SAN FRANCISCO – Madison Bumgarner and Clayton Kershaw are the kind of big-time pitchers the Cubs will have to go through in the playoffs.
This is Ph.D-level stuff at Joe Maddon’s Cub University, facing last year’s World Series MVP on Thursday afternoon at AT&T Park and getting last season’s National League MVP/Cy Young Award winner on Friday night at Dodger Stadium.
The San Francisco Giants won the first series on this West Coast trip, shutting the Cubs down with Bumgarner and three different relievers in a 9-1 game that never felt particularly close. The defending champs are now 5.5 games behind the Cubs for the second wild card.
The Cubs still headed to Los Angeles at 20 games above .500, and their lineup has been a huge part of this second-half surge, with Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber right in the middle of the Rookie of the Year discussion and Addison Russell emerging as the franchise shortstop.
The question becomes: Can they keep doing it against elite starters when everything is magnified in October?
“We’re not free-swingers,” Maddon said. “We’ll accept our walks. We strike out. But it’s not like we’re just chasing all the time. We’re able to see pitches. A lot of times, we’re able to build pitch counts up (against) good starters.
“That’s where I have a lot of confidence in this young group. We’re not just up there hacking. We have a really good game plan.”
Bumgarner (16-6, 2.97 ERA) struck out 12 of the 22 batters he faced and the Giants were able to shut down their ace after 98 pitches. MadBum allowed one run on two hits in six innings.
“Just funky,” Bryant said. “When you have a guy (with) that kind of crossfire, it’s a tough at-bat. You can’t really get comfortable in there. He’s the best of the best.”
“It is a learning process,” Schwarber said. “You get an idea. You have to make that continuous adjustment as you keep facing these guys.”
It won’t get any easier against Kershaw (10-6, 2.29 ERA), another lefty in the best-pitcher-on-the-planet conversation.
“Just be the same every day and come in and battle, no matter who’s on the mound,” veteran outfielder Chris Denorfia said. “We love competing against the best – and these guys are – but I think more than anything we need to learn to just be ourselves and not try to do too much.
“(That’s) what you got to get good at in this game – the mental part. (It’s) knowing what you’re good at hitting and trying to look for those pitches and hit ‘em. No matter who’s throwing ‘em.”
[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]
The Cubs are actually 5-2 in games started by Cy Young Award winners this season, winning against Kershaw, Jake Peavy, Corey Kluber, Zack Greinke and Bartolo Colon while losing to Peavy and Max Scherzer.
“You got to get used to it,” Maddon said. “This is what you’re playing for. You’re playing to get to October. When you do, you’re going to play against good teams with really good pitching. That’s how they got there, too. To this point – and I really anticipate it will continue – our guys have handled it very well."