How Cubs plan to regroup and take control of NLCS at Dodger Stadium

How Cubs plan to regroup and take control of NLCS at Dodger Stadium

This time, the Cubs wouldn’t set off any late-inning fireworks or jump around in a mosh pit at home plate. A Los Angeles front office overflowing with current/former GMs and a first-year Dodgers manager (Dave Roberts) didn’t have to overthink this one. Just get out of the way and let Clayton Kershaw show why he might be the best pitcher on the planet.

The equation became pretty simple on Sunday night at Wrigley Field, seven innings of Kershaw plus six outs from closer Kenley Jansen equaling a 1-0 victory in Game 2 and a tied National League Championship Series that now shifts to the West Coast.

But the Cubs played music in the postgame clubhouse as they got dressed and packed up for the overnight flight, showing no signs of panic or frustration, knowing who they have lined up for Games 3, 4 and 5 on the road. That would be Jake Arrieta, the Cy Young Award winner who’s already thrown a no-hitter at Dodger Stadium, followed by two two-time World Series champions in John Lackey and Jon Lester.

“We have a luxury,” outfielder Jason Heyward said. “We’ve been spoiled this year (with our pitching). It’s pretty cool to have someone like that – with that kind of experience and that mindset – to know how to go in and attack.”

The reality is the Dodgers had to win this one, because they can’t be sure what they will get from ex-Cub Rich Hill in Game 3 and what might happen with the blisters on his left hand. Their Game 4 starter is listed as TBA, probably Julio Urias, assuming the 20-year-old lefty isn’t needed on Tuesday night in an emergency situation.

The Dodgers used 15 different starting pitchers during the regular season, while the Cubs had four 15-game winners, including one (Jason Hammel) who hasn’t made the playoff roster in either round yet.

The Dodgers will have to ride Kershaw, already beating the Washington Nationals twice during his two starts in their best-of-five NL Division Series. Two days after throwing 110 pitches, Kershaw notched the last two outs and the save in Thursday night’s Game 5, getting Mr. October Daniel Murphy to pop up with two runners on and rewrite his own playoff legacy.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Kershaw retired the first 14 batters he faced at Clark and Addison, taking a perfect game into the fifth inning before Javier Baez and Willson Contreras drilled back-to-back singles, the only hits the three-time Cy Young Award winner would allow.

“We just chased a lot of pitches,” Baez said. “With him pitching on a couple days’ rest, (I didn’t think) he was going to be that nasty. But obviously he came ready for us. He just did his job.”

Jansen struck out four of the six Cubs he faced, mowing down Dexter Fowler (swinging) and Kris Bryant (looking) in the ninth inning before Anthony Rizzo lined a 95-mph first pitch out to second baseman Chase Utley to end the game.

“It’s easy to get used to good stuff, right?” said Miguel Montero, who followed up his pinch-hit grand slam in Game 1 with a pinch-hit four-pitch strikeout against Jansen. “When you fly a private plane and then you got to go in coach, that’s tough, right?

“So if you hit a homer, and then you come up the next day, people expect you to go again in the private plane. No, you strike out, so you go back in coach.

“Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. You just got to move on.”

The Cubs have their offensive issues. Fowler is getting on base 23 percent of the time during these playoffs. Combined, Rizzo and Addison Russell are 2-for-45 in the postseason. Pitchers Arrieta and Travis Wood and backup catcher David Ross have generated three of the team’s seven homers through six playoff games overall.

But this still doesn’t look or feel or sound like the rattled team the New York Mets swept out of last year’s NLCS. This time, the Cubs are in position to win the arms race.

“We like our chances,” Montero said. “We like where we’re at. And Cubs fans, they deserve the best in the world, because they’ve been so patient and so supportive. Believe me, we’re going to do everything in our power. We’re going to give it our best every single day out there. Because we want the good stuff, for ourselves and for the whole city.”

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

There are plenty of intriguing Cubs storylines to monitor this offseason from their potential pursuit of the big free agents to any other changes that may come to the coaching staff or roster after a disappointing finish to the 2018 campaign.

But there's one question simmering under the radar in Cubs circles when it comes to this winter: How will the team solve the shortstop conundrum?

Just a few years ago, the Cubs had "too many" shortstops. Now, there are several different factors at play here that makes it a convoluted mess.

First: What will the Cubs do with Addison Russell? The embattled shortstop is in the midst of a suspension for domestic violence that will keep him off an MLB diamond for at least the first month of 2019.

Has Russell already played his last game with the Cubs? Will they trade him or send him packing in any other fashion this winter?

Theo Epstein mentioned several times he felt the organization needs to show support to the victim in the matter (Russell's ex-wife, Melisa) but also support for Russell. Does that mean they would keep him a part of the team at least through the early part of 2019?

Either way, Russell's days in Chicago are numbered and his play on the field took another big step back in 2018 as he fought through a hand injury and experienced a major dip in power. With his performance on the field and the off-field issues, it will be hard to justify a contract worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million in his second year of arbitration (prorated, with a month's worth of pay taken out for the suspension).

Even if Russell is on the roster in 2019, Javy Baez is unquestionably the shortstop for at least the first month while Russell is on suspension. 

But what about beyond Baez if the Cubs want to give him a breather or disaster strikes and he's forced to miss time with an injury?

At the moment, there's nothing but question marks on the current Cubs shortstop depth chart throughout the entire organization and they're certainly going to need other options at the most important defensive position (outside of pitcher/catcher). 

There's David Bote, who subbed in for Baez at short once in September when Baez needed a break and Russell was on the disabled list. But while Bote's defense at third base and second base has opened eyes around the Cubs, he has only played 45 games at short across seven minor-league seasons, including 15 games in 2018. There's also the offensive question marks with the rookie, who hit just .176 with a .559 OPS and 40 strikeouts in 108 at-bats after that epic ultimate grand slam on Aug. 12.

The Cubs' other current shortstop options include Mike Freeman (a 31-year-old career minor-leaguer), Ben Zobrist (who will be 38 in 2019 and has played all of 13 innings at shortstop since 2014), Ryan Court (a 30-year-old career minor leaguer) and Chesny Young (a 26-year-old minor-leaguer who has posted a .616 OPS in 201 Triple-A games).

Maybe Joe Maddon would actually deploy Kris Bryant at shortstop in case of emergency like a Baez injury ("necessity is the mother of invention," as Maddon loves to say), but that seems a lot more like a fun talking point than a legit option at this current juncture.

So even if Russell sticks around, there's no way the Cubs can go into the first month of the season with just Baez and Bote as the only shortstop options on a team that with World Series or bust expectations.

The Cubs will need to acquire some shortstop depth this winter in some capacity, whether it's adding to the Triple-A Iowa roster or getting a veteran who can also back up other positions. Right now, the free agent pool of potential shortstops is pretty slim beyond Manny Machado.

Epstein always says he and his front office look to try to mitigate risk and analyze where things could go wrong to sink the Cubs' season and through that lense, shortstop is suddenly right up there behind adding more bullpen help this winter.

Podcast: In light of recent hitting coach turmoil, who’s to blame for Cubs offensive struggles?


Podcast: In light of recent hitting coach turmoil, who’s to blame for Cubs offensive struggles?

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, David Kaplan, Kelly Crull, Luke Stuckmeyer and Tony Andracki discuss the comments Chili Davis made after being fired as Cubs hitting coach, ask if the Cubs struggles on offense were Davis' fault or the players and what Anthony Iapoce will be walking into as he tries to gets the team back on track a the plate.


Listen to the entire podcast here, or in the embedded player below: