Broken Bats: Cubs hitters being shut down in NLCS, and Joe Maddon has few options

LOS ANGELES—An entirely different season begins tonight for the Chicago Cubs. For 168 games they sailed with the wind at their backs, never owning a losing record and never trailing another team except for one day out of the 198 since Opening Day, and that was way back on April 8, four games into the season. Tonight they take the field for Game 4 of the National League Championship Series at Dodger Stadium trailing Los Angeles two games to one. They are taking on water. They have been shut out in back-to-back games for the first time since May of 2014.

Dodgers lefthanded starters Clayton Kershaw, who throttled them with his fastball, and Rich Hill, who did so with his curveball, each beat Chicago without throwing 100 pitches. The Cubs have severely lacked quality at-bats, which brings us to the pressure on them tonight.

Start with the manager. Joe Maddon smartly shook up his lineup for Game 3, benching rightfielder Jason Heyward in favor of Jorge Soler, dropping shortstop Addison Russell from fifth to seventh and having Miguel Montero catch instead of Willson Contreras or David Ross because Montero is the usual paired partner with starting pitcher Jake Arrieta. Despite those maneuvers Chicago still produced just four hits in the 6-0 loss, which followed its two-hit evening in a 1-0 defeat in Game 2 on Sunday.

Now what? Does Maddon change the lineup again? Does he go back to Heyward, whose seventh-inning strikeout as a pinch-hitter did nothing to think he can give the offense a jolt? Does he give Soler (0-for-7 in the postseason) another turn in rightfield, or does he try rookie Albert Almora (0-for-4)? And what does he have in Russell, who has struggled so mightily (1-for-24 in the playoffs, an .042 batting average) that Maddon sent up Heyward (.109 in October) to bat for him on Tuesday?

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The pressure, too, will be on Chicago's hitters early in the game against a third straight lefthander, Julio Urias, who is just two months beyond turning 20 years old and will become the youngest pitcher ever to start a postseason game. The Cubs have fallen into a major funk at the plate, and the danger of getting shut down early in the game is giving in to a downward spiral.

"We feel good about ourselves," said Montero, whose pinch-hit grand slam in Game 1 gave Chicago its only win of the series. "In this game nothing can surprise you. Just have a few drinks and forget about it. You’ve got to give credit to their pitchers. They’re pitching us well. They’ve been pitching us great. It’s as simple as that."

The Dodgers put together scouting reports based heavily on analytics and they are immensely stubborn about sticking with the game plan, just as when they poured in high fastballs away to Washington rightfielder Bryce Harper in the NLDS. This time L.A.'s pitchers have delivered a heavy dose of curveballs against Anthony Rizzo while mixing in just enough hard fastballs in. They’ve kept the ball down and away to the 22-year-old Russell, whose youthfulness has shown in these games by reaching to the hit the ball out in front.

Remember, the Cubs ran into a pinpoint-sharp Kershaw in Game 2 and most of their hitters were getting their first look at Hill, a difficult case to solve even with experience because of his varied arm angles and barrage of curves.

“You look at the numbers, and half of his pitches are curveballs,” said Chicago third baseman Kris Bryant. “I found myself in my first at-bat trying to figure him out.”

Bryant struck out looking at a fastball down the heart of the plate in that at-bat but singled in each of his next two trips, the only hits Hill allowed in six innings of work.

“After that,” Bryant said, “he showed us his first curveball, and then his second curveball and then his third curveball and fourth. He’s got like four different curveballs.”

Game 3 turned on a weakness of Cubs pitchers: They don’t defend the running game well. The Dodgers are not a speed team—they stole the fewest bases (45) for the franchise since 1944—but they caused trouble with one out and nobody on base in the fourth inning of what was then a 1-0 game. A bouncer hit by Josh Reddick glanced off Arrieta’s glove, and second baseman Javier Baez, reversing field after the carom, could not corral the ball with a barehanded attempt. Reddick stole second easily and, after Joc Pederson fanned, he stole third base well. (Pederson would later set up another run with his own steal of third.)

The next hitter, Dodgers catcher Yasmani Grandal, was stuck in an 0-for-16 rut. Pitchers this season kept feeding him breaking balls, as Grandal went 0-for-9 with four strikeouts against curves and sliders. When Reddick stole third on a bounced curveball, Arrieta seemed to want to have nothing more to do with bouncing another breaking ball. He threw Grandal five more pitches, none of them in the dirt. For the last he abandoned the breaking ball entirely, trying a sinker that wound up down but over the middle of the plate.

“Right where [Grandal] likes it,” Montero said. “But Reddick should have never been on third, or second or first. If that ball doesn’t hit Jake’s glove, Javy makes that play.”

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Because of what’s been a cold offense throughout the postseason, the Cubs are playing with little margin for error, which can lead to tight baseball. The 1998 Yankees had a re-set to their 114-win season when they stepped on the field in Cleveland for Game 4 of the ALCS, trailing the Indians two games to one. Orlando Hernandez pitched a gem that night and they never lost again en route to the World Series title.

Those Yankees, however, had something in their pocket these 103-win Cubs don’t: a previous championship, having won two years earlier. On Wednesday Chicago will give the ball to John Lackey, who is about as playoff-hardened as any pitcher of this generation. But the real issue is whether the Cubs can hit in the early innings of Game 4 against another lefthander.

Hitters pounded Urias’ curveball this year to a .371 average, so the pitch of choice against an anxious Chicago team is likely to be his excellent changeup (.174). The Cubs did tag him for five runs in five innings back in June, but that was the kid’s second major league start. Since June 17 he is 5-0 with a 2.61 ERA. He is 3-0 with a 3.05 ERA at Dodger Stadium.

In his autopsy of the past two games, if not the entire postseason, Maddon kept saying how his team is not hitting the ball hard.

“It's more of a mental trend than a physical trend,” he said. “You have to be able to push back mentally as much as anything right now.”

That’s exactly why the Cubs are in such a bad way. It’s not as if they’re hitting into tough luck or extending innings to at least stress L.A.'s pitchers. They have put the leadoff man on base only twice in these past two games, covering 18 at-bats. Dodgers pitchers have 20 strikeouts and three walks in those games.

“But more than anything, I think we need to get a couple runs and hits early to try to get that kind of feeling back,” Maddon said. “Because obviously, when you're not scoring any runs, it makes it even more difficult in the dugout.”

Maddon has proffered enough T-shirt slogans this year to outfit the entire city of Chicago. It started back in spring training with “Embrace the Target,” which, by the way, never has been bigger than it is tonight. But in that postgame news conference Maddon unwittingly offered his most urgent slogan yet: “runs and hits early.” The early part speaks to the team’s fragility.

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