Cubs Down, Not Out in NLCS

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By Zach Bernard

It would be easy for the traditional baseball fan to write the Cubs off already after losing the first two games of the NLCS against the Mets in Queens. Joe Maddon’s Cubs are far from traditional.

Indeed, a 2-0 hole in a best-of-seven series is never an ideal position for any team, and the Cubs’ dynamic offense has been dominated by the Mets’ highly touted buzz saw of a starting rotation. Fans can take solace in the fact that the Cubs haven’t been beating themselves as history has dictated in 1984, 2003, and the Lou Piniella era; the Mets are just really good.

This isn’t to say the Cubs can’t right the ship in the coming days. The next three games of the NLCS will take place at Wrigley Field, with the wildly underappreciated Kyle Hendricks taking the mound in Game 3 on Tuesday night. And the Cubs have a much more efficient offense than the numbers would suggest. In fact, some of their offensive woes can be attributed to bad luck.

In the first two games of the NLCS, the Cubs posted BABIP percentages of .200 and .227. While Noah Syndergaard dominated the Cubs lineup with nine strikeouts and only one walk, you might recall a number of hard-hit outs and tough-luck plays that could have made a difference:

  • In Game 1, Kyle Schwarber lined a ball right up the middle and over Matt Harvey’s head, almost directly at Mets shortstop Wilmer Flores in the shift for an out.
  • Also in Game 1, Kris Bryant and Starlin Castro scorched line drives to shortstop and second base, respectively, with the latter nearly resulting in a double play.
  • In Game 2, Chris Coghlan almost went yard against Syndergaard until he was robbed with a leaping catch by right fielder Curtis Granderson.

As the old adage goes, baseball is a game of inches. While credit is certainly due to the Mets defense for its heads-up reactions to hard contact, one has to wonder how the games change if each aforementioned swing was just one split-second, more or less, on point.

Of course, the Cubs haven’t gotten great starts out of Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta, as both starters dug themselves early holes, which isn’t an easy problem to overcome against Matt Harvey and Noah Syndergaard. The 2015 Mets offense is much different and far more confident than it was when the Cubs swept them across seven games during the regular season, and it’s capitalizing on what looks to be a tiring Cubs starting rotation.

The Mets have won the first two games of the NLCS with timely offense, heads-up defense, and pristine starting pitching that has arrived in October as advertised all season long. The wins were well-earned and deserved. Your grandfather’s Cubs may have already resigned to defeat, but these aren’t your grandfather’s Cubs.

A line drive past David Murphy in Game 1 with Rizzo running on contact sets up first and third with nobody out in the seventh inning against the largely impenetrable Matt Harvey. The Cubs chip away at their 3-0 deficit if Coghlan’s long fly out goes over the fence for a home run. On its face, one could say the Cubs offense is being “silenced” by Mets pitchers, but a lot of the outs have been quite loud. A little shift in fortune – or mere direction – could have gone a long way for a team that has turned inches into miles all season long.

Joe Maddon’s Cubs have been a streaky team; for every couple of losses, there’s a big winning streak on the horizon. And with the series taking center stage at Wrigley Field for the next three games, where the Cubs seemed unbeatable against a banged-up Cardinals team in the NLDS, the complexion of the entire NLCS can change with just a little more wind behind those line drives.

Now certainly, the Mets are a good enough team to go to Chicago and win the series in four or five games, and nobody should put that past them. Game 3 starter Jacob deGrom was wonderful during the regular season and carried that into Games 1 and 5 of the NLDS against the Dodgers, and the Mets have all of the series momentum on their flight out of Queens.

But the Cubs offense shifted into overdrive upon their return from St. Louis in the NLDS, hitting a postseason record six home runs in Game 3 and never letting the Cardinals get comfortable on their home turf. Considering the number of “missed it by that much” lineouts and fly outs in the first two games of the series, there’s no reason to think the Cubs offense is out of gas just yet.

And Kyle Hendricks, who only went 4 2/3 innings and surrendered three earned runs (all home runs) in his only postseason start in Game 2 of the NLDS, posted a 1.50 ERA and 1.43 xFIP in his final three starts of the regular season and can dominate when he locks in. His 3.4 WAR and 3.88 strikeout-to-walk rate – not to mention a 3.36 regular season FIP in 180 innings – make Hendricks one of baseball’s most overlooked starters. One would imagine he’ll have to bring his best stuff in Game 3 to outlast Jacob deGrom.

Following Sunday’s loss at Citi Field, Joe Maddon kept his cool, preaching an approach familiar to Cubs fans during the long regular season as they go back to Wrigley Field down two games:

“We’re all about one-game winning streaks, very seriously. I really preach daily the one-day-at-a-time approach. I know it’s Psychobabble 101, but it actually works. So all I’m concerned about is the next game.”

And for the 2015 Chicago Cubs, it has worked. After being dominated by John Lackey in Game 1 of the NLDS in St. Louis, the Cubs fought back with small-ball and a big home run from Jorge Soler early the next day to take the lead, and they never looked back. That wouldn’t be the only time Maddon’s Cubs responded in such a way since April.

Yes, the Mets have a large advantage and yes, they are good enough to finish this thing off early and head to their first World Series since 2000. But unlike postseasons of the past, the Cubs can’t be counted out until the final out of the series is recorded. This NLCS, largely predicted to be “epic” by pundits everywhere before it began, still has the potential to become a classic when it is all said and done.

The Cubs must be ready for Game 3 for that to happen. And there’s no reason to believe they won’t be.

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