LOS ANGELES — The Cubs burst from the starting gate this season and never looked back in their bruising conquest of the National League Central. They led the standings for all but one day. By the time they crossed the wire, they had outscored opponents by a stunning 259 runs, a sign of their dominance.
Until now, they had yet to take a punch on the chin.
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But two games into the NL Championship Series against the Dodgers, the Cubs have not hit, prompting Joe Maddon to shuffle his lineup before Tuesday night’s Game 3.
“It is a little bit concerning in a sense because we kind of got stuck there last year,” Maddon said. “We got to this particular point and then ran into a hot pitching staff with the Mets. “So that’s part of why I wanted to manipulate the lineup a little bit today to see if we could unearth some things or move somebody mentally to the point where we get to hitting like we’re capable of doing.”
Things have not devolved to the point they did a year ago, when the Mets’ arms overwhelmed the Cubs, holding them to eight runs and a .162 average during a four-game sweep. But the Cubs entered Game 3 hitting .193/.251/.361 in six postseason games.
Their .613 OPS is lowest of the teams still standing, partly a product of the stiff resistance they have encountered on the mound. Their adversaries have been a who’s who of the game’s toughest competitors: Johnny Cueto, Madison Bumgarner and Clayton Kershaw.
Although they scored eight runs in a Game 1 victory in the NLCS, five coming in one inning, the Cubs got shut out in Game 2 by the tandem of Kershaw and Kenley Jansen. Some of the biggest names on the roster have been among the biggest liabilities. The heart of the lineup has yet to show a pulse.
Anthony Rizzo vaulted himself onto the fringes of conversations for league MVP. But in the postseason, he has been a dud, going just 1-for-23 (.043). One of the hardest balls he’s hit in the playoffs was his moonshot in Game 1 that sailed wide of the rightfield foul pole.
Rizzo was moved into the cleanup spot, with Ben Zobrist switching places and hitting third. Though he is only 4-for-22 (.182) in the playoffs, three of the hits have been doubles.
“It’s such a small sample size right now that you don’t even want to look at the numbers because that really doesn’t matter,” Zobrist said. “All that matters is the wins and losses. Even the guys that are hitting would tell you that.”
After going 1-for-22 (.045) to begin the postseason, shortstop Addison Russell was moved to the seven hole from fifth, where Javier Baez has been elevated thanks to his breakout postseason. Baez, 23, is hitting .391/.417/.609 in six games.
“Among all of our guys right now, Javy’s probably been working better at-bats than anybody,” Maddon said.
Baez’s 1.025 OPS is the highest among the Cubs with at least 20 plate appearances, just ahead of NL MVP favorite Kris Bryant at 1.010.
The Cubs have been bailed out somewhat at the plate by their pitchers, who have knocked in six runs. Starter Jake Arrieta and reliever Travis Wood have homered. But that production is not sustainable for the Cubs, who must hit to keep their hopes alive for their first World Series championship since 1908.
“For the guys that maybe feel like they’re scuffling a little bit, turn the page right now,” Zobrist said. “If you’re thinking about yesterday, then it’s already passed you by. You need to focus on the next at-bat, the next pitch, and you can turn that around at any point.”