Cubs

Why Cubs' bullpen struggles could damage their chances of rallying in the NLCS

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USA TODAY

Why Cubs' bullpen struggles could damage their chances of rallying in the NLCS

If the Cubs hope to comeback and reach a second straight World Series, they won’t only have to overcome a lackluster offense. The bullpen has been equally unreliable for much of the postseason.

The team’s rotten relief surfaced yet again on Tuesday night when reliever Carl Edwards Jr. issued a bases-loaded walk to counterpart Yu Darvish. It’s one of 23 walks issued by Cubs relievers during the 2017 postseason, the most ever by any team through its first eight playoff games.

Edwards’ sixth-inning, run-scoring walk of Darvish was one of many Cubs miscues in a 6-1 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series. But the moment was squarely in the spotlight as it opened the floodgates, brought out the boo birds and left more questions than answers for the Cubs, who now trail the series 3-0.

“I’m still confident,” Edwards said about his team’s chances. “There’s no need to change it. I wouldn’t sit here and say ‘We’re going to lose.’ … We’re still confident. We’re ready. Like I said, it’s a very fun sport and the tables can turn at any time.”

The Cubs need to flip those tables over pretty quickly if they want to repeat. Fixing an offense that has produced 2.75 runs per game in the playoffs is chief among the Cubs’ concerns.

But even if the Cubs offense puts on a hitting clinic, it’s October and tight games are inevitable. With that in mind they’ll also need more dependability from a group of relievers who has a 6.35 ERA and 23 walks against 24 strikeouts in 28 1/3 playoff innings.

Walks were a constant issue for the Cubs bullpen in the regular season when they averaged 4.25 per nine innings. But that number has increased 7.62 in the playoffs.

The problem surfaced at the wrong time Tuesday as manager Joe Maddon pulled Kyle Hendricks for Edwards with two on and no outs in the sixth and the Cubs trailing 3-1. Edwards sandwiched a pair of outs around a walk to Austin Barnes that loaded the bases. Joc Pederson’s flew out for the second out, which appeared as if it would bring pinch-hitter Curtis Granderson to the plate. But the Dodgers stuck with Darvish and it worked as Edwards threw four straight balls to bring in a run.

Darvish — who only walked once before in 39 career plate appearances — became the first pitcher to walk with the bases loaded in the postseason since Philadelphia’s Larry Christenson in Game 3 of the 1977 NLCS against the Dodgers.

Edwards recovered to strike out Chris Taylor, but walked off the mound to a chorus of boos.

“I thought C.J. was the right man,” Maddon said. “It's just the walk there, the walk, two walks really hurt us. Otherwise, he didn't give anything up.”

[MORE CUBS-DODGERS: Record-setting futility and the 5 biggest things from Cubs-Dodgers Game 3]

It was another lowlight for a ‘pen that has seen John Lackey surrender Justin Turner’s three-run, game-winning homer on Sunday, Wade Davis’ slip up against Michael Taylor in the NLDS and countless other struggles. Mike Montgomery allowed two runs (one earned) late Tuesday to raise his postseason ERA to 23.18.

The team’s performance is in direct contrast with the lights out Dodgers bullpen. Los Angeles relievers have a 1.21 ERA with 23 strikeouts and only two walks in 22 1/3 innings.

The Cubs will have to take on some of their counterparts’ qualities in order to pull off an improbable rally. But Edwards said he and his teammates aren’t shaken.

“They’ve just been very, very good at their jobs,” Edwards said. “It’s not frustrating at all. It’s just making pitches and I didn’t, but it was just today.

“Come back tomorrow and win. There’s more in us to keep striving (for). The thing is, we won’t give up. I don’t care what happens.”

A messy night at Wrigley Field ends without a pitch being thrown

A messy night at Wrigley Field ends without a pitch being thrown

The NLCS rematch will have to wait another day.

Mother Nature and the power at Wrigley Field care not for your excitement about a "big series" between the Cubs and Dodgers.

Thunderstorms rolled over the North Side of Chicago, where the Dodgers ended the Cubs' postseason run 8 months ago. 

On top of that, the power at Wrigley Field was not cooperating with the lights down the right field line going out for hours during the rain delay. 

The lights came back on at one point before again going out again roughly a half hour before Monday night's game was officially called. After a delay stretching almost three hours, word finally filtered out just before 10 p.m. the game would be postponed a day.

The Cubs and Dodgers will make the game up as part of a day-night doubleheader Tuesday at Wrigley Field with the first game starting at 12:05 p.m. and the second at the regularly scheduled time of 7:05 p.m. Tyler Chatwood will start the first game for the Cubs with Mike Montgomery slated to go Game 2.

As of 10 p.m. Monday night, the Cubs were unsure what caused the power issue at Wrigley Field but were working on fixing the problem ahead of Tuesday's scheduled doubleheader.

The evening started with the tarp being rolled onto the field by the Cubs grounds crew roughly an hour before scheduled first pitch with a forecast calling for a 100 percent chance of rain.

Only a light rain fell until a downpour began around 8:15 p.m.:

That lasted only about a half hour before the grounds crew came back out around 8:45 p.m. to partially remove the tarp and attempt to get the field ready to play.

The only issue at that point was the light and a sinister forecast.

"It takes 45 minutes to get the field ready to play," said Julian Green, Cubs director of communications. "So once you take that tarp off, you saw them putting the chalk lines down, getting ready.

"We wanted to be ready — even in the face of rain — if the lights came back on, we wanted to make sure we could play baseball, even if it was a limited window of opportunity."

As of 11 p.m., that second bout of rain had yet to materialize, but the lights issue also wasn't corrected and play on the field would've been impossible.

Fans lingered throughout the stadium for nearly three hours before an official conclusion came down. The Cubs kept the same announcement on the right field video board about the weather delay while the left field video board displayed the Brewers-Pirates and other MLB games.

This is the only trip to Chicago the Dodgers make throughout the 2018 season so the two teams and Major League Baseball did all they could to try to get a game in and avoid any issue where these two teams would have to play on a mutual off-day later in the year. 

The Cubs were in the midst of a stretch of 17 games in 17 days without a day off. They're still on that same schedule, though now with an unexpected day off Monday and a doubleheader Tuesday.

The Cubs are no stranger to postponements this season as wacky weather has continued to hamper this MLB season.

"Not only for the Chicago Cubs, but Chicago in general, this has been a really interesting spring and summer season," Green said. "We're taking our licks just like everybody else is.

"Our plan is to play baseball tomorrow and make sure we can accomodate fans as best as possible. So fans who have tickets to tonight's game will be able to use them for tomorrow."

How the Cubs are trying to help Kris Bryant out of his slump

How the Cubs are trying to help Kris Bryant out of his slump

Whatever Kris Bryant does from here, it's just frosting on the cake that is his legacy.

That's one way to look at the lasting impact of a guy like Bryant, who morphed from "The Chosen One" as the No. 2 overall pick. He's lived up to the hype from Day 1, has a Rookie of the Year and NL MVP Award in his trophy case and — most importantly of all — led the Cubs to their first World Series championship in 108 years.

A slump in May and June of 2018 won't tarnish that legacy.

But you can also forgive Cubs fans if they're growing a little antsy with their stud player. 

Just rest easy that he's growing a little antsy, too.

After chronicling his "temper tantrums" and actually admitting he gets so angry he is prone to breaking bats in frustration (still find that really hard to believe) last week, Bryant still isn't quite over his slump.

Maybe he's just simply trying to do too much right now.

"Kris is fine," Jon Lester said. "I mean, I think anytime you have a guy like that, he's got such high expectations not only of himself but the other people outside of the baseball world.

"I think he feels that — he feels pressure from his teammates, he feels pressure from himself and he wants to perform and he wants to do well every night. When he doesn't, it seems like he just keeps adding on. The rock on his back gets a little bigger every time."

As recently as May 22, Bryant was hitting .303 with a 1.007 OPS.

But since then — a span of 21 games — he's hitting just .241 with a .316 on-base percentage and .310 slugging percentage, good for a .627 OPS. More alarming than anything, he's struck out 28 times in 87 at-bats, taking a step back in the area he has made the most improvement in since breaking into the league in 2015.

The power has been an issue for even longer. Bryant just recently went a month without a homer before sending one into the bleachers Friday night at Busch Stadium.

Still, since May 15, he has only 8 extra-base hits (7 doubles and that 1 homer) in 27 games.

The struggle is real right now, but that hasn't stopped the Cubs from going 17-11 during Bryant's dip in power.

GM Jed Hoyer reiterated again that Bryant is the last guy the Cubs worry about in the big picture.

"The way he runs the bases, the way he plays defense, I feel like he's contributing to wins even when he might be struggling at the plate a little bit," Hoyer said Monday evening. "With guys like him, I always look at it and think to myself — that means a hot streak is right around the corner.

"I said that about Anthony [Rizzo] in April when he was struggling and he's been great since May 1. I think Kris will have the same kind of turnaraound. With him, it's just a matter of when he breaks out.

"Over the course of the season, every great player goes through one or two big slumps. We're in a strange sport where even the greatest players are not slump-proof. He'll get out of it and we'll all reap the benefits when he does."

Even with the struggles, Bryant ranks 23rd among position players in WAR (Fangraphs) with 2.3, pacing the Cubs in that category. That still puts him on pace for a roughly 6-WAR pace, which would be his lowest throughout his MLB career but is still very clearly elite.

In an effort to get him back to the "KB" we've seen so much over the last four years, Joe Maddon has twice resorted to bumping him to the top of the lineup, including Monday night's game against the Dodgers.

Maddon is hoping a move to the leadoff spot will reinstill in Bryant's head that he doesn't need to be a power hitter to help the team win.

For right now, it works. After all, Bryant is still tied for 9th in baseball in OBP (.389). 

"You really do start trying too hard," Maddon said. "You try to force things as opposed to letting them come to you. Especially a power guy that's not hit home runs in a bit. My take on power guys is that it normally is cyclical. They'll get it for a while, then they'll get away with it, then it comes back."

Like Hoyer, Maddon talked up Bryant's abilities as a "winning player" in every other area of the game even when he's not going yard. That includes his daily hustle and effort.

"When a guy like him goes through this moment, I want him to focus on that — not homers," Maddon said. "He probably hears that way too much about the power situation and I'm really not interested in that. 

"Put him back in the leadoff spot for the reasons I just said — he can help win a game in so many different ways and I want him to just focus on that. ... He needs our support; he's gonna get it. I just put him in that top spot to readjust how he's thinking and that's all."