LOS ANGELES (AP) — Anthony Rizzo’s bat shattered into shards, and the ball trickled onto an empty patch of infield grass. The Chicago Cubs’ cleanup hitter scampered to first base in the ninth inning, getting just his second hit this postseason in Game 3 of the NL Championship Series.
In an October of increasing offensive ineptitude, the powerful Cubs are looking for any kind of break to get them going.
“That’s the kind of hit that we needed,” fellow slugger Kris Bryant said. “That’s the hit that can spark a team.”
Except it didn’t. This combustible offense remains quiet and cold — and after a superlative regular season, the Cubs have been shut out in back-to-back playoff games.
With its pitching staff again dominating one of baseball’s best lineups, Los Angeles took a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series with a 6-0 victory Tuesday night over Jake Arrieta and the Cubs.
If the Cubs don’t find their offense before they leave LA, the most infamous championship drought in sports will stretch into next year.
Chicago had never been blanked in two straight playoff games before the Dodgers did it. Chicago’s 18 consecutive scoreless innings comprise the longest drought in the team’s postseason history, two more than the 1906 squad.
This 103-win club spent exactly one day out of first place this season, but the Cubs are trailing in the NLCS because their hitters have been silenced ever since that five-run eighth inning in a Game 1 victory.
“I don’t gamble, but I probably wouldn’t have gambled on that one,” Chicago catcher Miguel Montero said.
Including a 1-0 loss in Game 2, Chicago is a collective 6-for-60 with one extra-base hit over the last two games. The Cubs hadn’t been shut out since Aug. 28, but Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill did it with plenty of help from closer Kenley Jansen.
This is highly unusual for the Cubs, who were third in the big leagues with 808 runs during the regular season. They had the majors’ second-best on-base percentage before the postseason, but baserunners have been scarce for most of their seven playoff games, and their team batting average is languishing below .200.
“We’re not hitting the ball hard,” manager Joe Maddon said. “They’ve pitched well. Obviously, I have no solid explanation. We’ve just got to keep working at it. … There is really no excuse. We just have to pick it up quickly.”
Chicago hadn’t been shut out in consecutive games since May 2014, but the Cubs never really threatened against Los Angeles — and their best hitters realize they bear the responsibility.
MVP candidate Rizzo (2-for-26), Addison Russell (1-for-24), Jason Heyward (2-for-19), Dexter Fowler (5-for-28) and Ben Zobrist (4-for-26) are all struggling mightily in the postseason. The middle of Chicago’s lineup is particularly lacking, and Maddon’s adjustments haven’t helped.
The Cubs were baffled by Hill, the 36-year-old journeyman who was playing independent ball just more than 14 months ago. Hill threw six innings of two-hit ball, and Arrieta couldn’t keep up in his return to the stadium where he threw a no-hitter in August 2015.
The 2015 Cy Young Award winner had a middling NLCS start for the second straight season, giving up four runs and six hits to the Dodgers over five-plus innings. Last October, he gave up four runs and four hits over five innings to the Mets in Game 2 of New York’s sweep.
Maddon dropped Heyward from the lineup for Game 3, but replacement Jorge Soler went hitless and made two misplays in right field, although neither cost the Cubs any runs. Heyward struck out on three pitches as a pinch hitter to end the seventh, taking a terrible swing on a down-and-in slider from Joe Blanton.
Fowler’s two-out double in the eighth off reliever Grant Dayton was the Cubs’ first extra-base hit since Game 1, but Jansen promptly struck out Bryant. After Rizzo’s shattered-bat single, Jansen calmly finished off the win.
The playoffs always provide small sample sizes of teams’ woes, but California pitching has flummoxed the Cubs through seven games in October. They didn’t hit much even in the Division Series against San Francisco, batting a collective .200 with a meager .247 on-base percentage while relying on pitchers at the plate for an alarmingly big chunk of their runs in that four-game series victory.
Game 4 on Wednesday suddenly looms as pivotal for the Cubs, who had five two-game skids in the second half of the season, but haven’t lost three straight since early July.
“You’re playing against great teams at this time of year,” Montero said. “You just try to live in the moment. And maybe you have to have a better plan.”
Copyright 2016 The Associated Press.