Chicago Cubs one win away from NLCS
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Chicago Cubs one win away from NLCS
Sunday October 9th, 2016

Three thoughts on the Cubs’ 5–2 victory over the San Francisco Giants, which gave Chicago a 2–0 lead in the best-of-five National League Division Series. Game 3 will be Monday at AT&T Park in San Francisco.

Wood comes through 

There was little reason to expect Travis Wood to play a starring role in this game, especially once the Cubs jumped out to a 4–0 lead in the second inning and knocked Giants starter Jeff Samardzija out of the game. But Wood, a 29-year-old lefty reliever, suddenly found himself thrust into the ballgame just two innings later, as Chicago starter Kyle Hendricks was forced to leave after being struck by a line drive off the bat of Angel Pagan. Not only did Wood retire four of the five batters he faced—the only baserunner, pinch-hitter Madison Bumgarner, reached on a Kris Bryant error in the fifth—he also became just the second relief pitcher to hit a home run in postseason history, and the first since Rosy Ryan did so for the New York Giants in 1924.

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Wood is the longest-tenured player on a roster that has undergone massive turnover since team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer took over in October 2011. If Chicago, which was already 16 years into its World Series drought when Ryan went yard in Game 3 of that year’s Fall Classic, was looking for positive omens this October, it may have just found one. (This being the Cubs, of course, it’s worth pointing out that their only other pitchers to have homered in the postseason in franchise history are Rick Sutcliffe and Kerry Wood, who did so in the 1984 and 2003 NLCS, respectively, years that ended in brutal fashion for Chicago, which blew two-game leads in both of those series.)

Wood is no Bumgarner either at the bat or on the mound, but he slugged three home runs in both 2013 and ’14 (his last two years as a starting pitcher), and has nine homers in 318 career postseason plate appearances, the third most longballs among active pitchers (Bumganer has 14). Wood’s homer Saturday was a no-doubter off San Francisco reliever George Kontos, and it stretched the Cubs’ lead to 5–2 after the Giants had cut Chicago’s advantage in half in the top of the fourth.

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Joe Maddon didn’t need to worry too much about his bullpen in Friday’s Game 1. Starter Jon Lester pitched eight brilliant innings, and after Javier Baez’s basket-aided home run, he went immediately to closer Aroldis Chapman to secure the final three outs. It didn’t appear he would have to worry much on Saturday, either, as Hendricks carried a 4–0 lead into the fourth thanks in part to having matched his season RBI total with his own two-run single in Chicago’s three-run third inning. Hendricks, who finished the year with as the major league leader in both ERA (2.13) and ERA+ (188), had allowed four runs in a start at Wrigley Field just once all year, and that came way back on April 15 in his home debut.

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Maddon, though, proved adept at managing this unexpected crisis, which turned out to be little more than a nuisance and may have even been a blessing in disguise, as it got his relievers some work for the first time since the regular season ended last Sunday. Following Wood’s hitless 1 1/3 innings of work, Carl Edwards Jr. (1 IP) and Mike Montgomery (1 1/3 IP), Hector Rondon (2/3 IP) and Chapman (1 IP) combined to allow just two singles and no walks over the final four frames. For all the talk about the Cubs’ hitting (third in the majors in runs scored), starting pitching (2.96 ERA, best in the majors) and defense (the best defensive efficiency in baseball in the past 25 seasons), their bullpen can sometimes be overlooked. But from the soft-tossing Wood (average fastball velocity in 2016: 90 mph) to the flamethrowing Chapman (average fastball velociuty in 2016: 100 mph) the Cubs proved Saturday that they can be just as potent in that area as they are in any other.

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Giant Task

The only real moment of concern for Chicago on this night came when Hendricks was forced to leave the game; X-rays taken afterward of his arm were negative and it remains to be seen how he’ll feel on Sunday and beyond. Hendricks isn’t slated to pitch again until Game 1 of the NLCS next Saturday at the earliest, and given the Cubs' deep pool of starting pitching that includes three viable NL Cy Young candidates in Hendricks, Lester and Jake Arrieta, a Division Series sweep could allow Maddon to push Hendricks back in the NLCS to accommodate any necessary additional recovery time.

Speaking of Arrieta, he’ll start Game 3 on Monday opposite Bumgarner, the October immortal who shut out the Mets in the NL wild-card game earlier this week and carries a 1.94 career postseason ERA in 15 outings into that game. San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy can be heartened by the fact that his team has been in an even worse spot than this during its stretch of Even Year Magic. In 2012 the Giants dug out of a 2–0 hole in the 2012 NLDS against the Reds in which they dropped the first two games at home before rallying to win three straight, all on the road, en route to their second of three World Series titles this decade.

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As brilliant as Bumgarner has been in the postseason and as much as his own hitting prowess suggests he’s capable of winning Game 3 all by himself, he would certainly appreciate a little help from his teammates, whose bats have been cold for weeks now and haven’t warmed up in October. The Giants have now scored just five runs and connected for only 17 hits across the first 27 innings of their postseason existence in 2016. They picked the wrong pitcher to have to face with their season on the line too, as Arrieta led the majors in fewest hits allowed per nine innings for the second straight year.

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