WASHINGTON — Dexter Fowler set the tone in the last elimination game the Cubs played, leading off with a home run against Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber and backpedaling between first and second base, showing the natural swagger and tension-free attitude needed to end a 108-year championship drought.
Out of that epic World Series Game 7 win over the Cleveland Indians, Fowler switched sides in the rivalry when the St. Louis Cardinals made him an offer he couldn’t refuse — five years and $82.5 million — and the Cubs couldn’t come close to matching.
The 2017 leadoff formula never became as simple as Joe Maddon’s reminder to Fowler: “You go, we go.” But with this season on the line, the Cubs manager absolutely wanted Jon Jay at the top of Thursday night’s Game 5 lineup against Washington Nationals lefty Gio Gonzalez.
After rolling with Fowler thorough six playoff rounds across the last two seasons, the Cubs went 0-for-13 from the leadoff spot in the first four games of this National League Division Series, part of an overall Washington shutdown where they hit .159 with a .514 OPS.
“You know what’s going to fix that? Facing different pitchers, hopefully,” Maddon said with a laugh inside his temporary office at Nationals Park. “That’s what would fix that. They’ve just been that good. Listen, there’s no running away from it. There’s not an excuse. (Max) Scherzer was good. (Stephen) Strasburg’s been good twice.
“We’ve scored eight runs and won two games out of four? That’s not (bad). All this stuff is typical higher-mound baseball, (Bob) Gibson, (Sandy) Koufax kind of stuff.
“They’re really imposing and they got great stuff — every one of them — and also command. That’s been the big thing.”
Think Fowler misses Chicago? He didn’t put any emoji underneath a family photo at McKee Ranch in Las Vegas, but the caption on his Instagram account summed it up: “This October is less climactic than the last, but no less filled with joy.”
St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Jose de Jesus Ortiz also called him out this week in a story about embracing The Cardinal Way: “When teams are winning, teammates hardly ever bother to notice or even care if Dexter Fowler is usually the last guy in the clubhouse and one of the first to leave.”
Jay was drafted and developed under The Cardinal Way and earned a World Series ring with the 2011 team. The Cubs wanted that veteran leadership and playoff experience and got their money’s worth out of a one-year, $8 million deal.
Jay hit .296 with a .749 OPS, played all over the outfield and called a pivotal team meeting on Sept. 10 after the Milwaukee Brewers swept a three-game series at Wrigley Field, helping refocus a team that closed with a 15-4 surge.
Maddon won’t lobby for Jay or any other upcoming free agent: “Listen, that’s up to the front office to decide that.”
Jay also doesn’t want to get distracted or tip his hand about his plans for the future.
“Right now, it’s simple for me,” Jay said. “We’re here trying to win. When I came here, it was for the chance to be in October, and that's what we're doing right now, and I'm extremely happy with that. Right now, my goal is to continue to help this team win.”
Whether or not Jay is still part of the 2018 solution, the Kyle Schwarber leadoff experiment was a failure (though he still wound up with 30 homers after a detour to Triple-A Iowa). Ben Zobrist will be 37 early next season and coming off one of the worst offensive years of his career. A winter focused on top-of-the-rotation pitching will also have to account for top-of-the-lineup production.
“You’re always looking for the prototypical leadoff guy,” Maddon said. “Everybody is, and that’s not an easy animal to find. We thought, honestly, at the beginning of the year with Schwarbs, that would play.
“He just did not have his typical year. He’s unconventional but really highly conventional in the fact that I expected a higher on-base percentage. That’s where it started to alter, and then having to splice it out among Jay and Zobrist, etc., that was just Plan B and C.
“Overall, we have not been displeased, but I think every team wants a guy that can hit a little bit and run a little bit, a little bit of pop on the top. I mean, that’s what everybody’s looking for.”