By Shane Nicholson
The Cubs have come home with a split in-hand and Jake Arrieta on the hill for Monday’s Game 3. I think had you offered such a proposition to Maddon and Epstein at the onset of the NLDS they would’ve been happy to accept.
But that win in St. Louis was maybe not the one most Cubs fans would’ve thought they would rack up. Jon Lester in Game 1 pitched a gem only to be ever-so-slightly out-dueled by his former Red Sox teammate John Lackey. Pedro Strop continued his trend of being unable to get anyone out at Busch Stadium, and a quality start from Lester was left to rot as a 4-0 Cardinals win.
It was the bats that came back to life in Game 2–kind of. Cards second baseman Kolten Wong looked lost on a handful of routine plays. Starting pitcher Jaime Garcia didn’t know where he was going with a bunt straight back at him. A couple errors, a Dexter Fowler home run, and the Cubs were on their way to a 6-3 win to even the series.
Your key talking point, though, has been the umpires and their strike zones. If you’ve watched minute one of a playoff game this year in the confines of your favorite local bar, you’ve surely heard about how absolutely awful the umps have been this postseason. But just how bad has it been? Par for the course, really.
Through Saturday, umps were hitting their marks 91.4 percent of the time according to FiveThirtyEight. That’s just a shade below the seasonal average of 91.6 percent.
The problem for Cubs fans is that Phil Cuzzi – behind the plate for Lester’s Game 1 start – was bad, missing 15 ball-strike calls and dropping his accuracy down to 88.4 percent. Someone had to draw the short straw in these early Divisional Series games and it just happened to be the Cubs.
It’s magnified by the fact that the Cubs staff, on the whole, was perhaps the best in baseball this season. The Pirates and Cardinals had the better counting stats, and the Dodgers have that seemingly untouchable 1-2 at the top of the rotation, but the Cubs’ 24.3 WAR out of their pitchers was nearly two wins better than the Kershaw-Greinke two-headed monster. The Cardinals, with a staff ERA over 0.40 lower than the Cubs, came in sixth with a 21.2 mark.
It wasn’t just word-beater Arrieta carrying the load, either. Lester, with a 5.0 WAR, was the eighth best pitcher in the National League. Kyle Hendricks slotted in at 17th; Jason Hammel a respectable 28th. Jake was eating up all the headlines, but the back end of the Cubs rotation was doing a lot of the dirty work as the team pulled away from the Giants down the stretch, eventually finishing 13 games ahead of their wild card “rivals” in the standings.
Which makes the frustration of Cuzzi’s Game 1 performance that much harder to swallow. Of those 15 missed calls, most went against Cubs batters, which can go some distance in explaining their disappearing act on Friday. This is a lineup built around a patient approach, but the nine free strike calls given to Lackey did a lot to undo their fundamentals.
It wasn’t the only thing working against the Cubs in Game 1. Ignoring the fact that Lester has to pitch to David Ross, effectively giving Lackey two free outs at the bottom of the lineup, we should all know by now that Kris Bryant has troubles away from Wrigley so far in his very young career. He posted just a .243/.333/.360 slash line on the road in his rookie season, a good distance from his .311/.408/.629 line at home. And Anthony Rizzo, far better on the road this year than at Wrigley, was clearly put off by Cuzzi’s I-39-wide zone and didn’t look comfortable all night.
The problems that shown through Friday made the Game 2 plan of Get a guy on, get him around any which way possible not that shocking. Bunting, baserunning, putting pressure on the Cardinals fielders, making Garcia look like a deer in headlights…Maddon changed the approach and his team responded.
And that makes today’s Game 3 (5 p.m. on TBS, WBBM 780AM) the likely tide-swinger in this series. Arrieta is 1968-vintage Bob Gibson, Denny McLain and Juan Marichal all piled into one–Game 3 feels almost like a forgone conclusion. Depending on how the bats react to coming back to the Friendly Confines, Game 4 could look much the same.
And that’s good news for the anti-umpire brigade: Cuzzi is set to be behind the plate for a potential Game 5 back in St. Louis, which means another Lester/Ross battery for Lackey to pick his way through. As unlikely as it may be for Cuzzi to toss up another howler – or that he wasn’t really as bad as social media made him out to be on the night – it’s going to be better for everyone (Cardinals fans excluded) if that’s avoided altogether.