Monday, February 19, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

David Haugh: Forget Cubs embracing the target; how about hitting a curveball?

LOS ANGELES — Stoic as ever, Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta walked toward the dugout after giving up his second home run of Game 3 Tuesday at Dodger Stadium with a look that said he knew this wasn't his night.

Anemic as ever, Cubs hitters looked bad enough for the second straight National League Championship Series game for Chicago to start wondering if this really is the Cubs' year.

Will the best team in baseball finally stand up? Forget embracing the target, Cubbies. How about hitting a curveball?

Arrieta wasn't Arrieta — giving up two long balls in five innings — and Cubs hitters continued to resemble postseason impostors. At the scene of Arrieta's first no-hitter, he received no support as the Dodgers gave the home crowd of 54,269 ample reason to start dreaming of a Hollywood ending with a 6-0 victory.

Dodgers catcher Yasmani Grandal drilled an Arrieta pitch 398 feet over the wall in right-centerfield for a two-run home run, a shot celebrated with such gusto the press box shook. The Grandal slam rattled Arrieta and the Cubs, whose offensive woes made a 3-0 hole seem much deeper. When Justin Turner knocked Arrieta out of the game in the sixth with a 408-foot homer to left, the pit started to settle in the stomach of Cubs fans everywhere.

At scenic Chavez Ravine, the Hill worth beholding most was inside the stadium. Left-hander Rich Hill, a former Cub, tormented the team that selected him in the 2002 draft with a Clayton Kershaw-like performance, giving up only two sits in six innings. Rich. Hill.

The Cubs' body language said we are confused and can't hit offspeed pitches. It shouted we have lost the confidence we thought had returned and can't beat this crafty lefty despite winning 103 regular-season games. It screamed, "Mommy, make it stop."

Imagine what Cubs president Theo Epstein must have been thinking sitting next to general manager Jed Hoyer 14 rows behind home plate in the scout seats. The Cubs can still win this series but must start hitting more like the team that rallied for four runs in the ninth inning against the Giants and less like the one that got swept by the Mets in the 2015 NLCS. What happens to Cubs hitters in mid October? Now would be a perfect time for the Cubs to live by the words on their T-shirts and try not to suck.

Maddon even reached into his baseball toolbox and took out a wrench. The three hitters in the middle of the Cubs order came into Game 3 a combined 6-for-60. After "rearranging the chairs," as Maddon put it, the only two Cubs hitting in the same spots they were for Game 2 were Dexter Fowler and Kris Bryant.

"We have to figure it out," Maddon said, hoping to learn from recent history before it condemns the Cubs. "It is a little bit concerning in the sense because we kind of got stuck there last year (and) got to this particular point and then ran into a hot pitching staff with the Mets" in the NLCS.

So Maddon put Anthony Rizzo in the cleanup spot, moving Ben Zobrist up to third to bat behind Bryant. Javier Baez moved up to fifth behind Rizzo because "he has been working better at-bats than anybody," Maddon said. Jorge Soler replaced all-field, no-hit rightfielder Jason Heyward and batted sixth with struggling Addison Russell dropped to seventh. Nothing worked. Russell showed why he deserves to hit as low as possible when he feebly struck out swinging in the second inning with runners on second and third. Even "Bryzzo" let Maddon down in the sixth when Rizzo struck out swinging and stranded Bryant, who had the only two hits off Hill.

The offensive juggling nearly had defensive repercussions. In the second inning, Soler called for Josh Reddick's fly ball into right-center, but Fowler, the centerfielder, roamed over and called him off the play. Soler never budged, colliding with Fowler and falling down awkwardly. Fowler meant well, but no way he would have made the same decision if Heyward, a Gold Glove rightfielder, were camped under the ball.

Unlike Maddon's maneuvers with the bullpen in the first two games, nobody can accuse him of overmanaging in his search of offense. This was a manager meeting a moment hoping to avoid bad becoming worse. Yet the scorelessness continued.

Maddon's response pregame to a question about Game 4 starter Julio Urias' pickoff move sounded like he gave it as much forethought as his lineup. Sounding like an NBA coach working the refs in the playoffs, Maddon introduced agenda item No. 1 in today's pregame umpires meeting.

Reporter: "Julio Urias has displayed a pretty effective pick-off move … some have said it's very close to a balk."

Maddon: "Close?"

He smiled, having made his point. And Maddon wasn't finished, holding nothing back in referring to Urias' move as "Balking 101." Maddon might as well have announced: Attention, Game 4 umpires.

"When you get to see it on TV, it's pretty obvious, it's not even close," Maddon said. "I'm certain that the umpiring crew has been made aware of it. That's 101. That's not an interpretation."

Maddon tried using daring language to influence Game 4 and a different lineup to affect Game 3.

Desperate times call for desperate measures and, suddenly, desperation is standing in the Cubs on-deck circle. But you're up first, Best Team in Baseball. Act like it.

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