By Nate Johnson
The Chicago Cubs return to Wrigley Field tonight after a pair of cold nights in Queens, bruised and battered but not yet down for the count. Losing the first two games of the National League Championship Series to the New York Mets, 4-2 on Saturday and 4-1 on Sunday, feels especially frustrating given that the top two arms, lefty Jon Lester and suddenly-human Jake Arrieta, took the mound in the hopes of getting off to a fast start. Given how this team has responded to long odds this season, though, this series is far from over.
Having swept the seven-game season series between two teams, the Cubs had good reason to go into Citi Field with high hopes, especially considering the playoff mettle of Lester and the second-half dominance of Arrieta. However, Chicago bats only combined for three runs and 10 hits in the first two frames of the NLCS as a combination of Mets pitching and blustery weather held down a team that had scored more than four runs per game over their previous 20.
There are signs of light as the team returns home for at least the next two nights (Thursday’s game as necessary, if the Cubs can win at least one of the first two). Chicago has only had three stretches of more than three straight losses this season, and only one has come since the All-Star break. Over the last three weeks, the team has only dropped one decision coming into the Mets series, the first match of the National League Divisional Series against the Cardinals.
The Cubs will rely on their three and four starters, Kyle Hendricks and Jason Hammel, to hold down a Mets lineup that packs considerably more punch than the team that they ran perfect against during the regular season.
New York added outfielder Yoenis Cespides at the July 31 trade deadline, who capped off the Mets scoring on Sunday with a third inning RBI single. Center fielder Curtis Granderson raised his game in the second half of the season and carried that momentum into the playoffs, driving in two runs and scoring one over the first two games. Most importantly, second baseman Daniel Murphy continued to hit everything thrown at him in the playoffs. After nearly single-handedly taking out the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS with three home runs and six runs batted in, Murphy continued his power trip with a home run in each of the two Citi Field games and drove in three runs in the set.
If Chicago can take at least two of the three mid-week games at Wrigley, the series will return to New York on Saturday and, if needed, Sunday. Facing warmer weather and a friendlier crowd, the odds are not as high against the Cubs as it might look. If Cub fans have their way, the next chance the team gets to celebrate a series-clinching win at home will be in the World Series.