When the Cubs opened Spring Training in Arizona in late February, the coaches and players knew they were embarking upon a season that had a chance to be historic.
Expectations were high following the team’s surprise berth in the NLCS, and given the team’s upward trajectory, there was a real sense that a World Series title, which had eluded the team for 108 years, was attainable in 2016.
There’s a lot of pressure that goes with those expectations, but Cubs manager Joe Maddon was determined to keep his squad loose despite them.
With the help of some t-shirts, Maddon made the slogan of the Cubs’ 2016 season “Try not to suck.”
After 162 games — Chicago won 103 of them — and a four-game NLDS win over the San Francisco Giants, the Cubs are doing exactly what they tried not to do all year.
The Cubs, at the moment, suck.
It starts with the bats — Chicago’s hitters are not in any ordinary slump. You can tip your hat to Clayton Kershaw for his excellent performance in Game 2 in Chicago — he’s the best pitcher on the planet, after all — but the same credit cannot be given to Rich Hill, who, while a strong starter himself, wasn’t at his absolute best Tuesday night and still dominated a Cubs lineup that has caught a bug that is resulting in weak contact and plenty of swings and misses.
Yes, Hill is an exceptional breaking-ball pitcher and the Cubs have been borderline incapable of hitting breaking balls this season, but Hill had a shaky start and the Cubs bailed him out time and time again.
The Cubs have been shutout in back-to-back games for the first time since May 2014.
On the whole, the Cubs’ body language is bad, the plate discipline is poor and it’s apparent to anyone with two eyes and a sense of logic that the Cubs are pressing — the worst possible thing to do in a seven-game series.
It was easy to look at the Cubs’ magical comeback win in Game 4 of the NLDS or the grand slam win in Game 1 of this NLCS and presume that they had exorcised some demons — that they, unlike their predecessors in blue and red, had the ability to overcome the immense pressure that comes from being the Chicago Cubs in the playoffs — but it appears at the moment that those performances were gilded.
Billy Beane, the iconoclastic and trailblazing general manager of the Oakland A’s who disrupted Major League Baseball with his sabermetric-driven methodology — spawning a wave of young and enterprising general managers, like Cubs’ president Theo Epstein, to follow his lead — claimed that “my (expletive) doesn’t work in the playoffs.”
The Cubs don’t follow Beane’s macro model, but the small sample size of the postseason is proving problematic. Their (expletive) isn’t working in the playoffs, either.
Anthony Rizzo, the Cubs’ first baseman and MVP candidate, has one hit in the NLCS, an infield single that came off a shattered bat in the ninth inning Tuesday — not exactly something to build his confidence.
Rizzo’s strikeout in the sixth inning Tuesday, with a runner on first and facing a 3-0 deficit, felt like the contest (and perhaps the series) in a nutshell. It ended the inning and the Cubs’ last-best threat, and on the first pitch of the bottom of the frame, Justin Turner hit a homer, extending the Dodgers’ lead to a seemingly insurmountable 4-0.
If Rizzo was the only Cub struggling, the Cubs wouldn’t have a crisis, but as of now, Kris Bryant is the only Cub providing worth in the batting order — Dexter Fowler, Addison Russell, Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward (if he even plays) are struggling in significant ways. This is not a new development — these are issues that have been in place since the beginning of the playoffs, only the Cubs are not (or, perhaps more accurately, cannot) masking the issues against the Dodgers.
The series is not over — the Cubs can make the series a best-of-three with a win Wednesday — but the Cubs do find themselves in a wicked predicament. In Wednesday’s Game 4, they’ll need John Lackey — who was shelled by the Giants in Game 4 of the NLDS — to give them a better-than-quality start. If that happens and the Cubs are able to take Game 4, they’ll face Clayton Kershaw, again. This is hardly the best-case scenario.
The pressure is back on the Cubs’ shoulders, and it is astounding.
All season, the Cubs tried their best not to suck, and they certainly picked a bad time to start. We’ll see if they can find a way to stop.