Inning-opening outs hamper Cubs in NLCS
Club didn't record a leadoff hit until Game 4 against Mets
CHICAGO -- Leading off the bottom of the first, Cubs center fielder Dexter Fowler smashed a ground ball that appeared destined for the right-field corner. An easy double, probably. Except that Mets first baseman Lucas Duda made a diving stop and tagged first.
By the end of the night, the Cubs had lost Game 4 of the National League Championship Series, 8-3, on an unseasonably warm Wednesday evening at Wrigley Field. The Mets completed the sweep. There are plenty of reasons why the Cubbies are going home while the Mets are going to the World Series. But that one play sort of summed up what went wrong.
Chicago scored eight runs in four games and batted .164 as a team. And a big reason for that was the Cubs almost never got the first hitter of an inning on base. They went 2-for-34 (.059) in those situations with a walk and a hit batter.
Three of the four times they put the leadoff man on, he scored. They just didn't do it often enough.
"They made plays, like my first [at-bat] of the game," Fowler said. "The guy dives for the ball. All you can do is hit balls and put it in play and see where it goes."
As disappointing as the ending was for the Cubs' hitters, it's worth remembering how young they are. And there seemed to be a widespread thought in the clubhouse after the game that the experience of playing in the postseason can only help rookies like Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Jorge Soler and even Addison Russell, who missed the NLCS with a hamstring injury. That it would help young players like Javier Baez. That it would even help cleanup hitter Anthony Rizzo, who is still just 26 years old.
"I think we've kind of set a tone of how we're going to be the rest of my time here. We've set that foundation," Rizzo said. "It's so fresh. Right now it just stinks. A couple weeks from now, when I get a chance to sit back and dissect everything and relax, it will be a huge learning experience.
"I know it's clichéd. But this is a group, with the talent we have, it's going to be more fun day by day. This team is on a roll."
One of the raps against the Cubs was the number of young players with little Major League service time who played prominent roles.
"There's no more talk about we don't have the experience. We've got experience now," Schwarber said. "We know what it takes to get back here. We came in and we're trying to instill this new culture of winning baseball in Chicago. I do feel like we have a special group here and there's a lot to look forward to.
"We know we have a good core group of guys here. We know what we can do as a team. Obviously, there's a bad feeling in the pit of our stomachs. But, trust me, we're all looking forward to next year."
Bryant is the leading candidate to be named NL Rookie of the Year.
"I'm sure over the course of the next few months we'll kind of see what it was actually like and pick some of the stuff we learned from it," he said. "It was good for us to go through this. We went pretty far. We were one of the last four teams in all of baseball. We know what we have here and everybody else knows what we have here. I think it's only going to get better."
Baez, who stepped in at shortstop for Russell, said he didn't feel any pressure.
"Obviously, I made a couple errors, but you learn from those," he said. "You learn from everything you do."
The Cubs didn't have to learn how important it is to get the first hitter of the inning on base, but what transpired against the Mets was a handy reminder.
An on-base percentage of .111 leading off innings isn't going to get it done. Credit strong Mets pitching. Curse the baseball gods; the Cubs talked frequently throughout the series about how many times they barreled up pitches only to see them turned into outs.
Still, only 10 times in 36 opportunities did the Cubs' first batter of an inning hit a ball that was handled by an outfielder. Yes, there were a couple line drives that were caught. But the majority of those at-bats resulted in ground balls, popups and strikeouts.
The table-setters have to set the table. The leadoff men have to lead. And for these four games, the Cubs almost never got their first hitter of the inning on base. Which means they almost never forced the pitcher into the stretch early, made him think about the runner, began a rally before he got an out.
The Cubs didn't get their first leadoff hit until the fourth inning of Game 4, when Soler greeted Mets starter Steven Matz with a double. By then they trailed the series, 3-0, and the game, 6-0. Soler doubled again to start the eighth.
By then, it was too late. The Cubs lost the NLCS. But they believe they gained some valuable experience in the process.