Cubs look out of their element as Indians close in on World Series title

Cubs look out of their element as Indians close in on World Series title

The TV screens inside the Wrigley Field clubhouse instructed Cubs players to be dressed by 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, or roughly 90 minutes before first pitch in a World Series elimination game, give or take another commercial break for Fox.

“Don’t change a thing,” Kris Bryant said, and maybe a superstar player who never gets too high or too low is exactly right. Manager Joe Maddon already printed enough T-shirts for these occasions from “Embrace The Target” to “Do Simple Better” to “Try Not To Suck.”

But the Cubs are experiencing a system-wide failure at the worst possible time. The Cleveland Indians crashed their Wrigleyville block party and could be popping champagne bottles and chugging beers as Sunday night turns into Halloween morning.

If a franchise staging its first World Series event since 1945 initially felt like Times Square on New Year’s Eve – as Cubs president Theo Epstein accurately put it – then this feels like the head-splitting hangover.

A 7-2 loss on Saturday night left the Cubs staring at the brink of elimination, trying to become the first team since the 1985 Kansas City Royals to come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the World Series.

“I guess our backs are against the wall,” Anthony Rizzo said, “but we’ll come out fighting.”

The All-Star first baseman didn’t make any guarantees this time, not when the Indians have forced this lineup out of its element. Rizzo came through with an RBI single against Corey Kluber in the first inning and doubled off the Cy Young Award winner in the sixth. But otherwise Kluber looks like the World Series MVP, winning Games 1 and 4 while giving up one run in 12 innings and putting up 15 strikeouts against one walk. 

This just doesn’t look like the same team that steamrolled the National League on the way to 103 wins and handled the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers in October. As much as Kluber disrupts and freezes hitters with his two-seam fastball and off-speed arsenal, the Cubs still found their way around and through Madison Bumgarner and Clayton Kershaw, supposedly the best pitchers on the planet at that moment.

[MORE: In Big Boy Game, John Lackey can’t stop Cubs from reaching brink of elimination]

Young players like Javier Baez and Willson Contreras admitted to feeling anxious, wanting to win here so bad that the game accelerated on them. Playing a little out of control would be the side effects to all the energy they provided this team throughout October.

“(We’re) getting outside of ourselves,” said David Ross, who will catch Jon Lester knowing that Game 5 could be his last night before retirement. “They’re having a hard time slowing the moment down – at-bat to at-bat – and staying in what we do best.

“I faced Kluber the other night and I know I chased a few balls outside the zone, so you got to give some credit to the pitcher. But I see a lot of early swings, a lot of 1-2-3 swings.

“We’ve done a real good of putting together lengthy at-bats all year long. And right now, (in) the moment, (it’s) us wanting to do so much for these fans. I really think that’s where it comes from.”

The question isn’t so much if Bryant will be the NL MVP – it’s whether or not the Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s vote will be unanimous. But the steadiest player for the team that led the majors in defensive efficiency committed two errors in a second-inning sequence that saw the Indians score two runs (one earned) and take the early lead that would shorten the game with 6-foot-7 lefty Andrew Miller waiting in the wings. 

A bullpen that helped the Cubs earn 33 come-from-behind wins allowed the deficit to balloon to six runs by the time Miller gripped the ball in the seventh inning. That meant less urgency and lower stress if the Indians need Miller to bounce back again in Game 5, when lights-out closer Cody Allen will now be rested and ready. 

What had been such a patient, grinding lineup made Miller throw all of seven pitches in the seventh inning. It became a garbage-time homer in the eighth inning when Dexter Fowler lined a Miller slider into the left-center field bleachers and scored the first run off Miller during this postseason.

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

Remember Maddon’s old adage when talking about last year’s New York Mets: To beat good pitching you have to pitch better than good pitching. John Lackey has mostly been a spectator during the “Big Boy Games,” giving up three runs within the first three innings in front of a crowd of 41,706 and putting up a 4.85 ERA in three postseason starts this October.

“There are scouts on everybody nowadays,” Lackey said. “You can’t get away with anything, the way numbers and metrics and all stuff is out there nowadays. You got to be able to make some adjustments. And right now, they’re doing that better than we are.”

The Cubs will draw confidence from Lester starting Sunday night opposite drone enthusiast Trevor Bauer, with Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks lined up for if-necessary Games 6 and 7 at Progressive Field, where folk hero Kyle Schwarber can be the designated hitter. But this is a team that is used to playing from ahead. And the Indians are 10-2 during these playoffs and looking to make their own history.

“We got to win tomorrow,” Rizzo said. “That’s the bottom line. We got to do whatever we can to win the ballgame tomorrow. And that’s it. There’s no looking past that. Do anything we can to win the ballgame. And then we figure it out from there.”

Podcast: Main takeaways from the 5-game Cubs-Cardinals series


Podcast: Main takeaways from the 5-game Cubs-Cardinals series

Tony Andracki is joined by Phil Barnes, the senior editor of Vine Line, to break down the Cubs-Cardinals 5-game series at Wrigley Field that kicked off the second half of the 2018 MLB season.

The main takeaways from the weekend included an up-close look at a Cubs starting rotation is still struggling to find their footing almost 2/3 of the way through the season. 

The Cubs lineup and bullpen continue to be the saving grace of the team with the NL's best record and run differential, but there are serious question marks moving forward on the depth of the relievers as well as waiting for Kris Bryant to return to MVP form.

Check out the entire podcast here:

Kaplan: Why Harry Caray was simply the best

Kaplan: Why Harry Caray was simply the best

Growing up in the Chicago area, we have been fortunate to hear some of the greatest names in sports broadcasting. From Jack Brickhouse to Harry Caray to Pat Foley to Jim Durham to Pat Hughes to Wayne Larrivee, the list is long and illustrious of the best play-by-play men in Chicago sports history.

For me, growing up listening to and watching many of these men on an almost daily basis only served to stoke my interest in pursuing sports broadcasting as my chosen career. All of the greats were obviously well prepared and technically excellent calling their respective sports, but for me one man stood above the rest because of his irreverence and ability to entertain people in a variety of ways. I ran home from Middleton School in Skokie to watch the final innings of many afternoon Cubs games in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, and I loved Jack Brickhouse and the enthusiasm he brought to each and every broadcast.

However, Harry Caray was the one that captured my heart and pulled me toward this great field of radio and TV broadcasting. Harry was one of the best technical baseball announcers in the history of the sport, but many people who only became aware of him as the announcer for the Cubs on WGN-TV only got to experience him in the twilight of his career, when he was best known for singing the Seventh Inning Stretch and his mispronunciations of players' names.

In the main portion of his 50-plus-year career, Harry called some of the game's greatest moments and saw many of the all-time greats. As the voice of the St. Louis Cardinals, Oakland Athletics and the White Sox, he became one of the best in the sport with his colorful calls and honesty about the team he was working for. Fans loved his willingness to tell the truth and to openly cheer for the team he was affiliated with. However, when he was hired as the voice of the Cubs on WGN-TV, he became larger than life. With the power of the superstation behind him, he reached another level. A whole new generation of young people became Cubs fans — even if the team wasn't very good — because of the man in the funny glasses who was wildly entertaining.

I fell in love with his style and his entertainment ability. He was must-watch TV even when the games weren't very good. Until the Cubs signed Jon Lester and he became a key member of a World Series champion, Harry Caray was the single best free-agent signing in the history of the Cubs. From 1982 to 1997, he was bigger than almost every player who wore Cubbie Blue. Former All-Star first baseman Mark Grace remembered with a wry smile a story from his days as a Cub that shows just how big Caray was in relation to even the biggest-name players.

"We were playing the Marlins in Miami, and I was signing autographs alongside Rick Sutcliffe and Ryne Sandberg," Grace said. "There were long lines for each of us, and then Harry poked his head out of the Cubs dugout. The fans spotted him and someone yelled: 'Hey everybody, there's Harry!'

"I'm not kidding, everybody ran over to him, and the three of us were left with no one to sign for. We looked at each other, and Sutcliffe says to us, 'Guys, now you know where we rank on the totem pole.'"

Harry Caray was a legend and for me. He was the most entertaining play-by-play man I ever listened to. I still find myself listening to old tapes of him, and I am still as entertained today as I was then. Harry was simply the best.