Well, Chicago Cubs fans, for the fourth straight season we have postseason baseball on the North Side of the city. Unlike seasons past, however, the Cubs entered October in a rut having lost Monday’s divisional tiebreaker game by a score of 3-1 at the hands of the Milwaukee Brewers.
In that contest, the Cubs managed just three hits, one of which was Anthony Rizzo‘s 25th home run of the year. That blast in the fifth inning tied the game at one, but 12 Milwaukee hits and three runs later, the Cubs were making plans to face the Colorado Rockies at home on Tuesday.
The Cubs could not have come into the National League Wild Card more flat. A 78 team wRC+ (24th in baseball) during the month of September allowed the Brewers to close a multi-game gap on Chicago, eventually overtaking the Cubs on their home field.
Moments after Milwaukee recorded the final out, one could not help but get the feeling that the Brewers had just done what the Cubs did to the St. Louis Cardinals in 2015. That year, the Cubs defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates in the Wild Card Game, sending the Cardinals home after an epic NLDS that acted as a coming out party for the Cubs’ current run of success.
While down, the Cubs certainly were not out of the postseason picture, even with their offense sputtering of late. Anytime Jon Lester takes the mound, especially in the postseason, the Cubs have a great shot at winning the contest and this season has been no different. Two solid stints sandwiched a rough couple of months for Lester, as the 34-year-old scrappy veteran finished the season with a 3.32 ERA.
That number included a sub-2.00 ERA over his final month of the regular season, seemly tuning the workhorse up for a dominant postseason run. Of course, the length of that run would depend on the Cubs’ order getting going once again.
Prior to toeing the rubber against the Rockies on Tuesday, Lester had put together a postseason resume that ranks as one of the best. In his career, the southpaw owns a 2.55 ERA across 148 innings spread across three different teams (Boston Red Sox, Oakland Athletics and Cubs). Those solid numbers include a 1.38 ERA over 13 innings during the 2016 NLCS, an effort that propelled Lester to earn a co-MVP honor for that series.
Since that time, Lester has recorded back-to-back series with sub-2.00 ERA’s, the 2017 NLDS (1.86) and NLCS (1.93). Those efforts, while good enough to push the Cubs into the Championship Series was not good enough to get Chicago back into the World Series for the second straight season.
Instead, the Cubs were eliminated by the Los Angeles Dodgers, ending a season that has often been passed off as a World Series-hangover ruined campaign. This year, the Cubs have zero excuses for their lackluster performance down the stretch other than the myriad of injuries they have been forced to deal with in 2018.
Without 40 percent of their starting rotation throwing effective pitches for much of the year, Brandon Morrow missing the entire second half and Pedro Strop out for the last handful of weeks, it’s no wonder why the Cubs faltered down the stretch, giving way to the red-hot Brewers.
On Tuesday, however, for one game, the Cubs pitted 25 of their healthy men against 25 of the Rockies’ best, with the winner set to face-off against that dreaded Milwaukee club.
Early on, things pointed to a bad start for the Cubs and 40,000 of their closest friends at Wrigley Field. In the third winner-take-all game of his career, Lester started out shaky, walking lead-off man Charlie Blackmon while throwing just one strike during the at-bat.
For this season, perhaps it was fitting for Lester to lead-off the game with a free pass, as the southpaw posted a walk rate of 8.4 percent this season, the highest such number since 2011. That, coupled with his lackluster 19.6 percent strikeout rate, resulted in a 4.39 FIP for the left-hander, almost a full run higher than the number he posted two seasons ago.
That lead-off walk immediately came back to bite the postseason veteran as he allowed a ringing double into left-center off the bat of the Rockies’ two-hole hitter, former Cub DJ LeMahieu. With an exit velocity of 113 MPH, that double represented the third hardest hit ball off Lester this season, something the lefty has struggled with in 2018 (31.9 percent hard hit rate in 2018).
Luckily for the Cubs, LeMahieu’s double hung in the ivy, resulting in a ground rule knock, meaning Blackmon had to hold at third base, for one batter at least. Nolan Arenado, who seems to have a knack for knocking in bunches of runs, lifted a sac-fly into center field, a ball plenty deep enough to score the first run of this year’s NL Wild Card contest.
That run would not have held up earlier in the season when the Cubs’ offense was clicking on all cylinders. This time of year, however, the Cubs have not been able to hit the ball with any type of authority while at the same time not drawing enough walks to produce much traffic on the base paths. In Monday’s loss, that issue was highlighted as the Cubs stepped to the plate just twice with runners in scoring position.
After the Rockies jumped on to an early one-run lead, Lester took over, providing all the energy from the Cubs side of the field. Arenado’s sac-fly in the first left a runner on third base with only one out, a less-than-ideal situation. The moment, while huge despite being the first inning, proved to not be too large for Lester, a proven postseason hero. Both Trevor Story and Matt Holliday struck out, each on a curveball from the Cubs’ ace.
Those two strikeouts and yet another in the third only continued a recent trend for Lester. Since the turn of the calendar to September, the southpaw owned a strikeout rate of 24.8 percent, more in-line with major league norms, albeit high for Lester’s career.
That increase in strikeouts can be traced back to, in part, more whiffs on Lester’s fastball during the month of September, something that was also on display Tuesday night. With three punch outs through two innings, Lester racked up two more in the third frame, one more in the fourth (3-2 curveball) and two additional ones in the fifth inning.
All told, Lester recorded nine strikeouts over six strong innings of work, getting Rockie hitters on cutters, four-seamers and of course curveballs. After a rocky first inning, Lester was able to settle in, allowing just three more hits over his final five innings of work. The southpaw’s final line in his final start of 2018 looked like this: six innings, four hits, one earned run, one walk and nine strikeouts on 86 pitches.
Back to the offensive side of the ball. Kyle Freeland, the Rockies’ starter on Tuesday, hurled a gem to match Lester’s. For much of the night, Freeland did not have to work as hard as Lester, allowing four hits, all singles through 6.2 strong innings. While an impressive outing, it seems anyone can shut down the Cubs’ order these days, let alone a pitcher enjoying a solid season. His 2.85 ERA and 173 strikeouts acted as a coming out party for the 25-year-old southpaw this season, something the Rockies needed greatly in 2018.
Despite getting their lead-off man on-base in each of the first two innings (singles from Ben Zobrist and Albert Almora), the Cubs could not get anything going, striking out three times across the first two innings.
Those strikeouts, while rally killers, were surrounded by hard hit balls off the Cubs’ bats. Both Zobrist’s and Almora’s knocks came off the bat with pace, while Willson Contreras lined out to center field for the second out of the second frame.
After sending four men to the plate in each of the first two innings, the Cubs went down in order in both the third and fourth frames. Finally in the sixth, after Lester was lifted having allowing seven hard hit balls, Ian Happ drew a lead-off walk, one of the few things Happ has done right this season.
A rare Zobrist strikeout preceded what Cubs fans hoped would become the biggest play of the game. With a runner on first and one away, Kris Bryant lifted a ball high into the air to right field. With a 91 percent catch probability, David Dahl whiffed, overrunning the ball and letting it drop, giving the Cubs runners on first and second, setting up a rally. That rally was quickly put to bed following an Anthony Rizzo bouncing ball that resulted in a 4-6-3 double play and once again showcased the Cubs’ struggles with men in scoring position this year (93 sOPS-plus).
Facing a Rockies’ bullpen in the seventh, the Cubs were one swing away from tying and potentially taking the lead. Freeland got the first two outs of the inning, before Almora reached with his second knock of the game, knocking the southpaw out of the biggest game of his career. A Contreras walk (nice bat flip) was followed by a catcher’s interference call on a ball that otherwise would have ended the inning off Tommy La Stella‘s bat.
Sniffing their second big break in as many innings, Jason Heyward stepped to the plate, hitting just .265 off right-hander’s this season. While not the best move when considering splits, Adam Ottavino had just finished walking Contreras without challenging him. For that reason, Joe Maddon no doubt believed Heyward would work a solid at-bat from a pitcher without much control and the bases loaded. Running the count to 2-2, Heyward swung over a 97 MPH sinking fastball, striking out in perhaps the biggest spot of the year for the Cubs.
With a 4.62 ERA during the regular season, the Rockies bullpen has not been the most consistent group in 2018. That mark represented the fifth worst mark in the majors, and worst among postseason teams.
Freeland’s 6.2 scoreless held up in the first seven innings with Ottavino working around that bases loaded situation mentioned prior. Into the eighth though, with that same right-hander on the mound, the Cubs proved their postseason mettle. Following two quick outs by the top of the Cubs’ order, Rizzo singled a normally harmless two-out ball into center field. I say normally because a two-out single during the regular season is rarely a big deal. However, with the game on the line, down one run in an elimination game, any base hit is an immediate rally. On Tuesday night, in Chicago, that held true once again.
Earlier this season, the Cubs acquired Terrance Gore. Prior to Gore coming to Chicago, not many Cubs fans knew who he was and for good reason. Before 2018, Gore had not collected a major league hit despite appearing in games each season since 2014. While not having collected a hit, Gore had swiped 21 bases, proving his value both in the regular and postseasons.
On Tuesday, Gore continued to prove his value on a major league roster, pinch-running and stealing second base without a throw in the eighth inning. With a runner on second and two outs this season, the Cubs hit just .233 but posted a solid .818 OPS and well-above average 119 sOPS-plus. That means, in that split, the Cubs were 19 percent better than league average, something that held true in the biggest game of the season thus far.
Javier Baez, the Cubs MVP for the 2018 season, stepped to the plate looking to get payback for Christian Yelich running away with the NL MVP honors down the stretch. While the votes have already been cast, I wonder if Baez’s hit on Tuesday would have changed any minds. With two strikes, Baez got a third straight slider from Ottavino, this time ripping it into left-center field after swinging through the previous offering. With Gore’s speed, he scored easily, tying the game at one and sending this edition of the Wild Card into crazy territory.
Often, we see starting pitchers used in elimination games during the postseason, a tradition that continued with Cole Hamels coming in to work the 10th inning and beyond. If not for Lester’s outstanding season, Hamels very well could have started Tuesday’s match-up. Since being acquired from the Texas Rangers at the trade deadline, Hamels has been nails for the Cubs. Across 12 starts, the southpaw posted a 2.36 ERA over 76.1 innings in pinstripes. That number helped to amass a 182 ERA-plus, the best number of Hamels’ career, albeit a small sample size.
Despite a bases loaded jam in the visiting half of the 11th, Hamels was able to work out of it, providing two scoreless innings out of the bullpen. That 29-pitch effort kept the Cubs in the thick of things, setting them up for chances late in an extra-inning affair.
Perhaps trying to burn his entire starting staff, Maddon elected to follow Justin Wilson‘s one out with Kyle Hendricks, Thursday’s potential Game 1 starter. Hendricks provided 1.1 innings of scoreless baseball before giving up a single to Trevor Story that placed runners on first and third, potentially setting up the game winning run in what became the longest postseason game in Wrigley Field history. The Cubs right-hander needed to retire Tony Wolters to give the Cubs a chance to walk things off in the home half of the 13th inning. Instead Wolters, who entered the Wild Card Game after hitting .170 during the regular season, ripped a ball through the middle of the Cubs’ infield, scoring the go-ahead run.
Since Lester left the game after the sixth inning, the Cubs’ bullpen stood up over 6.2 frames before a starting pitcher working out of that ‘pen yielded just the third total run of the game. For much of this season, their bullpen has been a huge strength of this club, standing up when other parts of the team have faltered. It’s seemly fitting that what has been a strong point of this team would be what eventually sunk a 95-win, under-achieving team this season.
This 2-1 loss at the hands of the Rockies only continued to highlight the Cubs’ recent struggles, as they left 10 total men on-base, going 1-for-6 with runners in scoring position.
Tuesday’s game was a hard fought victory for the Rockies, one in which the Cubs had multiple chances to walk-off a lowly Colorado bullpen. Instead, they continued to slump at the plate, notching just six hits on the night to the Rockies 11.
Overall, 2018 was an up-and-down, crazy season that fittingly ended in an equally crazy up-and-down Wild Card match-up.
See you next year, Cubs fans.
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