Anthony Rizzo's ninth-inning walk an example of Cubs learning 'how to win'

Anthony Rizzo's ninth-inning walk an example of Cubs learning 'how to win'

To better grasp what Joe Maddon means when he talks about his team learning how to win, look no further than Anthony Rizzo’s ninth-inning walk on Tuesday.

While there were many critical components to the Cubs’ stunning four-run rally on Tuesday night, one which lifted them to a 6-5 win over the San Francisco Giants in Game 4 and clinched the National League Divisional Series, Rizzo’s six-pitch plate appearance was as significant as any.

Stuck in a series-long slump, Rizzo overcame those struggles to provide his club with a big moment when it was needed most. The Cubs pulled ahead for good four batters later and spent Thursday afternoon participating in a light workout at Wrigley Field to stay fresh for the upcoming National League Championship Series instead of playing in a potential NLDS elimination game.

“At the end of the day you learn how to win,” Maddon said. “What does that mean? It’s something you have to participate in daily. There’s a support system within the group and the confidence you show up and play with. You know something bad is going to happen and you fight through it. We’re at that point.”

The scenario Rizzo had to engage in late Tuesday had an extremely high degree of difficulty. Not only had he entered Game 4 without reaching base in 13 at-bats, Rizzo was tasked with keeping the line moving against San Francisco’s Javier Lopez, one of the best postseason situational relievers of the 21st century. Since joining the Giants, Lopez had allowed one run in 24 postseason appearances with only seven of 28 batters he faced reaching base.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

But as general manager Jed Hoyer noted Thursday, Rizzo realized the situation he faced and put on “a great at-bat against a lefty.” With no outs, a man on first and the Cubs down three runs, Rizzo tightened up his strike zone and took a 3-2 pitch for ball four. The free pass set up an RBI double by Ben Zobrist and the Cubs were off to the races.

Rizzo, who belted 32 home runs and finished the regular season with a .928 OPS, said in an ESPN 1000 radio interview Thursday he simply tried to do too much in the first three games of the NLDS. But he shook it off in enough time for the Cubs.

“Honestly, the walk there in the ninth was more important than any hit I got all year,” Rizzo told ESPN’s David Kaplan.

Maddon didn’t think any of Rizzo’s struggles were because of a mechanical issue. He simply though his three-time All-Star first baseman had expanded a strike zone that has helped him produce an average of 75 walks the past three season and a .386 on-base percentage.

“What it comes down when guys aren’t hitting well, it’s normally because their strike zone becomes unorganized,” Maddon said. “That’s it. When you start chasing pitches out of the zone, you get in bad counts, the pitcher gains an advantage. That’s why guys don’t hit. It’s not because there’s anything mechanically flawed.”

Rizzo attributed his Game 4 success -- he also walked in the first inning and later singled -- to his teammates. Rather than focus on his mini-slump, Rizzo stayed confident and focused with encouragement from his elders.

Their theme: “It doesn’t matter what (you’ve done before),” Rizzo said. “It’s the next at-bat. It doesn’t matter if you get four hits and we lose. What are the four hits worth? You just got to keep fighting and keep grinding.”

Yu Darvish emotional after Cubs lose another tough one: 'I'm so frustrated'

Yu Darvish emotional after Cubs lose another tough one: 'I'm so frustrated'

With their postseason hopes fading by the day and the Cubs needing him most, Yu Darvish delivered on Sunday.

And yet, the game ended in a far-too familiar way for the Cubs: with a 3-2 loss, the Cubs’ fifth-straight one-run defeat — and third since Thursday when they were tied or leading in the ninth inning or later.

“If you just play back the tape, it’s almost unbelievable that it turned out this way,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “Also, the games against Cincinnati. For the last six, this is really wash and repeat. Of course it’s frustrating."

Darvish was extremely emotional postgame, as evidenced by a mud stain spread across his locker resulting from an anger-laced throw of his cleat. He pitched well — 8 1/3 innings, three earned runs, 12 strikeouts and no walks — only running into trouble in the ninth.

“I’m so frustrated, you can see it, right?” he said, looking back at his locker. “We have to win, especially today, but we lost.”

The 33-year-old right-hander was rolling heading into the ninth, which started off with pinch-hit triple by Jose Martinez that hit off Albert Almora Jr.’s glove, despite a valiant diving effort.

“It sucks that we couldn’t win that game,” Almora said. “I really wanted to make that play there. Can’t catch them all, but I tried.”

For what it’s worth, Craig Kimbrel didn’t pitch Sunday because he was unavailable, though Maddon said he would’ve stuck with Darvish even if his closer was available.

"I was happy at that point, but right now everything just….There’s no words right now," Darvish said.

That’s neither here nor there, though. What matters is that the Cubs lost another game that they seemed to have in their grasp, only to see it slip away late. They're now eliminated from NL Central contention, and their elimination number in the Wild Card race is three.

Even Maddon struggled to explain the series, one where the Cubs played quite well but only saw their playoff hopes take a big hit.

“It’s really difficult,” he said. “You look at it, how did that all happen? How did we lose all those four games? They were just one runner better than us every night and they were really evenly matched. That’s all I will concede.”

Although Darvish admitted he feels responsible for Sunday’s loss, Maddon spoke highly of the right-hander, even comparing how he's pitched to what Jake Arrieta did during his tenure with the Cubs. 

“I saw Jake pitch really well and win a Cy Young, but this is equivalent of all of that,” he said. “The stuff, command of his stuff. [Darvish] absolutely deserved a better fate.”

Whether you think that Maddon was being too hyperbolic there or not, there’s no doubting that Darvish looked excellent for majority of his outing on Sunday. Baseball is a game of inches, something the Cubs experienced firsthand this weekend.

“They got us. They got us,” Maddon said. “Give them credit for that, but we did not leave anything on the field, man.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: Swept by the Cardinals (and playoff dreams dashed)

USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: Swept by the Cardinals (and playoff dreams dashed)

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Tony Andracki and Kelly Crull discuss the Cardinals sweep, Yu Darvish taking the loss so hard, and what to look for over the final six games of the year.

01:00 - Reaction to being swept by the Cards

03:30 - Darvish taking the loss really hard

05:30 - This is the Yu Darvish Cubs fans thought they were getting when he signed with the Cubs

07:00 - Almora's miscue in the 9th inning of the loss

08:00 - It feels like the end of an era

12:00 - Is this the end of an era for the Cubs?

16:00 - Surprised Rizzo was available on the field for the entire Cardinals series?

20:00 - There is no one thing you can look to that didn't work this season

22:00 - What do you want to see over the final six games?

25:00 - Seeing a cornerstone being helped off the field for a second Sunday in a row

29:00 - How much will we see the injured guys on the field?

Listen here or in the embedded player below. 

Cubs Talk Podcast