By Nick Shepkowski–
(CBS) With Monday being an off day for the Cubs and Dodgers, it provides time to look back at the first two games of the National League Championship Series and also look ahead.
My first thought goes to the series sitting at 1-1 and how it feels having the Cubs lose Game 2 in a 1-0 contest at home. It stings putting up a goose egg on your home field, but against Clayton Kershaw and Kenley Jansen, it has hardly put me in panic mode. There were some questionable approaches at the plate Sunday night, most notably by Willson Contrares, but when you’re facing the best in the game, you’re often forced to change your approach, something analyst John Smoltz discussed in deep detail.
Despite many thinking this would be a quick series, I’ve never felt it would take anything less than six games to get by the Dodgers. Kershaw’s resume speaks for itself, and you’re seeing first-hand a Dodgers lineup that while lacking some big names still grinds out at-bats and makes pitchers work.
I still believe the Cubs win the series, but as I thought going in, I’ll be pleasantly surprised if they get by in anything less than six games. You get to a championship series in baseball and you’re a damn fine squad, no matter how much of an underdog you may be viewed as. And the Dodgers are still that underdog, despite stealing home-field advantage.
A couple of moves really stuck out to me this weekend while observing.
First off, shout out to Dodgers manager Dave Roberts for the early Christmas present. I don’t care if he was trying to set up a double play or that Jason Heyward hit .360 in the regular season against the Dodgers, there’s no justifiable reason you can give me that makes me think intentionally walking one of baseball’s very worst everyday offensive players was a good idea, as he did in the eighth inning of Game 1.
Biased because of the result? Heck no. That’s one of the easiest outs in baseball, and Heyward was pitched around. In a sample as small as a best-of-seven series, that seemingly small decision could play a huge difference in who champions the NL pennant in a few days.
Pitch to Heyward and almost assuredly, he would have gotten himself out. The inning would then play out differently, with the Cubs’ chances of scoring a single run, let alone five, dropping significantly. Roberts chose against this simple logic, so a big thank you for that and for doing the same to Chris Coghlan later that half-inning.
One more thought on Game 1: Cubs fans need to take Will Smith’s Neuralyzer from Men In Black and erase all of their negative postseason memories. When something bad happens or adversity strikes, this team doesn’t care. The Cubs showed this in every game of the NLDS against the Giants: on Javier Baez’s home run in Game 1, with the bullpen’s strong effort to overcome the early Hendricks exit in Game 2, with the Kris Bryant homer to force extra innings in Game 3 and the monumental comeback in Game 4.
And of course, that attitude was present in the bottom of the eighth Saturday after they squandered a lead to the Dodgers in the top half.
I can’t be the only Cubs fan who thought of how previous teams wouldn’t handle that kind of pressure well but how absolutely none of that applied to this set of team. The willingness to “embrace the target,” as manager Joe Maddon puts it, and more specifically to not allow themselves to get fazed is undeniable and entirely different compared to what we’ve seen with this baseball club in past years.
The Cubs have issues in this postseason that need fixed, otherwise we’ll have another year of hearing the stupidity about goats, curses and Cubbie Occurences.
It with Anthony Rizzo, one of the best hitters in the National League. He’s a well-documented 1-of-23 this postseason with three walks.
I’m wouldn’t move him down in the order, like a couple of our callers on the show want to do. Honestly, if I were to make any change with him in the lineup, I’d be more likely to move him up to second in the order to increase his chances of seeing fastballs.
That said, I’m still not moving Rizzo at all and am having real trouble seeing how anyone at all sees that as logical when you have 162 games that say completely otherwise.. Even the best hitters press while going through awful slumps, and that’s the case with Rizzo, who has been the three-hitter all season long. That’s where I’m keeping him.
Now that’s not to say I wouldn’t make some changes. I finally have reached the point where I don’t want to see Jason Heyward hit against a lefty the rest of the postseason. With the Cubs struggling to score runs, you can’t afford to be essentially giving away two or three outs, as has been the case almost all year long with Heyward against lefties, whom he had a .586 OPS against and a grand total of six extra-base hits in 161 plate apperances.
I’m not quick to have to have Jorge Soler play in his place, however, because I don’t think Soler is completely healthy. He doesn’t look right at the plate. Many of his appearances have been as a pinch-hitter, but there’s a better option to put out there than him. I would have Contreras play left field, which he manned in 24 regular-season games, and put Ben Zobrist in right, because Contreras has been a considerably better hitter than Soler.
I’d then move the struggling Addison Russell down in the order to eighth because he’s clearly pressing and has seemingly been doing so since at least mid-September.
So to greet Dodgers left-hander Rich Hill in Game 3, I’d have a lineup as follows:
Dexter Fowler, CF
Kirs Bryant, 3B
Anthony Rizzo, 1B
Ben Zobrist, RF
Willson Contreras, LF
Javier Baez, 2B
Miguel Montero, C
Addison Russell, SS
Jake Arrieta, P
Again, I’m not worried about how this series plays out. I’ve got five important reasons why:
1. With all the Cubs offensive struggles, the Dodgers have scored a grand total of five runs in 18 innings this series. You think Los Angeles fans aren’t worried about their offense right now?
2. While Rizzo has been a huge disappointment, does anyone actually think this is here to last? He’s due to come out of his funk and in a big way, just like Kershaw was due to do leading into Game 2 after his October struggles as a starter.
3. Defense doesn’t slump. Hitters go into slumps like we’re seeing now, but defense doesn’t just go away. With Baez now playing second base on a nightly basis, you need to hit a ball hard as hell or place it perfectly to sneak it through the middle of the Cubs’ infield. Easier said than done, and that’s only going to help.
4. Here’s a number: 4-2. Despite all these issues we’ve gone over, the Cubs are still 4-2 this postseason and have outscored their opponents 25-18. I know it’s a tiny sample size, but they’ve outplayed their opponents despite the shortcomings offensively. And with Rizzo, Russell and Fowler all due to hit significantly better, I have plenty of faith the wins will continue to come.
5. Kershaw can’t pitch every game. When he’s thrown so far this postseason, the Dodgers are 4-0 — 3-0 in his starts and 1-0 when he came out of the bullpen so heroically to get by the Nationals. It’s not MLB The Show for PlayStation where you can turn fatigue off. Kershaw won’t be available in Games 3 and 4. He’ll likely start Game 5 and be available for a potential Game 7 with whatever he has to offer, I’d imagine. Hill, Julio Urias and Kenta Maeda? None of those three put fear into me, and the Cubs are likely to get plenty of at-bats against all of them the rest of this series, which means plenty of good news.