CHICAGO — The Chicago Cubs keep making history, just not the kind they want, as their season continues to fade away.
On Sunday, they became just the second team in 100 years to get swept at home, in a four game series, and lose all four by a single run. They also became the first major league team since 2011 to lose five straight one-run games. It’s the first time its happened to the franchise since 1915.
Chicago is now four games back of the Milwaukee Brewers for the second wild card spot.
“If you play back the tape, it’s almost unbelievable that it turned out this way,” an incredulous Joe Maddon said after losing 3-2 to the St. Louis Cardinals. “The last six have been wash and repeat.”
The Cubs completed their home schedule losing their final six games at Wrigley Field, five by one run, as they also lost to the Cincinnati Reds, both Tuesday and Wednesday, before the Cardinals swept them. It’s all but dashed their playoff hopes.
“How did it that all happen?” Maddon asked rhetorically. “How did we lose all those four games? They were one run better than us every night, and we were really evenly matched, and that’s all I will concede.”
Three of the four losses to the Cardinals came with the Cubs leading or with the game tied in as late as the ninth inning.
On Sunday, starter Yu Darvish was attempting to finish off his first complete game of the season, but everything changed after Jose Martine hit a triple to lead-off the inning. Three batters later the Cardinals took the lead for good when Paul Goldschmidt doubled home Tommy Edman who had singled.
Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel blew Saturday’s save and was unavailable for Sunday’s contest, but Maddon said he would have left Darvish in the game either way.
“I saw Jake (Arrieta) pitch pretty well when he won his Cy Young but this is like equivalent of all that,” Maddon said. “He absolutely deserved a better fate.”
Darvish has been a strikeout machine for the Cubs, fanning 12 more in 8.1 innings on Sunday. In doing so, he became the fourth different Cubs pitcher, since 1920, to record at least 10 strikeouts in three consecutive games.
“It’s tough, for sure,” Darvish said. “But we did our best.”
A dazed locker room tried to put into words a last week that saw their playoff odds plummet from 77% entering Monday to 2.4% on Sunday, according to Fangraphs data.
“Just not really sure how that happens,” outfielder Ian Happ said. “It’s bad luck. It’s a lot of things. And it’s not fun. We played pretty good baseball. It just didn’t turn our way.”
Anthony Rizzo added: “This is growing pains. You take the good with the bad, wherever you can, and you learn. And try to grow as a person.”
The Cubs play their final six games of the season on the road and could be without Kris Bryant who sprained his ankle as he hit first base early in Sunday’s game.
Nationals’ Max Scherzer magical again after an Anibal Sanchez gem
ST. LOUIS — It was five years and 364 days ago that Anibal Sanchez sat in a dugout on a crisp October night, one day after dominating his opponent, and watched Max Scherzer do the very same thing. The two were teammates in a devastating Detroit Tigers starting rotation back in 2013, facing the Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship Series, and they became the first duo in postseason history with back-to-back starts of at least five no-hit innings against the same team.
On Saturday, with the afternoon shadows creeping over Busch Stadium, Sanchez watched as Scherzer did it again — taking the ball a day later, following in his footsteps, and achieving history once more, this time wearing a Washington Nationals uniform.
“I’ve always said that teams can create what is essentially a domino effect — if one guy’s going well, the other guy can come in and do well simply because he’s motivated to do the same thing,” Sanchez said in Spanish. “It’s a competitive thing.”
Less than 24 hours after Sanchez held the St. Louis Cardinals hitless through 7⅔ innings, Scherzer carried a no-hitter through six, leading the Nationals to a 3-1 victory and giving them a commanding 2-0 lead in this National League Championship Series. The Cardinals have combined for four hits in the 18 innings that have comprised this series, the fewest for any team in a two-game span within the postseason, according to research from the Elias Sports Bureau.
“They controlled the tempo of the game very well and they had a lot of poise out there,” said Stephen Strasburg, who will start Monday’s Game 3 in Washington, the first of as many as three consecutive games there. “It just seemed like they were just playing catch out there.”
Sanchez kept the Cardinals off balance by effectively mixing a variety of pitches — four-seam fastballs, two-seamers, cutters and changeups — and generating a lot of soft contact. Scherzer masterfully played his changeup off his fastball and generated 19 swing-and-misses. Through six innings, he issued only two walks and struck out 10 — but then Paul Goldschmidt led off the bottom of the seventh with a 108.1-mph line drive to left field.
Juan Soto, a 20-year-old in his second big league season, thought briefly about diving for it, but chose to stay back, playing the ball on a short hop after it landed only a few feet in front of him. The batted ball carried an expected batting average of .740, and Soto was worried that a diving attempt could put what was at that point the tying run in scoring position.
“We’re in the playoffs,” Soto said in Spanish. “Any error can hurt you.”
Scherzer came back to strike out Marcell Ozuna, then got Yadier Molina to bounce into an inning-ending 6-4-3 double play. He was removed after 101 pitches, then watched Sean Doolittle, Patrick Corbin and Daniel Hudson — back after attending the birth of his daughter — record the final six outs.
Scherzer was back home in St. Louis, a topic he has shown no interest in discussing.
He was, like Sanchez, on the verge of joining Don Larsen and Roy Halladay as the only men to ever throw a postseason no-hitter — and it was the furthest thing from his mind.
“I’m just in the moment,” Scherzer said. “I’m not trying to do anything great.”
Scherzer, Strasburg, Sanchez and Corbin have combined for a 1.81 ERA in their starts this postseason, striking out 64 and walking 17 in 49⅔ innings. They have the Nationals, a franchise that had never gotten out of the first round of the postseason before this month, on the verge of the World Series. Road teams that take 2-0 series leads in a best-of-seven series have advanced 22 out of 25 times.
That 2013 Tigers team, however, had a different story. Sanchez carried them to a 1-0 victory in Game 1, but the Red Sox recovered from a four-run deficit after Scherzer departed in Game 2, then won the series in six.
Baseball history is littered with similar examples.
“It’s kind of nice going back up 2-0 in the series, but those guys are really good over there,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. “The series is far from over.”
Is Mike Shildt managing his Cardinals out of the NLCS?
ST. LOUIS — First off, let’s get this out of the way. Mike Shildt didn’t bat when the Cardinals scored 10 runs in the first inning of their division-clinching victory over the Braves. He didn’t have any at-bats in the first two games of the NLCS as the Cardinals totaled just four hits and one run in losing both games at home — with that lone run coming off a defensive miscue.
So despite a well-pitched game from Miles Mikolas in Game 1 and an almost-brilliant effort from Adam Wainwright in Game 2, the Cardinals are in a hole big enough it might take the Arch to span across its breadth: Teams that lost the first two games of a best-of-seven series at home are 3-22 in those series in postseason history.
There was a sense of quiet frustration in the Cardinals clubhouse after Saturday’s 3-1 loss when Max Scherzer struck out 11 in seven innings, a game that was 1-0 in favor of the Nationals until they scratched across two late runs off Wainwright in the eighth inning. There was also the sense that, hey, that is what a pitcher like Scherzer can do when he’s on.
“They’re really attacking you,” second baseman Kolten Wong said of Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez, “not really giving you anything to hit and (they) stay off the middle of the plate. You’re going to tend to chase because you understand you’re going to be put in a hole right away. You end up swinging at pitches you might not in the regular season.”
Wong’s analysis holds to an extent. The Cardinals had a chase rate — swinging on pitches outside of the strike zone — of 28.4 percent in the regular season and 31.7 percent in these two games. On pitches early in the count — 0-0, 0-1 or 1-0 — their chasing is up from 19.5 percent to 21.6 percent. Still, that’s only a few pitches over the course of the game, although given the nature of baseball, a few pitches can turn a game around.
So it’s mostly about great pitching so far from the Nationals and the inconsistency of the St. Louis offense. “We’re working on it, we’re just getting beat,” Matt Carpenter said. “They’re going out there and executing what they throw, but something like that can change in an inning. You saw what we able to do in Game 5 in Atlanta.”
The beauty of the postseason lies in the intensity of the each game, that urgency that doesn’t exist over 162 games in the regular season. That’s also what makes watching the games so enjoyable from our perch in Second-Guessing Land. Every manager’s every decision gets analyzed and broken down. Which gets us back to Shildt, the second-year Cardinals skipper.
There are three big picture questions to bring up.
1. Did Shildt leave Wainwright in too long?
In his start against the Braves in the NLDS, Wainwright took a three-hit shutout into the eighth inning. But he tired and the Braves loaded the bases with a base hit and two walks before Shildt finally removed him after a season-high 120 pitches. Andrew Miller managed to escape the bases-loaded jam (although the Cardinals would lose the 1-0 lead in the ninth).
On Saturday, Wainwright was once again terrific heading into the eighth, allowing only a Michael Taylor home run and sitting at just 83 pitches. With one out, pinch-hitter Matt Adams lined a base hit off the base of the wall in right-center. The top of the order was now up for the fourth time. Also, the shadows that had played ticks on batters all day had now grown past the pitcher’s mound.
Wainwright had some bad luck. Trea Turner blooped a hit into center field, a ball with an expected batting average of .090. Still, there were now two runners on and just one out. “I wasn’t tired at all, wasn’t losing command or anything,” Wainwright said.
He stayed in the game to face Adam Eaton. “My last at-bat was the first time I actually saw the ball the whole way,” Eaton said. “The shadows were extremely difficult. You saw Kolten Wong have two check swings and barreled both of them up. You just saw some really bad swings and bad counts.”
Maybe a different pitcher would have made a difference. Who knows. Eaton battled for seven pitches and hit a 3-2 curveball past a diving Paul Goldschmidt and down the right-field line for a two-run double. It was a two-hopper, but Eaton struck it well — 102.7 mph with a hit probability of .730. “I got a ground ball, he just got good wood on it and put it in the right place,” Wainwright said. “That’s what I’m down about right now. Wish I could have put a zero up there in the eighth.”
Shildt could have brought in a lefty to face Eaton. “I understand that,” Shildt said afterwards. “What goes into it, [Wainwright’s] got 11 strikeouts, is still hitting his spots. I think he probably made two mistakes, the one to Taylor, cutter, got the ball up the patch, put a swing on it. But then you looked at the Turner at-bat and he bloops one in. Then you look at the Eaton at-bat, I thought he was going to be able to execute.”
There’s no doubt Wainwright was throwing well. These aren’t easy decisions. I’m not even saying Shildt made the wrong move. But facing a lineup a fourth time through the order is a tough ask of any pitcher. Shildt has done it twice now with Wainwright and both times had to end up pulling his starter with runners on base.
2. The lineup
Look, the Cardinals would have needed Stan Musial and Mark McGwire in there and that still may not have been enough. Maybe it was just two rough games against two good starters.
“That’s kind of been the story of our season. The offense at times has been hit or miss for this group,” Carpenter said. “We’ve had stretches where we’ve struggled to score and stretches where we just pour it on. Hopefully, we have one we pour it on the next couple of days.”
Indeed, after posting a .797 OPS in April, the Cardinals struggled for much of May and June (hitting .232 in May and .223 in June). The offense was more consistent in the second half, but other than that 10-run outburst against the Braves has struggled in their seven playoff games, getting shut out twice and scoring one run two other times.
Yadier Molina is batting fifth and he came up with a runner on first and one out in the seventh against Scherzer and grounded into a double play. He had the two clutch RBIs in Game 4 of the NLDS, but he’s hitting .115 without an extra-base hit in the seven playoff games and that two-RBI game is the only postseason game he’s registered an RBI in his past 19. He’s not a power threat and he grounds into a lot of double plays. I get that there’s the feeling if anybody will rescue the Cardinals, it’s Yadi, but maybe he should move down in the order.
Of course, it’s not easy sitting in Shildt’s chair. Do you stick with what got you here? Do you overreact to a small sample size? Do you play Jose Martinez in right field in Game 3 because he had a couple good at-bats the past two games? Shildt said he hasn’t had time to think about lineup changes, but didn’t rule out the possibility. “There would be some contemplation about how we move forward and how we look to compete,” he said.
“I wouldn’t be shocked if we did something different,” Carpenter said, adding that he doesn’t write out the lineup cards. “I don’t know. We’ll see.”
3. The intentional walks
Shildt issued another, to Anthony Rendon after the Eaton double (and bringing in Miller to face Juan Soto). Miller got out of the eighth, so no harm, no foul. Sabermetricians generally frown on the intentional walk — it’s worth noting that A.J. Hinch of the Astros didn’t issue one all season — but Shildt has now issued seven of them in the postseason. One of those, to Brian McCann in the ninth inning of Game 3 against the Braves, came back to bite the Cardinals big-time.
The free passes are something to keep in mind as the series move back east. They can easily blow up and lead to a crooked number on the scoreboard.
Anyway, that’s where we stand. The Cardinals need to hit and keep on pitching well. Jack Flaherty will be ready to go in Game 3. No worries, Wong says. “We’re right at home. Right at home. We’re not going to worry about it. We’ve been in this situation this whole year, people counting us out, getting booed. We’ve been constantly coming back, fighting and ready to go.”
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