NEW YORK — Before Game 2 of the National League Championship Series against the Mets, while reflecting on what he’d enjoyed most from his first season in Chicago, Cubs manager Joe Maddon brought up one topic that had come up again and again in his conversations with North Siders: Just how long it had been since anyone in the city—or anyone at all, really—had seen the Cubs win the pennant.
“You heard in the beginning a lot about how parents and grandparents never saw a World Series, and then it would always be followed with, ‘No pressure,’” he said. “I assured them there absolutely is none.”
It has been impossible to talk about the Cubs in this postseason without bringing up that history and the pressure it places on this current squad, but throughout the first two rounds of the postseason, Maddon’s team seemed determined—practically destined—to make up for the franchise’s woe-strewn past. Chicago easily brushed aside the 98-win Pirates in the wild-card game, with Jake Arrieta making Pittsburgh look like a Double A team forced onto the field at the last minute. After dropping the division-series opener to the Cardinals, Chicago mercilessly battered St. Louis pitching, clubbing 10 homers over the next three games, all wins, to eliminate the NL Central-champion Cardinals and clinch an NLCS spot for the first time since 2003.
Throughout it all, the Cubs looked immune to the glare of the postseason spotlight, as a lineup of young sluggers bashed their way into pennant contention. Here in that championship series, however, the Cubs are finally feeling the kind of heat that has felled the franchise in every year since the end of World War II. After Sunday night’s 4–1 Game 2 loss, Chicago finds itself in an 0–2 series hole as it leaves Queens and heads home to Wrigley Field. Worse, its top two pitchers, Jon Lester and Arrieta, were chewed up and spit out by a Mets team that seems to care nothing for a pitcher’s pedigree. On the other side, New York’s cadre of power arms—first Matt Harvey in Game 1, then Noah Syndergaard on Sunday—has been brilliant. In Game 2, Syndergaard bullied his way through the Cubs, allowing just three hits and one run while striking out nine in 5 2/3 innings.
Thanks to the efforts of Harvey, Syndergaard and the Mets’ bullpen, that prodigiously powerful Chicago offense has been held completely in check, managing just three runs on 10 hits and a lone home run (rookie Kyle Schwarber’s late-inning solo shot in Game 1) in 18 innings. Replacing all that clout has been a startling surfeit of strikeouts: Of the Cubs’ 54 outs this series so far, 20 have come swinging or staring at a third strike.
As disappointing as the offense has been, however, the turns from Lester and Arrieta have left the lineup with little margin for error. Lester, the Cubs’ $155-million free-agent star, was up and down in the NLCS opener, giving up four runs in 6 2/3 innings. Arrieta, the NL Cy Young favorite, was even worse in Game 2. Coming off a rough division-series appearance against the Cardinals—four earned runs in 5 2/3 innings—Arrieta allowed a single, an RBI double and home run against the first three in the Mets’ order. The crushing blow was Daniel Murphy’s second homer of the series, as the veteran second baseman golfed a 1–2 curveball from around his shins into the upper deck in rightfield for a two-run blast.
Before Arrieta even had an out to his name, it was 3–0 Mets, a gap the Cubs could never close. Though he mostly rebounded from that dismal start, he finished with four runs allowed in five innings, his second straight subpar outing after a season in which he was virtually untouchable throughout.
“I think they just did a good job of capitalizing when the opportunity was there,” Arrieta said. “I put us in a pretty big hole in the first there, one that was just a little bit too much to overcome.”
After the game, Arrieta insisted that he felt physically fine throughout his start. When asked about his ace in his postgame press conference, Maddon downplayed questions as to whether Arrieta’s heavy workload on the season—he’s now at 249 2/3 innings for the year, or almost 100 more than he threw in 2014—was finally catching up to him. But Arrieta’s velocity was notably down throughout the night: He sat at 93.5 mph in Game 2, about two miles-per-hour under his season average. Regardless of how Arrieta feels, the results from his last two starts have to create some concern for any future appearances this postseason.
Before the Cubs can get Arrieta back on the mound, however, they need to tackle at least Games 3 and 4, and that’s where things get truly problematic. When they next take the field on Tuesday night at Wrigley, the man on the mound for Chicago will be 25-year-old righthander Kyle Hendricks, who lasted just 4 2/3 innings in Game 2 of the NLDS. Opposite him will be Jacob deGrom, who twice stymied the Dodgers in New York’s division series and is coming off a season that would be Cy Young-caliber were it not for the trio of Arrieta, Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke ahead of him. Game 4 is even more stomach-turning for Chicago: The choice will likely be either Jason Hammel, who was pulled after three inefficient innings in the Cubs’ division-series clincher, or Lester on three days’ rest.
Then again, with the way Murphy and Curtis Granderson are swinging, Theo Epstein could resurrect Mordecai Brown and Pete Alexander and put them on the mound at Wrigley, and it still may not make a difference. Murphy, now up to five home runs this postseason, has clobbered everything thrown in his direction. “Pitching around him might be the best way to deal with him right now,” Hendricks said after the game.
Granderson, meanwhile, has been a terror atop the lineup. In Game 2, he singled, drew a walk, scored two runs and stole two bases. For the playoffs, he’s hitting .391 with four walks and has reached base in all seven of the Mets’ games, with at least one hit in six of them.
If there’s one small silver lining for the Cubs, it’s that the rest of New York’s lineup has contributed little in the first two games. David Wright picked up his first hit of the series in Game 2, lashing an RBI double to center in the first inning, but went hitless in his next three trips to the plate and is 2 for 22 in the playoffs. Yoenis Cespedes has just two hits, both singles, since his NLDS Game 3 homer, though he did drive in a run with a sharply hit ground ball to shortstop on Sunday. Lucas Duda has been thoroughly lost since the calendar flipped to October, with two hits and 13 strikeouts in 21 postseason at-bats. These are, however, small comforts for a Cubs team that needs four wins in its next five games to advance to the franchise’s first World Series since 1945.
If the pressure of breaking that 70-year pennant-less streak is getting to the Cubs, it has yet to show. That is perhaps most true of Maddon. As his team dressed and answered questions after Game 2 in the visitors’ clubhouse at Citi Field—all expressing how much confidence they still had in each other and the lineup—a familiar song began playing from the hallway just outside the locker room. At an earsplitting volume, Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now”—best known as the theme from Rocky—boomed out of Maddon’s office as he silently collected his belongings and packed for the trip to Chicago.
The Mets may not quite be heavyweight champion Apollo Creed, but Maddon, at least, is embracing the underdog identity of Rocky Balboa as he tries to get his team out of its deep NLCS hole. Whether he and the Cubs can pull the Rocky-sized upset, however, is another matter entirely: Of the previous 20 teams to fall behind 0–2 in the NLCS, only two have come back to win the series, with the last being the 1985 Cardinals.
“We’ve got work to do,” Arrieta said. “The good thing is we get to go home, play three games in Wrigley Field, and come out ready to go, which we will be. The series is not over.”