Sunday, January 21, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Cubs' slump gets critical in 2nd straight NLCS shutout loss

LOS ANGELES — The Chicago Cubs' powerful lineup is getting silenced in the NL Championship Series.

With every swing and miss, the postseason pressure is mounting.

And if the Cubs don't find their offense fast, that century-plus championship drought will last at least another year.

The Dodgers took a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series with a 6-0 victory Tuesday night, largely because the Los Angeles pitching staff dominated one of baseball's best lineups for the second straight game.

The Cubs had never been shut out in back-to-back games in their postseason history before the Dodgers did it. Including the Dodgers' 1-0 victory in Game 2, Chicago is a collective 6-for-60 with one extra-base hit in the past two games of the NLCS.

"We're not hitting the ball hard," Chicago manager Joe Maddon said. "They're pitching well. There's no solid explanation. We have to pick it up quickly."

The Cubs hadn't been shut out since Aug. 28, but Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill did it in consecutive games with plenty of help from closer Kenley Jansen and the rest of the bullpen.

The Cubs were third in the majors with 808 runs in the regular season, but they haven't scored since getting five in the eighth inning of Game 1. They had the majors' second-best on-base percentage before the postseason, but baserunners have been scarce for most of their seven playoff games, and their team batting average is languishing below .200.

Chicago hadn't been shut out in back-to-back games since May 2014, but the Cubs never really threatened the Dodgers — and their best hitters bear the responsibility.

Anthony Rizzo (2-for-26), Addison Russell (1-for-24), Jason Heyward (2-for-20), Dexter Fowler (5-for-28) and Ben Zobrist (4-for-26) are all struggling mightily in the postseason. The middle of Chicago's lineup is particularly lacking, and Maddon's adjustments haven't helped.

The Cubs were baffled by Hill, the 36-year-old journeyman who was playing independent ball just more than 14 months ago. Hill threw six innings of two-hit ball, and Chicago starter Jake Arrieta couldn't keep up in his return to the stadium where he threw a no-hitter in August 2015.

The All-Star and 2015 Cy Young Award winner had a middling NLCS start for the second straight season, giving up four runs and six hits to the Dodgers over five-plus innings. Last October, he gave up four runs and four hits over five innings to the Mets in Game 2 of New York's sweep.

Maddon dropped Heyward from the lineup for Game 3, but replacement Jorge Soler went hitless and made two misplays in right field, although neither cost the Cubs any runs. Heyward then struck out on three pitches to end the seventh as a pinch hitter, taking a terrible swing on a down-and-in slider from Joe Blanton.

Dexter Fowler's two-out double in the eighth off reliever Grant Dayton was the Cubs' first extra-base hit since Game 1, but Jansen promptly struck out Kris Bryant.

Rizzo got just his second hit of the postseason in the ninth, but only because Jansen shattered his bat on an infield single. Jansen calmly finished off the win.

The playoffs always provide small sample sizes of teams' woes, but California pitching has flummoxed the Cubs through seven games in October. They weren't hitting much even in the Division Series against San Francisco, batting a collective .200 with a meager .247 on-base percentage while relying on pitchers at the plate for an alarmingly big chunk of their runs in that four-game series victory.

Game 4 on Wednesday suddenly looms as pivotal for the Cubs, who had five two-game skids in the second half of the season, but haven't lost three straight since July 8-9.

"We have to get some runs early and get that feeling back," Maddon said. "Because obviously when you're not scoring runs, it makes it even harder to get it back."

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