Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Struggling middle of the order could force Joe Maddon to tinker with lineup

LOS ANGELES — Problem-solving has always been one of the strengths of Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who enjoys trying to fix things more than your grandfather likes tinkering around the house with a screwdriver.

But now Maddon must solve a problem he hasn't had to deal with all year — getting the Cubs lineup to return to form with the stakes magnified in the October spotlight.

The former Rays manager said before the Cubs' workout at Dodger Stadium on Monday he would not make "wholesale changes" to his lineup in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series, but we could see some alterations tonight.

He's trying not to overreact to the Cubs getting shut down by Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw on Sunday night but knows some of his key hitters — including Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell and Ben Zobrist — haven't answered the bell in the postseason.

"You have to try to make your best guess right now to take advantage of the moment," Maddon said. "There are certain things we may attempt to do, certainly, but they won't be wholesale."

Before Kershaw dominated the Cubs in Game 2 on Sunday night at Wrigley Field, the Cubs had not lost a 1-0 postseason game in 98 years. The last pitcher to do it was a Red Sox left-hander named Babe Ruth in Game 1 of the 1918 World Series, at which point the Cubs' championship drought was only nine years and counting.

"With a guy like Kershaw, it was really tough to get a good pitch to hit," Zobrist said. "And when we did hit them hard, they didn't fall. We have a couple of those balls fall, it's probably a totally different story today."

But they didn't, so it's not.

The Cubs batted .200 in their 3-1 NL Division Series win over the Giants, and almost one-third of their RBIs (6 of 17) in the series came from pitchers Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks and Travis Wood. The Cubs are hitting .177 in the first two games of the NLCS, a rerun of last year's NLCS, when they batted .164 while getting swept by the Mets.

No one would be surprised if Maddon got out his trusty iPad Pro and starting tinkering with the lineup.

"Just because it's the postseason doesn't mean we're going to change our normal M.O.," said Zobrist, who also played for Maddon with the Rays. "Joe changes the lineup all the time during the season, so if he changes it now in the postseason, it shouldn't be any different to us. It's actually more different if nothing changes. That's kind of the way things have always operated with our team."

With left-hander Rich Hill starting Game 3, the Cubs will likely see a steady diet of curveballs. Would that mean left-handed-hitting Jason Heyward goes to the bench for Jorge Soler, with Zobrist moving to right, as Maddon did in Game 3 of the NLDS?

The oft-stated argument for the status quo is you "dance with who brung you." The Cubs finished third in the majors in runs scored this year with 808, and had the entire starting infield voted into the All-Star Game, along with centerfielder Dexter Fowler.

"There's only so much you can do when manipulating your lineup," Maddon said. "These are the guys that got you (here). These are your guys. We've got a bunch of All-Stars out there. So some guys are struggling. Part of it I think is due to the fact we've seen (Madison) Bumgarner, (Jeff) Samardzija, Matty (Moore) and (Johnny) Cueto. That's not bad. And then we saw Kershaw (Sunday) night. There are a lot of Cy Young candidates among that group.

"So we haven't hit to our capabilities. However, we won a series against a really good October-tested team, and now we're 1-1 against a very good team coming back here. You try to balance it out. You try to look at pitching for the next two days. There are different things we possibly can do, no question about that."

Despite facing so many Cy Young-caliber starters, Chris Coghlan said "you can't just chalk it up to" good pitching.

"I think we're better than that," the former East Lake standout said. "The playoffs are different because everyone's roles are different, and you always face the best bullpen guy, the toughest matchup, and you don't get to the postseason if you don't have good starting pitching.

"We've just got to do better as a unit. We have to have a little more quality at-bats. Obviously that's easier said than done."

Rizzo is 1-for-23 in the postseason and hitting .108 with no RBIs in his past 10 playoffs games, dating to Game 1 of the 2015 NLCS. He hit a foul home run onto Sheffield Avenue off Kershaw but then grounded out. "It's the way the game goes sometimes," Rizzo said, "when you're facing the best pitcher on the planet."

Zobrist, the cleanup hitter, is 4-for-22 in the postseason, while No. 5 hitter Addison Russell is 1-for-22.

"Just got to keep going the same way," Russell said. "Make some small adjustments here and there. Nothing big. I'm seeing the ball fine, not striking out as much and putting the ball in play."

Maddon could also shake up the lineup by moving Javier Baez, one of his two consistent hitters along with Kris Bryant, into a better run-producing spot. The Cubs have gotten by with their Nos. 3-4-5 hitters struggling in the postseason, but can they continue to do so and still win?

"It will be difficult, you're right," Maddon said. "And yeah, I have considered different thoughts, there is no question. You're always trying to. . We do need those guys to be good. After all, we got a lot of RBIs in that first series out of our pitching staff, which is kind of unique.

"We have to do a good job consistently among position players to do what we're capable of doing, absolutely."

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