It shouldn’t surprise anyone anymore. As good as this team is, every loss raises those deep rooted insecurities that goes with being a Cubs fan. Not that you can blame us. It’s not like we have great personal reference points.
“Remember that one time the Cubs offense struggled and lost, then roared back to win the series and advance to the World Series?”
Yeah, me neither.
So much of what we know in life depends on personal experience and so we rely heavily on that. But there is much more to knowledge than what we have experienced first hand. Eve if it is just in the abstract sense, we know, for example, that the Cubs are an extremely talented team capable of winning this series and eventually, the World Series even though it isn’t something we’ve experienced in the past.
But all that gets thrown aside for the moment. Our most recent, visceral memory was one where we felt helpless as Clayton Kershaw shut down the Cubs offense. The early home run by Adrian Gonzalez seemed all but surmountable. I even told my wife, the Cubs are going to need a break or two to tie this game. It seemed absurd at the time that I would say that. The best team with the best offense in baseball will need some luck to get just one run across?
Yet, such was the scenario with a dominant Kershaw on the mound. A generous strike zone helped. That zone gave him plenty of room for error — not that he really needed it. Mind you I am not complaining about that. In fact, it is quite the opposite. I think that seemingly larger zone may have helped the Cubs more than the Dodgers as their own starter Kyle Hendricks wasn’t as pinpoint with his command as we are used to seeing. It may have helped the Cubs stay within that one run where it would just take that one big mistake by Kershaw or his defense would make it a brand new game.
But that big mistake never happened. Except for a couple of minor gaffs that turned out to be inconsequential, the Dodgers played about as well as you could expect them to play. They used their two best pitchers and rode them for the entire game. The Cubs, who had this place rocking yesterday, suddenly looked lifeless on offense.
We could blame this on a lot of things. Maybe they had some digging down for that energy after two very emotional wins (nah). Perhaps they should have juggled the lineup, perhaps Joe Maddon should have started Jorge Soler. The way Kershaw was pitching, it probably wouldn’t have mattered, but maybe the big guy could have run into one and tied the game in one fell swoop. Alternatively, the Cubs could have tried a little small ball with a speedier, more contact-oriented offense. But they just aren’t built that way.
They were going to go with what got them there — through superb run prevention via Hendricks, their bullpen, standout defense, and the ability to wear down pitchers and score enough (usually more than enough judging by their run differential this season) runs to come out ahead at the end of the day. But against Kershaw, it was more about keeping it close and hope to get a couple of runs on the board. It seemed to me a very reasonable strategy and it very nearly worked. The Anthony Rizzo blast that hooked foul comes to mind.
Entering this game, I gave the Cubs a 50-50 shot of winning this one despite being at home and having one of their Cy Young candidates on the mound, so the outcome wasn’t a shocker by any means, This was the game the Dodgers absolutely had to win. They had to play a near perfect game and they did, so you have to tip your cap there. For the Cubs, they were in a situation that, had they won this game, they would have made it extremely difficult for the Dodgers to come back and win the series.
The Cubs are now faced with an unusual situation. With the format being a 2-3-2 home/away/home set up, the Dodgers need not come back to Wrigley to take this series. Even if the Cubs win just one game, they would head back to Wrigley down 3-2 and facing two consecutive elimination games at home. It takes some of that advantage away that the Cubs have worked so hard all season to get. The road team just needs to split the first two games on the road — a not unrealistic scenario when you have arguably the game’s best pitcher out there for one of those games — to take what it took a whole season for the Cubs to secure. There is no question to me that the format should change, but it is the one that is in place now and there is nothing that can be done to change that at this point. The Cubs must play the hand they’ve been dealt. And why would we expect anything less?
This is also not a team that has made excuses, so I don’t expect them to start now. I expect them to do everything they can to take that advantage back,
I expect them to come out ready against Rich Hill. Hill isn’t the same pitcher that we remember from his days in a Cubs uniform. His command of his curveball has improved tremendously and he has developed some variations to make that pitch a lot more versatile. He is essentially fastball/curve with nearly 50% of his offerings being that curve, but to call him a two pitch pitcher would be inaccurate. That curve can look like three different pitches depending on how and where he throws it.
Hill has been prone to some blister issues and still has some trouble keeping his emotions in check, so if the Cubs can frustrate him early and make him work, they can make it a tough night for him, but those are big IFs the way Hill has pitched this season.
The Cubs will counter with 2015 Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta and while he hasn’t been as consistently dominant as he was last season, he has shown he is still quite capable of being that pitcher who overwhelmed NL hitters last season.
All eyes, however, will be on the Cubs offense. Despite going 4-2 so far in the postseason and scoring 5 runs in 4 of those 6 games, the narrative will be their struggling hitters despite the fact that those struggles came against two of the best pitchers in baseball yesterday and that their only previous struggle came against Johnny Cueto, a pitcher they have historically had difficulty hitting in the past.
The Cubs have to be careful not to buy into that struggling offense narrative and start doing things drastically different now. They won 103 games and ranked 1st in offensive fWAR for a reason. They have some of the best young hitters in baseball and an effective approach at the plate that works much more often than not. That is not the same as saying it will work every time. It won’t. But abandoning that approach over one game would look like panic.
And these Cubs, unlike us fans, don’t panic all that easily. It is going to be a long two days until we can start to erase those Game 2 memories, but my guess is that the Cubs have already moved on and are ready for Game 3.
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