On the Cubs’ deficit and Maddon’s decisions

The year after the Dodgers won their only World Series in Brooklyn, they blew a 2-0 lead and lost to the Yankees in seven games. “Ah,’ comics suggested,” wrote Roger Kahn in Boys of Summer, ” ‘wait till last year.'”

That’s how Cubs fans, whose team went 108 years between World Series titles, must feel today after their defending champions fell into an 0-2 hole in the NLCS. If the first two games are any indication, it’ll be at least another year before the Cubs win another.

Much of the blame is directed at Joe Maddon, who seemed smarter last year when he managed a better team.

Sunday Maddon saved Wade Davis for a save opportunity to be named later and let John Lackey face Justin Turner in the ninth inning. Davis, the closer who got seven outs on Thursday, was left in the bullpen, and Buck Showalter, who left Zack Britton in the bullpen last year in the wild-card game, could have told Maddon how that was going to end.

Maddon: “I really just needed (Davis) for the save tonight. He had limited pitches. It was one inning only, and in these circumstances you don’t get him up and then don’t get him in. So if we had caught the lead, he would have pitched. That’s it.”

The Cubs would have a better chance of catcher Wilson Contreras catching Jon Lester barehanded than catching the lead. They’ve scored three runs in two NLCS games and three runs or fewer in six of seven postseason games. Given their .162 postseason batting average and .262 slugging percentage, that’s more production than could reasonably be expected.

Even their five-game win in the NLDS, gritty as it was, seems due as much to the Nats’ inadequacies as to the Cubs resoluteness.

Maddon’s bullpen usage and roster decisions might be partly behind the Cubs’ 2-0 NLCS deficit, but there’s a simpler explanation: the Dodgers are better. And inferior talent is the impetus between a lot of criticism, fairly or unfairly, managers get at this time of year. Sometimes you’re only as smart as your options.

Maddon could have used Davis Sunday, and probably should have against Turner, a .322 hitter this season. Lackey vs. Turner was the kind of mismatch that funds smaller colleges’ whole athletic programs when played out on the basketball court.

Lackey shouldn’t even have been an option — why have a fifth starter in a series when you only need four (let alone one with a 4.59 ERA and .785 OPS against). It’s proof of how poorly this NLCS has gone for the Cubs that Lackey has pitched in both games and Davis in neither.

(The Cubs traded for lefty Justin Wilson in July, used him once in the NLDS and left him off the roster for the NLCS. Wilson pitched poorly — 19 walks in 17.2 innings and a 5.09 ERA — after joining the Cubs, but it’s bizarre to leave him off the roster for Lackey. Perhaps the Cubs did so because it might be Lackey’s final season, but sentimentality will get you swept at this time of year. It’s even more bizarre to use Lackey so much.)

Davis might have prolonged Sunday’s game. But when your starter throws 103 pitches to get 14 outs, you use your eighth-inning reliever in the fifth and your lefty reliever to get righties out in the eighth and ninth, attrition isn’t a winning strategy.

The Cubs’ bullpen has been awful this October, not just on Sunday. It has a 7.03 ERA, has given up 19 runs in 24.1 innings, thrown six home runs and lost three of the four games the Cubs have. In an era when games often are decided by home runs and bullpens, the Cubs are at a big disadvantage.

Criticizing Maddon for who he uses from a gumbo of  Hector Rondon, Lackey and Duensing is like a vegetarian criticizing the menu at Outback. Sometimes there aren’t any good choices (stipulating that Lackey still was the worst).

The Dodgers’ bullpen, by contrast, has yet to allow a hit in this NLCS, retiring 22 consecutive Cubs before Kenley Jansen hit Anthony Rizzo with a pitch in the ninth inning Sunday. Six Dodgers have pitched eight hitless innings, walking none and fanning nine (six by Jansen). That’s quite a difference from last year’s NLCS, when it was the Dodgers’ bullpen which lost the series, giving up 18 runs in 22.2 innings (and that’s with Jansen throwing 6.1 shutout innings, allowing one hit and fanning 10).

The last time the Dodgers had such a postseason advantage in the bullpen, Orel Hershiser was pitching out of it between starts.

  • ALCS: The Yankees trail by the same margin as the Cubs, but this series feels much closer, and not just because the Yankees have already overcome a 2-0 deficit. Each game was 2-1, though Gary Sanchez proved again at the end of Game 2 that as a catcher, he’s a pretty good hitter with a strong arm. The Astros’ pitching drops precipitously for the next two games, and a reliever other than the Houston closer has faced two batters. In tennis they like to say you’re only as good as your second serve (though Serena Williams slammed untruth to that); in MLB this October, it seems you’re only as good as your middle relief, and the Yankees’ is better. Astros batters other than Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa are 3-for-43 (add Yuli Gurriel to Altuve and Correa and the other Astros are 1-for-38. Alex Bregman has the only other hit.) Of course, Altuve and Correa are 8-for-15, and the Yankees’ Aaron Judge is 1-for-7 and homerless with three strikeouts. That makes 19 strikeouts in his last 27 at-bats. If Judge strikes out less and the Yankees get Altuve and Correa out more, we might have a more even series.



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