Cubs

Cubs can’t solve Corey Kluber as Indians’ ace possibly looms in Games 4 and 7 of World Series

Cubs can’t solve Corey Kluber as Indians’ ace possibly looms in Games 4 and 7 of World Series

CLEVELAND — Corey Kluber quickly took the shine off a moment 71 years in the making when he struck out Dexter Fowler looking to begin Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday night at Progressive Field. He then struck out Kris Bryant, again on a called third strike, and induced the first of three uncharacteristic Anthony Rizzo pop-outs to sternly put the Cubs away in the first inning.

Kluber, the 2014 American League Cy Young winner and a 2016 All-Star, turned in a master-class outing against a Cubs lineup that’s oscillated between potent and putrid in the playoffs. The 30-year-old right-hander scattered four hits with no walks and a Cleveland Indians World Series record nine strikeouts over six shutout innings to set the stage for an emphatic 6-0 win.

“Just pretty much as dominant as one could be right there,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “Hitting his spots, really didn’t make many mistakes or give us much to work with. But that’s what good pitchers do.”

Six of Kluber’s nine strikeouts were looking, and the Cubs watched 22 pitches be called for strikes. Kluber’s sinker was his most effective pitch, with Cubs hitters struggling to track its movement: According to BrooksBaseball.net, of the 30 sinkers he threw, 24 were for strikes but the Cubs only swung at 10 of them. Five of those 30 sinkers were put in play, and just one went for a hit — Kyle Schwarber’s near-home run in the fourth inning.

Kluber’s curveball became a nasty out-pitch as the game went on — the five whiffs he generated on it were the most of any pitch — and shortstop Addison Russell said his ability to vary the speeds on both his curveball and slider kept the Cubs’ lineup even more off-balance.

[SHOP: Buy a "Try Not to Suck" shirt with proceeds benefiting Joe Maddon's Respect 90 Foundation & other Cubs Charities]

“Whenever he changes speeds off his slider and curveball and kind of deceives the (velocity) a little bit, deceives the movement on his breaking ball, it’s pretty tough to hit,” Russell said.

The Cubs will have to solve Kluber at least one more time in this series, with manager Terry Francona “strongly” considering starting him in Games 4 and 7, according to ESPN’s Buster Olney.

While both of those starts would come on three days rest, manager Terry Francona didn’t hesitate to start Kluber in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series with the Indians seeking a sweep. The Toronto Blue Jays got to him that day, at least by his standards — two runs on four hits with two walks, seven strikeouts and one home run in five innings — but he hasn’t allowed a run in any of his three postseason starts with at least four days rest.

Cubs hitters felt confident in their ability to bounce back from Tuesday’s loss, and Russell pointed to the Cubs having more success the second time they face a pitcher. At least in the National League Championship Series, that was true for Clayton Kershaw, who threw a shutout in Game 2 but allowed five runs in Game 6.

But the Cubs will have to find a way to cobble together some offense against Kluber, otherwise the Indians’ ace could be even more of an X-Factor in the World Series than lights-out reliever Andrew Miller.

“He’s really mastered the art of the sinker/slider on the outer half to righties and inner half to lefties,” catcher David Ross said. “He’s got a cutter in there too to keep you honest, and that ball was coming back there pretty good tonight. Really good movement on all his pitches. That’s why he’s a former Cy Young winner and their ace, he’s really, really good.”

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

When Ben Zobrist rejoined the Cubs active roster on Sept. 1, it was fair to wonder how much he could provide offensively. After all, he spent the previous four months on the restricted list while tending to a family matter, last playing a big-league game on May 6.

Zobrist did no baseball activities from May to mid-July, only working out to stay in shape. Although he eventually ramped things up, he played in just 12 minor league rehab games in August before returning to the Cubs, a small number compared to the length of his absence.

Even Zobrist admitted upon his big-league return that his timing at the plate wasn’t where he wanted it to be. And yet, what he did in September was nothing short of impressive. In 21 games, he posted a .284/.377/.388 slash line, performing at a level many couldn’t have expected, considering the circumstances.

Zobrist's impact on the Cubs' lineup goes beyond what you see in the box score, however. Not only is he a switch hitter with some pop, but he has a keen eye for the strike zone and frequently puts together professional at-bats.

On a Cubs team that tends to expand the zone, Zobrist’s presence mattered. In his second game back, for example, he went 3-for-3 with two walks, helping the Cubs beat the Brewers 10-5. After the game, Brewers starter Chase Anderson pointed out how different the Cubs' lineup looks with Zobrist in it.

"They play the matchups really well and Zobrist makes that team so much better," Anderson said on Sept. 5. "Just bringing his presence to the top of the lineup, it changes their dynamic a little bit."

Where Zobrist stands entering 2020, though, is currently unclear.

Zobrist is set to hit free agency after the World Series and will turn 39 next May. Therefore, it’s possible that he’s played his last game in the big leagues, as he has little, if anything, left to prove at this stage in his career.

Ahead of the Cubs’ season finale on Sept. 29, Zobrist told reporters in St. Louis that he hasn’t thought about how much time he’ll take before deciding what’s next for him. His family situation will obviously play a big role in his decision, but if September showed anything, it's that he still has something left in the tank.

“I’m 38 but I got that feeling all over again,” Zobrist said following the Cubs’ season finale, a 9-0 loss to the Cardinals in which he pitched a scoreless inning. “Just really fun, you know? It’s a fun game. Sometimes you don’t come out on the winning end, but you still gotta have fun with it and enjoy it. I enjoyed it today."

The Cubs roster is expected to undergo changes this offseason, with center field, second base and the leadoff spot being just a few areas the team will look to address. The latter two spots became revolving doors during Zobrist’s absence, as the Cubs struggled to replace what he brought offensively.

Zobrist is past the point in his career of being an everyday player. However, he still could be a useful asset for the Cubs in a supporting role, bringing his veteran approach to the lineup when he plays while still offering an experienced voice in the clubhouse.

“I take a lot of joy in that role, just being a supporting guy and being a part of winning clubs and part of winning atmospheres and cultures,” Zobrist said on Sept. 29. “The Chicago Cubs have been that since I’ve been around. This year we didn’t make the playoffs — we still have a winning record — (but) the kind of relationships that are built here and the culture that’s been built here is definitely a winning one.”

After the Cubs announced that they wouldn’t retain Joe Maddon for 2020, Zobrist acknowledged that more changes were likely coming in the offseason. Only time will tell what that means for the veteran utilityman — should he continue playing.

Whether he retires or joins a different team for 2020, though, Zobrist will look back on his four seasons with the Cubs fondly.

“(They’re) just the most passionate fans I’ve ever met,” he said of Cubs fans. “They’re very loyal, very passionate and it’s been such a pleasure to be a part of that team that beat the curse back in ’16, so I feel that still, when I see Cubs fans, there’s a lot of them that hug me and thank me for being a part of that.

“I’ll always look back at [my] time here — I don’t know what’s going to happen in the offseason — but look back at these four years and [be] very grateful to be able to be part of a group like this and be able to do what we did while I was here.”

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Cubs games easily on your device.

Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

maddon_pic.jpg
USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Tony Andracki, Kelly Crull, Scott Changnon and Jeff Nelson give us their memories of Joe Maddon's time with the Cubs and discuss David Ross and Joe Espada's candidacy to be the next manager.

01:30 Kelly's memories of Joe from the perspective of a reporter

06:00 Going back to Hazleton with Joe

07:45 Joe's legacy as manager of the Cubs

16:00 How Joe impacted Javy Baez' career

18:00 David Ross and Joe Espada may be the leaders to replace Joe Maddon.

Listen here or via the embedded player below:

Subscribe:

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Cubs games easily on your device.