step. He believes now he wasn't ready to win a major. Boy Wonder atoned for that quickly. Two months later, he became a major champion with a record win at the U.S. Open. Perhaps it was only appropriate that of all the text messages and phone calls of support in the days after the Masters, the most meaningful was a call from Norman. "It was great coming from him, because I'm sure he knew how I felt," McIlroy said. "He said a couple things to me that I found very useful and put into practice, especially weeks like this where there's so much hype and there's so much buildup. I've said this before, but create this little bubble around yourself and just try and get into that and don't let any of the outside interference come into that." Received 040412 08:02 am ET

Cubs go quietly into winter, their reign as defending champs finally over

Cubs go quietly into winter, their reign as defending champs finally over

The armchair psychology went like this: Force the Los Angeles Dodgers onto the plane, let them think about it during the long flight to the West Coast, get in their heads during Friday’s day off and feel all the momentum and pressure shift in this National League Championship Series.

At least that’s what the Cubs told themselves and the media, whether or not they actually believed it, playing the kind of mind games designed for lesser teams. From Theo Epstein and the top of baseball operations down, the Cubs had enough connections to the 2004 Boston Red Sox to hope they could become only the second team to overcome an 0-3 LCS deficit.

That dream officially ended at 10:15 p.m. on Thursday when Willson Contreras lined Kenley Jansen’s 93.3-mph cutter at backup shortstop Charlie Culberson, another symbol of Dodger Way game-planning and the overall depth to withstand the loss of All-Star Corey Seager as he recovered from a back injury. The mosh pit formed in the middle of Wrigley Field, where it got very quiet except for a few sections of Dodger fans cheering and Gary Pressy playing the organ.

The Cubs are no longer the defending World Series champs after an 11-1 loss that had no drama or suspense and felt more like a getaway day. There will be no Game 6 or Game 7 this weekend at Dodger Stadium.

“I only experienced winning,” said Albert Almora Jr., a rookie outfielder on last year’s forever team. “Jon Jay told me: ‘Look at the expressions on their face when they’re celebrating on your field and let that sink in and learn from that and build from that.’”

You believed Almora, a baseball gym rat, when he stood at his locker and said: “It hurts.” But when the clubhouse doors opened to the media roughly 30 minutes after the final out, you didn’t really feel any tension in the room, more like a collective exhale, a time to sit around and drink a few Presidente beers and realize that the Dodgers deserved to go to the World Series for the first time since 1988.

“They just flat-out beat us,” said Kris Bryant, who got the first hit off Clayton Kershaw, a garbage-time homer in the fourth inning when the Cubs were already down 9-0.

Bryant is everything you could ever want in a franchise player – diligent on the field, polished off the field, even more productive in many ways after his MVP campaign, someone who doesn’t even drink during clinch celebrations – but even he admitted he still felt the World Series hangover that bugged the Cubs.

“I was just looking back at last year,” Bryant said. “I didn’t get home until like November 10 last year with all the festivities after winning and stuff. I think that really caught up to some of us this year. So I don’t know, maybe the extra time to recoup, maybe train a little harder. I am getting older, so I got to watch that.”

The reporters chuckled along with Bryant in a room where the sound system played classic rock like Dire Straits and Tom Petty. The Cubs know they should be good again in 2018 – and for years after that – and didn’t exactly sound devastated.

To be honest, Wednesday’s thrilling Game 4 win felt like the Super Bowl for this team, Jake Arrieta getting a standing ovation and tipping his cap before signing his free-agent megadeal somewhere else, Wade Davis having the guts to finish off a 48-pitch, two-inning save and the Cubs feeling the adrenaline rush of staving off elimination for another night.

When Jon Lester saw the media gathering by his locker, he joked: “What? I didn’t do s---. Why the f--- do you want to talk to me?”

“Obviously, nobody likes to lose, but we’ve been in the NLCS for three years in a row,” said Lester, who raised the bar for expectations when he signed a $155 million contract with a last-place team after the 2014 season. “You know how special that is. I know everybody kind of goes back to the first half of the season and they like to nitpick. But we won the division, made the playoffs and made it to the NLCS.

“Sometimes, you’re not always going to be in the World Series. The Dodgers are a really good team. They’re playing really good baseball right now. This series showed it. Sometimes, it is what it is, and you just kind of move on.”

The Cubs had Lester, a three-time World Series champion, lined up for a Game 6 that is no longer necessary. Jose Quintana – who shined against the Washington Nationals in the last round and battled Kershaw to a draw in Game 1 – didn’t give his team a chance this time.

Quintana, a signature trade-deadline move made with multiple playoff runs in mind, allowed runs in the first and second innings and left the bases loaded in the third for Hector Rondon, who watched Kike Hernandez drive the second of his three home runs into the right-center field basket for a grand slam.

The Cubs were desperate enough that John Lackey, five days before his 39th birthday, pitched two innings in what was likely his last game in a big-league uniform. Lackey kept walking out of the clubhouse and declined to speak with reporters: “No, I’m good, man.”

“It’s not easy to be the best,” outfielder Jason Heyward said, “but that’s what you want. You don’t want easy. You don’t want to expect to be going home every year. You want to be in October. You want to have a chance to win the World Series. And you want to be one of the teams that expects to be there.”

That’s what the Cubs will be next year, when the last day of the season won’t have the same big-picture perspective. It will be either a stinging loss or spraying champagne.

“Seems like a hundred years ago, right?” Lester said about his decision to sign with the Cubs. “It’s one of those Catch-22s. You look at it as it’s a disappointing season for the simple fact that we didn’t make it to the World Series. But you got to look at the positives, too, in that moment whenever you get on a plane to go home.

“We gave ourselves a chance. It just didn’t happen this year. We got beat by a better team. We beat them last year (in the NLCS), and they beat us this year, so you got to tip your hat sometimes, and you move on. We’ll be ready to go in spring training.”

Sluggish offense plus Dodger pitching equaled disaster for Cubs in NLCS

Sluggish offense plus Dodger pitching equaled disaster for Cubs in NLCS

Your National League Championship Series final: Cubs 8, Enrique Hernandez 7.

When the Cubs look back at why they struggled in the NLCS and what they’ll need moving forward, many questions are likely to involve fixing an offense that was dormant for almost all of the postseason.

Thursday night’s 11-1 loss in Game 5 of the NLCS to the Los Angeles Dodgers put an exclamation point on a lopsided series, one in which the Cubs were outscored 28-8. Hernandez nearly matched the Cubs’ entire output in the clincher with three home runs and seven RBIs. While the pitching shares much of the blame, a Cubs offense that produced a .168/.240/.289 slash line and scored 25 runs this postseason is perhaps an even bigger culprit.

“(The Dodgers) pitched very, very well from start to finish,” said utility man Ben Zobrist. “It was tough to overcome that. We are going to get our homers. But as a whole, I felt like they kept us off-balance and they kept us from having good quality at-bats consistently. When we did get something going it wasn’t much. It was one run here or there or a couple runs here or there. But they pitched a great series, kept us from really exploding like they can as an offense.”

The Cubs’ bats have been ice cold for the entire postseason. Aside from a nine-run showing in their Oct. 12 NLDS-clincher over the Washington Nationals, the Cubs never appeared to be as formidable a bunch as they were in 2016.

Their scores by game entering Thursday’s loss were: 3, 3, 2, 0, 9, 2, 1, 1 and 3.

By the time the Dodgers plated two early runs off Jose Quintana, the Cubs looked to be in for an uphill battle against three-time Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw. That condition was upgraded to next-to-impossible by the time Hernandez blasted a grand slam off Hector Rodon in the third inning to put the Dodgers up 7-0.

As it were, the Cubs finished with four hits and didn’t score until Kris Bryant homered to make it 9-1 in the fourth inning. It was Bryant’s first round-tripper of the postseason.

The struggles of Bryant and teammate Anthony Rizzo were well-documented. The pair produced a combined .169/.210/.206 slash line with two home runs, nine RBIs, three walks and 28 strikeouts in 81 plate appearances. Bryant thought it had to do with a team that was worn down running into outstanding pitching.

“It’s a little of both,” Bryant said. “It took a lot out of us that first series, some really good pitching with the Nationals. Obviously with the Dodgers, too. I think they had a group of players that really turned it on at the right time and were clicking whereas we didn’t. That was the difference. But a ton of credit to them, they just flat out beat us.”

Bryant and Rizzo weren’t alone in their struggles.

The leadoff position alone went from a force of life in 2016 with Dexter Fowler to virtually no production this postseason. Jon Jay, Albert Almora and Zobrist went a combined 4-for-36 with three hit by pitches from the leadoff spot.

Catcher Willson Contreras (.748) was the only Cubs regular to finish with an OPS above .700. Javier Baez produced a .451 OPS, Zobrist registered a .416 and Jason Heyward finished at .403.

By comparison, the Dodgers have six players with at least 20 plate appearances this postseason with an .800 or better OPS. That doesn’t of course count Hernandez, who made only his fourth start of the postseason and went nuts. He homered off Jose Quintana in the second inning to give Los Angeles a 2-0 lead. His grand slam in the third after Quintana exited put the game out of reach. And Hernandez’s ninth-inning blast off Mike Montgomery to center was icing on the Dodgers’ cake.

Figuring out how to remedy their offensive issues figures to be one of the Cubs’ top priorities this offseason. One way the team could help jumpstart Bryant and Rizzo is by acquiring a better leadoff hitter, something they lost when Fowler departed via free agency last winter. The team saw its production from the leadoff spot drop from an .815 OPS in 2016 to .745 in 2017.

“We did enough to beat Washington and that’s all you need in the postseason,” Rizzo said. “We didn’t do enough to beat the Dodgers. They pitched better than we hit. End of story.

“They’re good. There’s no excuses. You’ve got to play better. But at the end of the day, it is what it is. It’s baseball. You hit the ball at the guy or you don’t.”