Cubs searching for answers as offensive woes deepen and Dodgers take control of NLCS

Cubs searching for answers as offensive woes deepen and Dodgers take control of NLCS

LOS ANGELES — This is exactly the situation the Cubs were hoping wouldn't crop up this postseason.

There's no magical formula to create offense in the playoffs, and for the second straight game in the National League Championship Series, the Cubs' bats went MIA.

Joe Maddon did what he could to shake things up, inserting Jorge Soler over Jason Heyward and moving Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell down in the order.

None of that worked against ex-Cub Rich Hill, as the Dodgers dominated the Cubs, 6-0, in front of 54,269 fans at Dodger Stadium to take a 2-1 lead in the NLCS.

The Cubs managed just two hits — a pair of singles from Kris Bryant — and two walks against Hill, who struck out six in six innings.

Dexter Fowler doubled with two outs in the eighth inning and Rizzo got a broken-bat infield single for the only other Cubs hits.

The Cubs are now hitting .185 (43-for-233) in the postseason and over the last 18 innings, they have only six hits (five singles and a double), three walks and zero runs. The 18 straight scoreless innings is the largest drought in Cubs postseason history (the previous drought was 16 innings back in 1906).

In three NLCS games against Dodger pitching, the Cubs have a .161 average, .235 on-base percentage and are 2-for-15 with runners in scoring position. They have scored in just three of 26 innings in which they sent their offense to the plate.

"We're not hitting the ball hard," Maddon said. "They've pitched well. Obviously I have no solid explanation. We've just got to keep working at it.

"We're just not hitting the ball well. We're doing the same kind of routines, the work is the same, the batting practice is the same - or lack of it is the same - and we're just not getting the results right now. 

"There is really no excuse. We just have to pick it up quickly."

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They were shut out just six times in the regular season and never held scoreless two times in a week, let alone in back-to-back games.

After running into the New York Mets' power pitching in the 2015 NLCS, Theo Epstein's front office worked to improve the lineup by adding Ben Zobrist and Heyward and bringing back Fowler.

But the same offensive woes have cropped up again, and now the Cubs are just two losses away from going home short of their World Series goal.

"Just based on what we've done this year, sure, it's surprising," Bryant said. "And it's happening at the wrong time obviously. I mean, we've done it all year. We're here for a reason. Belief is very powerful and I think we all have that here."

Cubs players insisted there is no sense of panic within the clubhouse. Maddon prepared them for the adversity and pressure they would face in the postseason.

But it's about how they answer from here. 

The Cubs turn to John Lackey in what has become an all-important Game 4 on Wednesday night with the possibility of Clayton Kershaw looming for Game 5.

But who the Cubs throw on the mound has taken a back seat to the offensive struggles. They'll be going up against a 20-year-old pitcher making his first postseason start (and the youngest ever to start an NLCS game) in Julio Urias.

Fowler shot down the notion that the Cubs' backs are against the wall.

"It's not a predicament, man," he said. "It's seven games for a reason. We even it up [Wednesday] and then it's a three-game series.

"You just gotta keep swinging it and keep fighting."

Veteran catcher Miguel Montero thinks guys are trying to do too much and they've gotten away from the approaches that led to the third-best offense in baseball.

"Don't try to hit a three-run homer with nobody on," Montero said.

He also had some advice for how the Cubs can hit the reset button before Game 4:

"Maybe have a few drinks and forget about it and come back tomorrow and have fun."

Fallout from Albert Almora Jr.’s scary foul ball incident, one year later

Fallout from Albert Almora Jr.’s scary foul ball incident, one year later

A year ago Friday, a foul ball off the bat of Cubs center fielder Albert Almora Jr. struck a young girl in the stands at Minute Maid Park in Houston.

The young girl was rushed to the hospital and her family later revealed she suffered several head injuries as a result. The moment brought forth league-wide changes to protect fans from injury. 

One year later, here is a timeline of key dates in the fallout from the incident.

Fallout from Albert Almora Jr.'s scary foul ball incident

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How Cubs' Albert Almora Jr. regrouped after emotionally trying 2019 season

How Cubs' Albert Almora Jr. regrouped after emotionally trying 2019 season

Among the more interesting Cubs storylines sidelined with the rest of baseball during the coronavirus shutdown was the career restart center fielder Albert Almora Jr. seemed to promise after an emotionally trying 2019 season.

A tumultuous, wrenching 2019 season unlike any he had ever experienced in his baseball life.

“That’s a fact,” Almora said after a strong start in spring games, and just before professional sports across the country were shut down indefinitely in March.

Friday marks the one-year anniversary of the harrowing night in Houston when Almora’s foul ball struck a young girl in the head, an incident that caused serious, lingering injuries, resulted in league-wide action to better protect fans and that in the moment dropped Almora to a knee, shaken and in tears.

TIMELINE: Fallout from Albert Almora Jr.'s scary foul ball incident

It was the most emotionally fraught moment in a Cubs season that was otherwise filled with competitive extremes that finished on a low note, off-the-field drama that finished with the release of a former All-Star shortstop and failed expectations that finished with the manager getting fired.

What followed for Almora was his worst performance as a baseball player, including a .215 average and .570 OPS the rest of the season, and a two-week demotion to the minors in August.

Almora has repeatedly denied his performance was impacted by that moment in Houston.

“No,” he said again this spring. “That’s an excuse.”

But the father of two young kids won’t deny that “it definitely impacted me.”

What’s certain is that by the time he returned to the team this spring, he had a new, quieter swing and a renewed mindset that had him in what he called a better place mentally.

A strong inner circle of friends and loved ones were part of the reset, he said, and in particular “just me listening and opening up to new advice.”

Almora, of course, did nothing wrong, and there was nothing he could have done to prevent the horrible moment — like so many other players and fans and similar moments at games that came before that one.

And while that knowledge won’t eliminate the emotions that might linger, one valuable outcome of the incident was near immediate action by the White Sox and Nationals to extend their protective netting to the foul poles at their ballparks — and MLB announcing in December all teams would expand protective netting by the start of the 2020 season.

Almora’s response, meanwhile, has been about just that — focusing on his response to the way his performance fell short last year, on the things he could change to regroup and restart a career that seemed on the rise until 2019.

“I’m glad [the struggles] happened,” he said. “You have to grow from things like that. You have two options: You can fold and let it beat you, or you learn from it and grow.

“I’m fortunate I had good people around me that gave me an easier chance to just turn the page, man. You hear that phrase a lot in this game: Turn the page, turn the page. But it’s hard. It’s hard when you’re constantly failing and constantly not performing the way you know you can and letting your guys down …

“It was tough,” he added. “And it’s not figured out. No one here figures it out. But you do the things you can control. … I’m in a good mental spot right now, and that’s all I can really ask for.”

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