Cubs

'The better team won': Cubs had plenty of problems, but Dodgers' championship formula should look familiar to Cubs fans

'The better team won': Cubs had plenty of problems, but Dodgers' championship formula should look familiar to Cubs fans

For the second year in a row, the National League champs celebrated a pennant at Wrigley Field.

A dominating, 100-win club that had the championship formula of elite starting pitching, a lights-out closer and a fearsome lineup lifted a trophy Thursday night on the North Side and look destined to lift another before this postseason is over.

Sound familiar, Cubs fans?

The Cubs’ quest to repeat as World Series champs ended Thursday, and instead the Los Angeles Dodgers got to party, getting their revenge after the Cubs eliminated them here last October.

The next few months’ worth of conversation in Wrigleyville will center — and not inappropriately so — on the Cubs’ shortcomings this postseason. They couldn’t hit. The bullpen was woefully unreliable. And the starting pitching, particularly Jose Quintana in a two-inning, seven-run outing in Game 5, was not what it was last fall.

But if you hear that laundry list of offenses over the course of the next few days, weeks and months, remember to give some credit where credit is due, because these Dodgers look a lot like last year’s Cubs.

“The better team won over the course of these five games,” Joe Maddon said after his team’s season came to a close. “They played really well. They kind of out-pitched us and everything else. So give them credit.

“You know what it feels like coming off of last year, we were celebrating versus them in this exact same spot. So they've had themselves a spectacular year.”

The Dodgers have the elite starting pitching, as evidenced throughout this series and most specifically in two of the three games here on the North Side, where Yu Darvish (Game 3) and Clayton Kershaw (Game 5) showed why they’re two of the top pitchers in the game.

Thursday night, Kershaw did what he couldn’t do to the Cubs last October, stifling that slumping lineup with six innings of one-run ball, the only run surrendered (and just one of the three hits surrendered) a meaningless Kris Bryant home run with the Cubs down 9-0.

Altogether, Dodger pitching posted a jaw-dropping 1.64 ERA in this series. Starting pitchers were the only ones to give up runs, and they gave up just eight of them in 27 innings. The four starters’ ERA was a fantastic 2.67.

And so there’s another part of the Dodgers’ championship combination: that stellar bullpen. The Cubs got just two hits and no runs against the relief corps in the entire five-game series. In 17 shutout innings, the Dodger bullpen was pretty much unhittable.

No one shone more than Kenley Jansen, who faced 13 batters and recorded 13 outs. Cubs fans will remember how big a weapon Aroldis Chapman was out of last year’s bullpen. Well Jansen is just as incredible — and just as meaningful to this postseason run.

Now obviously the Cubs’ hitting woes weren’t exclusively the result of facing Dodger pitching. They carried over from the NLDS — another series featuring some sensational pitching from the opposition — and without the mega-slumps of Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber, Javy Baez, Addison Russell, Ben Zobrist and practically everyone else to swing a bat for the Cubs, things would have been incredibly different. But there’s something to shutting down a lineup with superior pitching, and that’s what the Dodgers did.

And then there’s the Dodgers’ offense, which has its own Bryzzo in Chris Taylor and Justin Turner, who were named the NLCS co-MVPs after combining to go 12-for-37 with four homers, 10 RBIs and eight runs scored in five games. Cody Bellinger and Yasiel Puig are mighty good hitters. And then there’s what Enrique Hernandez did Thursday night: three homers and seven RBIs in the 11-1 mauling.

That’s a fearsome lineup, and while Quintana should’ve gone longer than two-plus innings, you can’t entirely blame Cubs pitching for not being able to quiet these guys over the past four games. Moments like John Lackey giving up that walk-off homer to Turner in Game 2 will live in infamy in the collective memory of Cubs fans, but the guy’s an MVP candidate. Seeing him do something like that isn’t unexpected.

“Sometimes in our game,” Maddon said before Game 5, “there is more of an attempt to vilify as opposed to glorify. In other words, when Turner hits a home run, it's because Turner is good, not because the pitcher is bad or wrong. So I think it's been shifting in a sense that people want to blame somebody as opposed to giving somebody credit. I see a lot of that.”

So yes, there’s no doubting that the Cubs had their problems — big ones — during the 10 postseason games they played this month. And those problems will have huge effects on the offseason and how Theo Epstein & Co. construct the 2018 edition of this team.

But sometimes, as Cubs fans well know from last season’s championship run, there’s one of those teams that has that magic formula. The Cubs were that team in 2016. The Dodgers seem to fit that bill now.

"Oh I absolutely think they played better," Ben Zobrist said Thursday night. "They played better, I wouldn't say they're the better team. They were the better team in 2017. They played better in the regular season, they beat us in the postseason. They were the better team in 2017, but are we capable of being better than we were? Absolutely.

"We didn't execute, they did this series. They played phenomenal baseball and we didn't and that's why they're moving on and we're not."

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 31st homer in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 31st homer in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

Sosa's 18th homer of June and 31st of the season came off the Tigers in the Cubs' brief 2-game Interleague series in Detroit. 

Sosa connected in the first inning off Tigers starter Seth Greisinger, going back-to-back with Mickey Morandini. 

The Cubs wound up getting out to a 5-0 start in the game but still lost 7-6 on a Gabe Alvarez single in the bottom of the 11th.

The aforementioned Morandini homer was only the 3rd of the season for the Cubs second baseman. He finished with 8 homers on the year and 224 total bases on 172 hits in what was a very good offensive season. Yet it paled in comparison to Sosa, who had nearly 200 more total bases (416) and a slugging percentage nearly 200 points above Morandini's (.647 to .471), a testament to how truly incredible Sosa's season was.

Fun fact: Tony Clark was the Tigers' cleanup hitter that day. Clark is now the head of the MLB Players Union.

Fun fact No. 2: Paul Bako was the Detroit catcher in the game. He later became the Cubs backup catcher in 2003 and 2004, when he posted a .611 OPS in 119 games over the two years.

Maddon gets funky with bullpen, calls catcher Chris Gimenez to mound

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USA TODAY

Maddon gets funky with bullpen, calls catcher Chris Gimenez to mound

The Cubs continued their recent struggles, suffering their third straight loss to the Cincinnati Reds. 

But the game was not without its fair share of drama. The matchup was a back-and-forth affair, up until the Reds blew the game wide-open in the bottom of the third inning. This included a grand slam by Reds pitcher Anthony DeSclafani, the first home run of his career.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon turned to the bullpen following Cincinnati's third inning explosion, and things did not get much better from there.

With the Cubs down six runs in the bottom of the eight inning, Maddon brought in catcher Chris Gimenez to pitch. 

This was not new territory for Gimenez, who despite being a catcher, now has 10 MLB pitching appearances to his name. 

Down six runs, Gimenez didn't have a lot to lose. But Reds first basemen Joey Votto hammered a fastball in the zone for his eighth homer of the year.

Gimenez had a career ERA of 8.00 before Saturday's appearance, and he certainly didn't do much to help lower that figure.

According to ESPN's Jesse Rogers: "Including one today, Cubs relievers have allowed 41.1 percent of inherited runners to score in June, sixth most in the NL." 

A tired bullpen is certainly cause for concern for the Cubs, who are locked into a battle in the NL Central with the Brewers and Cardinals. Maddon was surely hoping to keep his bullpen arms fresh with the move, seeing as the game was already out of reach. 

So yes, the game did end in a 11-2 win for the Reds. But with a grand-slam by a pitcher—on his first career HR no less—and four-seam fastballs from a catcher, Cubs baseball always keep things interesting.