There’s the plan and then there’s the outcome, and very often those two things don’t wind up in sync. When the flyball pitcher from Cleveland takes the mound at Wrigley with the wind blowing out, a 1-0 finish in his favor is not the expected outcome. But it was, and that’s put the Cubs in a 2-1 hole that wasn’t in the forecast, but hey, they’ve been there before.
This is not wave-of-the-hand dismissal, but rather an admission that last week’s outcome showed us that the Cubs are perfectly capable of fighting off a one game deficit and defeating the opposing team’s best ace along the way. Tonight, they see Corey Kluber for the second time since Tuesday night. In the NLCS, that didn’t go well at all for Clayton Kershaw, and the obvious hope in Wrigleyville is that the same will be true again.
Throughout the playoffs, the Cubs offense has demonstrated a strange dichotomy of either failing to bunch hits together and looking hapless against opposing pitching or being relentless and scoring in great quantity. It’s the latter that makes them utterly unbeatable, and if the latter is the reality for the remainder of this series—however long that lasts—Chicago should be ready to celebrate. If that’s not the case, the burden lands on the pitching, and so far, they’ve been mostly up to the task. In the playoffs, the Cubs’ staff has allowed 33 runs across the thirteen games they’ve played so far (3.55 ERA).
FiveThirtyEight.com calls tonight essentially a push at 49% Cleveland, 51% Chicago. Those were the same odds for Game One on Tuesday but now flipped in Chicago’s favor, and that one was really decided by a rough first inning for Jon Lester and perhaps a decision by Joe Maddon not to pinch hit for David Ross with the bases loaded in the 7th inning. So far in the respective LCS contests and in the World Series, the team that scores first goes on to win the game, and of course that’s not predictive, but a few sturdy innings from John Lackey to kick things off would do nicely.
The pitching matchup:
John Lackey vs. Corey Kluber
First, a quick glance at their regular season numbers:
Surprisingly, when set beside each other like this, Kluber looks less intimidating, but let’s not fool ourselves. He’s not pitching at his Cy Young levels, of course, but for the past three seasons he’s been a problem for the American League Central, and tonight he’s the Cubs’ problem again. As for Lackey, on a different staff he’d stand out more, but that’s tough when you follow up the likes of Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, and Jake Arrieta. Stack up his regular season numbers this year, and he’s not far off from a standout 2015 with St. Louis.
But the more pertinent numbers aren’t always those amassed between April and the first weekend of October. So a look at what these two have done in their careers in the postseason is worth a look:
Lackey’s vast postseason experience does something for him, but while Kluber’s postseason experience is just confined to this year, he’s been practically untouchable. Lackey has pitched twice in the 2016 postseason and neither start was especially impressive, but to use his own words, he didn’t come here for a haircut, and this is a big boy game. Time to step up, John.
Kluber comes into tonight with some question marks. For as brilliant as he’s been, he’s never pitched on three days’ rest before, and that’s what Terry Francona is calling on him to do tonight. That said, in Game One he threw just 88 pitches and almost all of them with a lead in the game, so he’s not exactly taking the mound under duress tonight.
In Game One, he spread his pitches between the sinker, slider, and cutter. It was the slider and cutter that coaxed the highest whiff rates, generally in keeping with his regular season trend of roughly 23 percent and 18 percent respectively. The Cubs saw little of his changeup in Game One (he threw it just four times), but in the regular season it’s been responsible for a near 21 percent whiff rate, too.
The Cubs’ job tonight might be to lay off the first pitch sinker. Regardless of batter handedness, he is most likely to offer that pitch first, and then if it misses the zone, he’s likely to throw it again. With the batter ahead in the count, he still throws the sinker about half of the time. If he hits the zone with that first sinker, there’s still a reasonable chance he throws it again, but the likelihood of a second pitch slider goes up. In all, the Cubs batters are going to be seeing a pair of sinkers to open each at bat, so the hope is that they come prepared.
What to watch for:
Much is made of hitting with RISP numbers, but the squashed sample of the postseason makes these too unreliable to determine a trend or to assess a problem. Much more should probably be made of the success of the Cubs’ first three batters in the lineup. The “You go, we go” adage describes just Dexter Fowler, but when not just Fowler, but Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo also fail to get on base, the whole offense nearly shuts down. Or at least it has since the playoffs started. Last night, for instance, that trio was a combined 2 for 11, or 3 for 12, if you look at the number of times they got on base and include Bryant’s walk. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that those three trips to first base didn’t come in the same inning last night.
Finally, like Friday’s game, the hooks for both starters might come early. For Lackey because Joe Maddon will lean on his bullpen to work out of a jam in the same way he did with Kyle Hendricks last night, and for Kluber because Terry Francona has already hinted that he might want him again for a potential Game Seven and because Andrew Miller was used sparingly last night.
A win for the Cubs resets the series at 2-2, and there’s still another game to be played in Chicago. And when they depart for Cleveland, that means Kyle Schwarber’s back in the lineup.
Lead photo courtesy of Jerry Lai—USA Today Sports.