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.”

Javier Báez joins Cubs All-Decade Team at second base, where El Mago was born

Javier Báez joins Cubs All-Decade Team at second base, where El Mago was born

With the 2010s coming to a close, NBC Sports Chicago is unveiling its Cubs All-Decade Team, highlighting the players who made the biggest impacts on the organization from 2010-19.

There may not be a player in baseball more exciting to watch than Javier Báez.

Whether at the plate, in the field or on the bases, Báez is a human highlight real. He’s one of the most powerful hitters in baseball; he has a cannon for an arm, exemplary defensive range and is a tagging maestro. He’s a dynamic baserunner who uses his elite baseball instincts to go station-to-station while magically avoiding tags along the way.

Yeah, there’s a reason Báez is known as “El Mago.” It’s not a matter of if he’ll make an incredible play each game, but a matter of when. Things come easy for the 27-year-old full of flair who makes the most difficult plays seem routine.

Báez is a career .270/.310/.484 hitter who’s hit 110 home runs in parts of six big-league seasons. One of those long balls came in his big-league debut (Aug. 5, 2014), a go-ahead blast against the Rockies in the 12th inning. The legend of El Mago was born.

Báez is the Cubs starting shortstop, though that hasn’t always been the case. Starlin Castro was the starter in 2014; Addison Russell claimed the title from Castro in the second half of 2015, holding it down until late in the 2018 season. Russell hit the injured list that August as the Cubs simultaneously acquired Daniel Murphy in an attempt to jump-start the offense.

By the time Russell returned, Báez was a clear-cut NL MVP candidate. The latter still bounced around the infield from time-to-time, but with Murphy entrenched at second, shortstop became Báez’s primary position. He’s been the starter ever since.

Báez has played 2,646 2/3 career innings at shortstop compared to 1,856 at second base (and 629 1/3 at third). He’s exclusively a shortstop these days, but the El Mago second base days aren’t forgotten.

Báez was the co-recipient of the 2016 NLCS MVP award (along with Jon Lester) and has started back-to-back All-Star Games (2018 at second, 2019 at shortstop). He was the runner-up for the 2018 NL MVP award, posting career highs across the board: .290/.326/.554, 34 homers, 111 RBIs, 129 OPS+.

And yet, it feels like Báez is only getting started. Nevertheless, his career to date has more than earned him a spot on our Cubs All-Decade Team at second base. With that, we'll leave you with this:

Anthony Rizzo joins Cubs All-Decade Team behind efforts on and off field

Anthony Rizzo joins Cubs All-Decade Team behind efforts on and off field

With the 2010s coming to a close, NBC Sports Chicago is unveiling its Cubs All-Decade Team, highlighting the players who made the biggest impacts on the organization from 2010-19.

You saw this one coming, right?

As the Cubs’ longest tenure player, Anthony Rizzo was a shoo-in for this group. He hasn’t relinquished his starting first baseman job since making his Cubs debut in June 2012. The guy’s longevity alone is impressive.

But besides that, Rizzo has been a model of consistency during his time on the North Side. Since 2012, he’s hit 217 home runs (averaging 27 per season) and hit 32 three times from 2014-17. The lone exception? 2015, when he hit 31. So close…

As a Cub, Rizzo is a .277/.376/.496 hitter with a 132 OPS+. He produces at a high clip each season, whether he’s hitting third, cleanup or leadoff, all while simultaneously playing stellar defense. The 30-year-old is a three-time Gold Glove Award winner (2016, 2018-19).

Rizzo is the guy who comes up huge in key moments but will be there to address the media after tough losses. He’s the de facto captain of the Cubs, the guy who suffered a nasty ankle sprain in September that could have ended his regular season. Instead, he returned four days later for a key series against the rival Cardinals, as the Cubs were fighting to keep their October dreams alive.

When he’s not leading his team on the field, Rizzo is giving back to the community off of it. He’s one of the most charitable athletes in the world and recently raised $1.3 million for children’s cancer research at his “8th annual Walk-off for Cancer” in his home state of Florida.

Rizzo was the first building block of the Cubs core which snapped their infamous 108-year championship drought, but he’ll be remembered for more than that. He’s a leader on and off the field, the clear choice for starting first baseman on our Cubs All-Decade Team.

Also considered: Derrek Lee, Bryan LaHair