Postseason Pressure? What Pressure? The Chicago Cubs Eat That Stuff For Lunch

Notes on my NLDS scorecard …

Here’s why the Cubs, despite scoring 8 runs in three games, have a 2-1 lead over the Nationals in the best-of-five NL Division Series, with a chance to close it out Tuesday in Game 4 at Wrigley Field:

— Except for one blow-up inning, Cubs pitchers have smothered the Nationals offense. Washington’s heavy damage was limited to a five-run attack in the eighth inning of Game 2. But in their other 25 innings of at-bats in this series, the Nationals have scored two runs, with 7 hits in 85 at-bats. That’s a sweet .082 average.

— Cubs starting pitchers Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester and Jose Quintana have barely been scratched this NLDS, combining for 18.2 innings and allowing just six hits and an earned run for a miniscule 0.67 ERA. Washington hitters are 6 for 64 (.094) with one extra-base hit and a .324 OPS vs. Cubs starters. And the Nats will have to deal with Jake Arrieta in Game 4.

— The Nationals have wasted two superb starts by Stephen Strasburg in Game 1, and Max Scherzer in Game 3. Strasburg carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning. Scherzer took a no-hitter into the seventh inning. In their combined 13.1 innings, Washington’s two aces couldn’t have done much more to get their team a win; Strasburg and Scherzer struck out 17, were nicked for only four hits, and gave up one earned run. The Nationals lost both games,  3-0 and 2-1.

— The Cubs aren’t exactly destroying baseballs. They’re up 2-1 in this series despite having scored only eight runs and batting .179 with a .571 OPS. But here’s why they are the the Cubs: with runners in scoring position, the Cubs are 6 for 16 (.375 BA) with seven RBIs. In other words, the Cubs have come through with seven of their eight runs in pressure situations.

— Run-scoring opportunities can be awfully limited in postseason baseball; since the advent of the two-wildcard (in each league) system in 2012, teams have averaged 3.8 runs per game and batted .231 with a .297 OBP and .367 slugging percentage. When you have a chance to cash in runs, you have to get it done as often as possible.

— The razor’s edge has left the Nationals bleeding. With Monday’s 2-1 loss in Game 3, the Nats are 1-7 in their last eight postseason games decided by a run. This is Washington’s fourth appearance in the playoffs since 2012, and they’ve yet to win a postseason round. Normally I wouldn’t get too caught up in that; after all rosters can change significantly from year to year. But the Nats’ roster has some key players who were there in 2012, and others who later became Nationals for the playoff failure in 2014, and even more new Nationals had the playoff-flop experience in 2016. The Nationals are 6-11 in the postseason, and have averaged only 3.3 runs per game, and they’ve been held to three or fewer runs in 10 of the 17.

— The ability for a team to set itself free from a haunting — even taunting — postseason history can be frustrating and difficult. Just ask the many Cubs teams through the years that had to live with constant 1908 memes. But the Cubs broke through last season, and the defending World Series champions clearly are comfortable under pressure. The Cubs thrive when the heat intensifies. Since getting swept out of the 2015 NLCS by the Mets — definitely a learning experience — the Cubs are 13-7 in the postseason, and nothing seems to rattle them. This also explains why the first-place Cubs had no problem shoving the Brewers and Cardinals out of the way late in the regular season after their NL Central rivals moved close, for a brief time, in the NL Central race.

— Last autumn Joe Maddon’s team trailed the Dodgers 2-1 in the best-of-seven NLCS and won three in a row, outscoring LA 23-6 on the final three wins. After standing at cliff’s edge in the World Series, down 3-1 to the Indians, the Cubs charged back for three straight wins, and survived an excruciating Game 7 in which they blew a three-run lead in the bottom of the 8th inning, only to gather themselves and win the game in the 10th.

— Naturally, the Cubs didn’t flinch when left fielder Kyle Schwarber messed up a fly ball for a double-error that set up Washington’s 1-0 lead in Game 3.  “There was no panic in the dugout,” said the Cubs’ Ben Zobrist, who ended Scherzer’s no-hitter with a double to start the 7th. “There was no thought that it wasn’t going to happen. It was just. When is it going to happen. When we make mistakes, as a team, the mantra is: So what? Now what?”

— Making smart decisions under pressure is a substantial factor in every postseason, and Nationals manager Dusty Baker served up a cornucopia of second-guess fodder in the critically important 7th and 8th innings of Game 3.

Let’s review:

  • After Zobrist gapped a one-out double in the 7th, Baker immediately pulled Scherzer, who had thrown 98 pitches. Was it the right move? It’s debatable, only because Scherzer came into Game 3 after nearly 10 days rehabbing a trained hamstring injury. Both Baker and Scherzer had cited 100 pitches as a reasonable goal in this start. So in that context, Scherzer had just about reached his unofficial quota. But Mad Max was also delivering a dominant, brilliant performance. I would have liked to see Max — if nothing else — face one more batter.
  • Yes, even if the next scheduled hitter was the LH-swinging Kyle Schwarber, who had launched a prodigious foul ball off Scherzer earlier in the game. And Baker said he thought about that swing … and the risk of having Scherzer — deep into his first start back after time off — take on the dangerous Schwarber.
  • Scherzer had MLB’s second-best strikeout rate this season, 34.4 percent. And Schwarber had one of the worst strikeout rates (31%) by a big-league hitter. We’re talking about Max Scherzer here: a two-time Cy Young winner who likely will win a third in a few weeks, once the offseason begins. I’ll bet on Scherzer there, rather than give the ball to my third-best LH reliever, Sammy Solis, who had a 5.88 ERA this season.
  • Solis was never going to see Schwarber, anyway. Maddon pulled Schwarber and went with a RH pinch-hitter, Albert Almora Jr., who mashes left-handed pitching. A career .320 average against lefties, with a .377 OBP and .503 SLG. Solis hasn’t been terrible against RH bats this season … but Baker had better choices for the assignment. Almora singled to tie the game.
  • Here’s what Zobrist had to say about Baker’s removal of Scherzer: “I wouldn’t have taken him (out) the way he was pitching He was very sharp, especially considering having not kind of having been on his normal five-day routine there. Hamstring, whatever, he didn’t show any effects of that today and he was very sharp. I just thought it was tough to take advantage of mistakes, he didn’t make a lot of them. Fortunately, with nobody on he gave me a heater I could handle and drive a little bit. In that moment, it’s just, you’ve got to believe in your guy that’s gotten you six innings the way they did. Fortunately, we were able to take advantage of it in that moment.”
  • And this from Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo “He’s Max Scherzer for a reason. He was dominating us, there’s no two ways about it. And (Zobrist) with that hit, the double, to get him out of the game was big for us. You just feel energy when you get guys like him out of the game. They have a really good bullpen, but when you get their ace, their guy out of the game, then obviously we have to score. But a lot of momentum when we got that one run.”
  • I agree that there was a reasonable case to be made for lifting Scherzer. But with the game on the line, it was time to fast-forward one of your best relievers into the game. Lefthander Sean Doolittle is capable of throwing more than an inning. Same with righthander Ryan Madson. And there was another benefit to using them; both Doolittle and Madson are strong against hitters who stand on either side of the plate. There was no platoon-split disadvantage.
  • Put them to work. You can’t save your top relievers for a save opportunity that may never materialize. To be technical about it, when Scherzer departed with a 1-0 lead, and Solis came in, it WAS a save situation. But you can’t lose that pivotal Game 3 with Doolittle and Madson out in the bullpen spitting sunflower seeds.
  • I know that Rizzo plated the winning run with a blooper in after getting jammed by lefty reliever Oliver Perez in the 8th. But why was Baker pitching to Rizzo to begin with? The Cubs had the potential winning run on second base. Rizzo has an excellent .887 OPS in the last two postseasons. He led the Cubs in RBIs this season. In his last four seasons, Rizzo is hitting .297 with a huge .966 OPS with runners in scoring position. Rizzo loves these crunch-time situations. First base was open. Just walk Rizzo. RH-hitting catcher Willson Contreras was up next; a perfect situation for Madson. But for the third time in this series (once in each game), Baker opted to pitch to Rizzo with first base open. And Rizzo made the Nationals pay each time. Which is why Rizzo yelled “Respect Me! Respect Me!” after plopping that go-ahead single in the 8th.

Baker ranks 14th among managers in MLB history with 1,863 regular-season victories. But in the postseason Baker is only 43-60 for a .417 winning percentage. That happens to be the worst winning percentage among active managers who have managed in at least 50 postseason games. And only two other active managers have losing records (minimum 50 games) in the postseason: the Angels’ Mike Scioscia (42-54, .438) and the Cardinals’ Mike Matheny (42-44, .488.)

Over the next two or three seasons, if the Cardinals and/or the Brewers want to bring the Cubs down, the challengers have an imposing task: they’d better learn how to handle big-game pressure. The Cubs aren’t bothered by stress and strain. That stuff brings out their best.

Thanks for reading.