CHICAGO - From billy goats to black cats, and even to fellows named Bartman, history has propped up a menagerie of tormentors for the Cubs. But the reason for their predicament in this National League Championship Series has nothing to do with superstition or bad luck.
It is all about pitching. Because the Mets' collection of untested but dynamic arms has turned the postseason into a coming-out party, the Cubs need a victory in Game 3 Tuesday night just to avoid falling into a 3-0 deficit in the series.
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"You've seen the regular season," David Wright said. "This has been them all year. And just because maybe they didn't have as many nationally televised games as they deserved, I think now being on that stage, people are starting to see just how good these guys really are."
As it has for more than a century, history is tormenting the Cubs again. Just once since 1985 has a team taken a 2-0 NLCS lead and failed to win the pennant. "I've been kind of repeating the same mantra the whole way through: We need to put together several one-game winning streaks," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "If we keep it one game at a time, we've got a good shot of doing it."
But the Cubs must do it against a pitching staff that has risen to the challenge of the postseason. In seven games, Mets pitching has posted a 2.90 ERA (and a 1.08 WHIP). Among the teams that played more than one playoff game, only the Royals have come close to matching that level of performance in ERA (3.48).
With the NLCS at a critical juncture, Jacob deGrom takes the mound for the Mets looking to add on to what has been a defining postseason run.
In NLDS Game 1, his first postseason start, deGrom outdueled the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw and equaled Tom Seaver's franchise playoff record with 13 strikeouts. But deGrom's encore might have been more impressive, even though it wasn't nearly as pretty.
In NLDS Game 5, deGrom willed himself through a start in which he could barely command his fastball. Despite seemingly drawing strength on adrenaline alone, he endured.
"It's easier to stay out there and keep fighting whenever you have that much adrenaline," deGrom said.
The result was perhaps the most impressive game of his career. He sent the Mets into the NLCS, holding the Dodgers to two runs in six innings of torture.
"Jacob, since he came up, he's been able to do that," pitching coach Dan Warthen said. "He just has such a calm, easy demeanor. Trusts his stuff, knows he can throw the baseball across the plate."
Four times, Terry Collins came within one batter of pulling deGrom from the game. Four times, Collins backed off.
"That's why I think this guy's really moving himself up the ladder," Collins said. "He's one of the elite guys in the game."
After Game 2 at Citi Field, music from the film "Rocky" emanated from Maddon's office, drawing an obvious parallel to the ultimate underdog. Perhaps his choice of soundtrack was even more appropriate considering the pitching matchups for the next two nights, with the Mets sending out their own versions of Ivan Drago.
In Game 3, deGrom will be opposed by righthander Kyle Hendricks, 25, who posted a modest 3.95 ERA during the regular season. In Game 4, Steven Matz faces Jason Hammel, who finished with a 3.74 ERA.
When measured by adjusted ERA, Hendricks and Hammel rank around the league average. DeGrom and Matz finished well above the league average, though Matz's performance came in only six starts.
The Mets have lost seven straight games at Wrigley Field, with their last win on the North Side coming in 2013. But with this pitching, even that recent history has been easy to ignore.
"That's what makes us as a team so good," Wright said, "is that there's really no letup in our starting pitching."