Slumping Cubs looking at shattered dreams

LOS ANGELES -- Beforehand, Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo all but promised to hit better.

“I will,” Rizzo said. “The law of averages says I’m due.”

Shortstop Addison Russell made an adjustment, becoming more relaxed with his hands in his setup.

Manager Joe Maddon changed his lineup, dropping Rizzo from third to fourth and Russell from fifth to seventh while elevating Javier Baez from sixth to fifth.

And  ... nothing.

The Cubs were shut out for the second straight game in the National League Championship Series, falling to the Dodgers in Game 3, 6-0, Tuesday at Dodger Stadium.

The team that won 103 games and led the NL Central for all but one day during the regular season now trails the series, two games to one.

Drum roll, please, for some wretched postseason numbers:

Rizzo: 2-for-26.

Russell: 1-for-24.

Jason Heyward: 2-for-19

Ben Zobrist: 4-for-26.

Dexter Fowler: 5-for-28.

Oh, and things will not necessarily get easier against left-hander Julio Urias in Game 4 on Wednesday night, just as they did not necessarily get easier against lefty Rich Hill in Game 3.

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The Cubs are batting .152 with a .439 OPS against lefties this postseason, .215 with a .705 OPS against righties. True, they have faced some doozies -- Clayton Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner, Hill and Matt Moore on career nights. But this is a group that during the regular season had an .807 OPS against lefties, the second highest in the majors.

It’s the postseason. Things can turn quickly, one way or another. But as Maddon said afterward, “We’re not hitting the ball hard. They’ve pitched well. Obviously, I have no solid explanation.”

So, how will the Cubs respond to their first hint of adversity in 2016?

Rizzo, who went 1-for-3 only due to a broken-bat infield single in the ninth inning, did not make himself available to reporters afterward. But other Cubs, not surprisingly, showed no signs of panic.

“We’ll figure it out,” said third baseman Kris Bryant, who had two of the team’s four hits and, along with Baez, is one of two Cubs hitting this postseason.

“We’re all very confident here. The peaks and valleys of this game will sometimes make you go crazy but we’ve got more games to play.”

Bryant added that the Cubs are not going too crazy, saying, “It’s super calm, nobody throwing stuff.” But take away the eighth inning of Game 1, and the Cubs are batting .128 overall in this series with zero home runs.

Some possible explanations:

* The Cubs did not face the Dodgers’ first three starters -- Kenta Maeda, Kershaw and Hill -- during the regular season.

“It’s weird, facing these guys for the first time,” Fowler said. “At the same time, we can hit.”

* The Dodgers know something about pitching to the Cubs that other teams do not.

The Cubs’ .592 OPS against the Dodgers during the regular season was their lowest against any NL club, though they did win the season series, 4-3.

Even the Dodgers’ lesser starters handled the Cubs. Urias, who started twice against them, had a difficult time at Wrigley in his second major-league appearance, but was much better at Dodger Stadium on Aug. 27, allowing one run in six innings.

The Dodgers’ other starters in the season series were Alex Wood, Scott Kazmir, Mike Bolsinger, Bud Norris and Brock Stewart -- none, except possibly Kazmir, is a household name.

* The sample size is small.

True, but that’s life in the postseason, unfair as it might be. The Cubs learned as much when they batted .164 and scored eight runs in four games while getting swept by the Mets in last year’s NLCS.

The trick now is to avoid a similar fate.

Does he bench Russell and play Baez at short? Does he sit Heyward for the second straight game? Which right-handed hitting catcher will he pair with right-hander John Lackey, Willson Contreras or David Ross?

Even if the Cubs win, Kershaw likely will pitch Game 5 on three days' rest. Heck, the Dodgers might start him even if they lead three games to one, in an effort to extinguish their reeling opponent and avoid going back to Chicago.

Perhaps this is simply a case of good pitching beating good hitting – and again, the Cubs have faced a ton of good pitching, including Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, who in this series has struck out six and allowed only one base-runner in 3 1/3 scoreless innings.

Still, Maddon acknowledged that at some point, the struggles get inside the hitters’ heads.

“It’s more of a mental trend than a physical trend,” Maddon said. “You have to be able to push back mentally as much as anything right now. Because when it comes to work, you don’t need any more batting practice or video study or data information. You just have to mentally hang in there and keep pushing back until you get it.”

The scary thing is, the Cubs already might be too far gone.

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