- Fresh off its first shutout of the postseason, Chicago heads to Los Angeles for Game 3 of the NLCS needing to get five members of its starting lineup untracked: Dexter Fowler, Jason Heyward, Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell and Ben Zobrist.
The numbers aren’t what you would expect to see from the Cubs’ steamroller offense: .043, .045, .111, .167, .182. Those are the postseason batting averages, respectively, of Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell, Jason Heyward, Dexter Fowler and Ben Zobrist, who are a combined 12-for-109 in the playoffs, a .110 batting average from five of the eight starting position players in Chicago's lineup. As the Cubs try to win their first pennant in 71 years, the team is being weighed down by a collective slump—one that has put undue pressure on the club's pitchers to keep opposing offenses at bay.
On Sunday, Chicago yielded just three hits and one run to the Dodgers but lost Game 2 of the NLCS because its hitters were even worse: two hits and no runs in a 1-0 final. Through six postseason games, the Cubs' offense has been more of an idea than a reality. In 202 at-bats, Chicago's hitters are batting a mere .193 and have produced just 25 runs. The team that was among baseball’s most patient at the plate during the regular season—finishing second in MLB in on-base percentage (.343) and first in walks (656)—has spent the month flailing, with a 3.53 strikeout-to-walk ratio (53 whiffs against 15 free passes) that is a long way from the 2.04 mark it posted during the season.
Small sample size caution abounds in any discussion of postseason stats, but there’s no doubting that the Cubs’ offense is as lost as lost can be right now. Sunday’s loss to Clayton Kershaw and Los Angeles was Chicago's first time being shutout since Aug. 28. There are signs of trouble: Six of the Cubs’ 25 runs have come off the bats of pitchers: Kyle Hendricks’s two-run single in NLDS Game 2; Travis Wood’s solo home run later in that contest; and Jake Arrieta’s three-run home run (off Madison Bumgarner, no less) in NLDS Game 3. Four more have come on one swing: Miguel Montero’s pinch-hit grand slam in NLCS Game 1. Those runs still count, but for nearly half of Chicago’s offense to come from non-sustainable sources speaks to how impotent the regulars in Joe Maddon’s lineup have been.
That’s been especially true for Rizzo, the cleanup hitter who finds himself mired in a vicious slump for the second straight postseason. Last year, the first baseman was just 6-for-32 (.188) in Chicago’s pennant chase, albeit with two home runs. But this October he has been far worse: one hit (a single) and three walks in 26 trips to the plate, with no runs driven in. That includes a 0-for-8 performance so far in the NLCS, although Rizzo did manage to draw a walk off Kershaw late in Game 2. The failures of Rizzo, who hit 32 home runs and led the team with 109 RBIs, have also routinely come at the worst possible time: In seven plate appearances with runners in scoring position—the most on the team—he is hitless.
Chicago’s run-scoring woes aren’t all on Rizzo. Russell, who missed most of last year’s playoff run with a hamstring injury, has looked overwhelmed so far; he’s reached base just once in 22 plate appearances. Heyward’s awful season has continued into October, as he’s been held to two hits in 18 at-bats and came up empty in the biggest at-bat of Game 2, popping out with two on and two out in the fifth. Even Kris Bryant, the NL MVP frontrunner who has hit .333 in the playoffs, has seen his newfound plate discipline evaporate: He leads the team with seven strikeouts and has drawn just two walks.
Granted, the postseason features the best teams with the best pitchers, and the Cubs have drawn a particularly daunting gauntlet. Among the six starters they’ve faced: Kershaw, the best pitcher in the game; Bumgarner, one of the best postseason pitchers ever; and Johnny Cueto, who is coming off a Cy Young-worthy season. It’s somewhat unfair to ask any team to go up against pitchers of that caliber and then be disappointed when the offense struggles.
But the expectations are that much higher in the postseason, especially for a team that made its bread by systematically tearing opposing pitching staffs apart all season. The Cubs can at least take some consolation in the fact that their pitching staff has been up to the task and that the Dodgers’ offense is struggling just as badly, if not worse. But Chicago can’t get to the World Series on pitching alone, and even if it does reach the Fall Classic more challenging matchups await. That's particularly true if the Cubs face an Indians team that leads the ALCS 2-games-to-0 and has posted an absurd 1.60 ERA against Boston and Toronto, two of the best offenses in baseball, during a postseason in which they have yet to lose a game.
It’s unlikely that Maddon will do anything unusual to get his offense going—this is still the same group that scored the third-most runs in MLB this year—and his decision to make Javier Baez a regular has already paid off nicely, as Baez has hit .391 and made several sparkling plays defensively. But perhaps now is the time to bench Heyward or drop Russell in the lineup, or at least to consider more aggressive pinch-hitting decisions. Starting Heyward against Kershaw was baffling enough; letting him hit with a runner in scoring position and the righthanded Jorge Soler available on the bench was simply mystifying.
The pressure is on the players, though, to get the offense right. No managerial decision is going to pull Rizzo out of his skid or get Bryant to cut down on his strikeouts or, perhaps most importantly, eliminate the likes of Kershaw from existence. The offense has helped get Chicago this far. Now it’s on that offense to carry it further.