The Cubs have had a not-so-quiet concern this postseason, an unsure refrain that has been repeated by analysts, fans, and (we can only assume) the team itself, an anxiety to characterize the flipside of baseball’s best regular-season team–namely, what if they can’t hit good pitching?
This question, simple as it seems, was built over two years of high expectations, disappointment, and near-constant media scrutiny, but the fear behind the question is as old as the Cubs’ postseason frustrations. And that fear, uh, it’s pretty old. In short, the question of whether or not the consistently elite quality of pitching that you only see in short-season baseball would prove to be too much for the 2016 Chicago Cubs has been the story of the team, despite their 103 wins, their own elite pitching, and their incredibly productive lineup.
And, tied 2-2 in the NLCS against a Dodgers team with perhaps the best pitcher this generation, the Cubs had yet to put this question to bed. Then they went ahead and won 8-4 last night, taking a 3-2 series lead back home to Chicago. And this after winning a 10-2 drubbing the night before. So suddenly, the question seemed to have its answer, right? The Cubs could hit good pitching! Well, as the motivational poster said to the office worker, hang on.
The Cubs certainly punished the Dodgers over the past two games, but whether they punished the elite pitchers of the league is up for debate. On Wednesday, they got to Youngest Postseason Pitcher Julio Urias, who is as precociously talented as he is unpolished; on Thursday, they weren’t able to get to starter Kenta Maeda, but they beat up the Dodgers' pre-Kenley-Jansen bullpen to earn seven of their eight runs. They may have put up 18 runs in the past two days, but the Cubs haven’t quite hit their way past the specter of the two shutout losses that Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill doled out the previous two games.
The Cubs, in other words, are still fairly enigmatic as a team. The Dodgers are somewhat easier to pin down: they have trouble hitting lefties, but are a potent offensive lineup with two pitchers at the top of their rotation in Kershaw and Hill who can shut out any given team on any given night. Unfortunately, due to injury and inexperience, the rest of their rotation is not nearly as formidable, and their bullpen is full of mercurial pitchers as likely to pitch five shutout innings as they are to give up five earned runs.
While the Dodgers are certainly not “Kershaw, Hill, and pray for rain,” after a season just wracked with injury and unpredictability, they’re not far off. And so, suddenly, after the Cubs’ win, we’re set up with the classic Immovable Object vs. Irresistible Force dilemma that we so rarely see in such stark terms in the postseason: the suddenly red-hot-hitting Cubs versus the heretofore unhittable Kershaw and Hill in Games 6 and 7. The media narrative–and here I am contributing to it like a sucker–will almost certainly be whether or not the Cubs can continue their success against the two undeniably elite options in the Dodgers’ rotation.
And if they cannot get to Kershaw tomorrow, that narrative will reach a fever pitch for Game 7 of the NLCS in Chicago. Curses, cold streaks, young players, wily veterans: the whole thing reads like a Tribune columnist’s unpublished first novel. But while we’ll hear a lot made of the question of “can the Cubs hit good pitching?” I think it’s important we step back and say, after these past two games, that maybe it isn’t really important if they can or can’t.
Game 5 in particular might shed some light on the issue. The Cubs were not at all stymied by Maeda, scoring one run in the first inning, and stranding two men on base, but they were also unable to capitalize on their patience/power approach much beyond that for the rest of Maeda’s start. And by the fifth inning, after Josh Fields and Grant Dayton had left almost two scoreless innings behind them and resurgent bullpen arm Joe Blanton had taken the mound, the Cubs and their fans must have been wondering if there was something systemically wrong with their offensive approach.
And then Addison Russell hit a crucially important home run off of Blanton, turning a 1-1 tie into a 3-1 lead. And two innings later, the Cubs beat up on up-and-down reliever Pedro Baez for five runs, and it was all over but for the shouting. Yes, the Dodgers scored two runs against Aroldis Chapman in the ninth, but a six-run lead is tough for even a storybook ending to overcome, and the game that may be Vin Scully’s last home Dodgers game as an employee ended with the statistically probable thud of a loss.
What can we learn from that? Well, we might start by saying that the Dodgers have really gotten the short end of things in the 2016 postseason. This is a team that pitched two consecutive shutouts against one of the more gifted offensive teams that baseball saw this year, that was able to make an 8-2 game suspenseful in the ninth inning, and that had until two nights ago been in complete command of an NLCS against the best team in baseball, and all anyone seems to be able to talk about is the Cubs.
As the 2015 Cubs were caught in the buzzsaw that was the Mets’ pitching, the 2016 Dodgers might be caught in the buzzsaw that is the Cubs’ narrative. And, for a fascinating team in their own right, that isn’t fair at all. But the other lesson we might take from the game is that the Cubs’ bloop-and-blast strategy of patient and powerful hitting has always worked exactly how it was supposed to, it just hit the right breaks in the last two games.
In particular, Russell’s home run (his second in two games) keyed Dodgers manager Dave Roberts’ bullpen strategy, which allowed the Cubs to beat up on Baez instead of potentially facing someone like Jansen earlier in the high-leverage, heart-of-the-order situation of the eighth inning. If the home run isn’t there earlier, the game–especially the comeback at the end–looks a lot different. Even an 8-4 drubbing turns on one pitch.
This high-risk, high-reward style of hitting, though–patience plus power–is not new to the Cubs or some sort of reaction to the bright lights of the postseason. It is built into the DNA of the team, just as the Dodgers’ tendency to overwhelm any sort of rotation or bullpen inconsistency with competent offense and an otherworldly top-of-the-rotation is part of their identity as a team. Games 6 and (if needed) 7 will be tremendously fun to watch, tense and deeply stressful, but that’s not because the Cubs or the Dodgers choked or responded or changed anything based on the first five games.
These teams were always going to be an exciting, volatile matchup due to the deeply complex play of their philosophies. It just took us a seven-game series to realize that.