The second he heard the phrase “moment of truth,” you could see the brain cells smoldering in Joe Maddon’s head. The look on his face said it all. Nope, wasn’t going there. Couldn’t possibly go there.
“I’m so bad at drawing lines in the sand,” he said.
What he meant, of course, was that this was no time for any manager to draw that line. But whether he drew it or not, there was no way to escape it. For the 2016 Chicago Cubs, this was that moment of truth. This was a place they’d never been. This was a feeling they’d never felt.
Shut out two games in a row for the first time all year. Suddenly, shockingly, trailing the Los Angeles Dodgers two games to one in the National League Championship Series. And facing the sort of test that all great teams need to pass if they’re going to prove they’re as good as they think they are.
“For me, it’s about putting this one in the wastebasket, come back and play tomorrow,” Maddon said Tuesday night, after his offense had been dominated again in a 6-0 loss that represented their most lopsided shutout of the year. “It’s one day at a time. I’ve preached that all season long. … So I can’t get so dramatic about it.”
OK, cool. We get it. Getting dramatic, that’s our job. So cue the strobe lights and the trumpets. Here is what makes this moment so critical for the Cubs:
In the history of best-of-seven postseason series that were tied 1-1, the team that lost Game 3 has come back to win the series just 29.5 percent of the time.
In the League Championship Series, that rate drops to 27.3 percent.
And then there’s this: Over the past 30 years, seven teams like the Cubs have found themselves in this precarious position — down 2-1 in a best-of-seven series — after winning 100 games that season. Only two have come back to win — the 1995 Indians and the 1998 Yankees (both in the ALCS).
Those are tough odds. And these are tough moments. But coincidentally, a man who played for those 1998 Yankees was in Dodger Stadium on Tuesday night, watching the Cubs go down again. And no one had to remind Jeff Nelson what it felt like to be in this position.
He remembered it vividly. Remembered exactly what it felt like to have to win Game 4 of that ALCS on the road, in Cleveland, against a team that had eliminated them the year before. Except there was one big difference between those Yankees and these Cubs, Nelson said Tuesday.
“Their expectation level was a lot different than ours,” said Joe Torre’s prime right-handed setup man, “because they haven’t won since 1908. … They won 103 games, and I think now they’re feeling that pressure.”
Torre has said many times that the one time those 114-win Yankees felt anything resembling that pressure was in that ALCS, when they fell behind 2-1 and found themselves facing their first real must-win game of the year. So what happened in that must-win Game 4? “El Duque” happened.
Orlando Hernandez went to the mound and spun seven shutout innings. And “once El Duque won,” Nelson said, “then it was over.”
“Once he won Game 4, we felt the momentum shift,” Nelson said, “and we went back to doing what we did in the regular season. And you know what? The Indians felt it too. I remember standing around the batting cage the next day, and some of those Indians players said, ‘Now you’re going to win.’ I’m not going to name names. But one or two of those guys actually said that.”
Well, the Cubs don’t have El Duque to send to the mound Wednesday night. But they will have a man who has started more postseason games (22) than any active pitcher. That man is John Lackey. And his team has never needed him more.
Those 1998 Yankees scored a run for El Duque in the top of the first inning. Then their starting pitcher wouldn’t let them lose. And that is the sort of game these Cubs desperately need to play — after scoring in none of their past 18 innings and just one of their past 24.
“When you don’t score, you’re not in control of the game, and you’re going to lose,” said the Cubs’ Chris Coghlan in a clubhouse full of players trying to maintain a confident face. “That’s just going to be a fact. But I think when we get some runs and push them across, then obviously, that’s how you get control of the game. That’s what we did all year.”
Then again, what they did all year was roll out one of the best offenses in baseball, a lineup that scored more runs than any National League team except the Rockies. But the postseason, Coghlan said, “is totally different than the regular season, because you’re going to get everyone’s best.” And so far, their best has been overwhelming the Cubs’ best.
To be a great team, to be a win-the-World-Series team, you need to score against good pitching and beat good pitching. And in this postseason, outside of a couple of eruptions, these Cubs haven’t scored and haven’t hit. Which is how they’ve gotten themselves into this mess.
They’ve batted .185 as a team in this postseason. They’ve batted .161 in the NLCS. And against left-handed pitching, they’ve been even worse, hitting .152 overall and a mind-boggling .106 (5-for-47) in the NLCS. Which is kind of a big deal, because yet another left-handed starter, Julio Urias, will be waiting for them Wednesday night, after taking notes on what Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill have done to the Cubs in the past two games.
But the left-handed members of the species aren’t the Cubs’ only issue. They’re also seeing more off-speed stuff in fastball counts than they saw all year and not adjusting real well. During the regular season, these hitters saw non-fastballs in just 28 percent of all hitters’ counts (2-0, 3-0, 2-1, 3-1 and 1-0). In the NLCS, the Dodgers have nearly doubled that rate to 48 percent. It hasn’t gone too hot.
“I haven’t really noticed a difference,” said Kris Bryant, the one Cub who has actually hit like himself (.333) in this series. “But I don’t like to pay too much attention to that kind of stuff. I leave that up to you.”
OK, that’s fine too. We’re happy to do all that math for him. But here’s what is up to him and his buddies: Getting back to work Wednesday and reminding themselves of what they did all year and how they did it.
Those 1998 Yankees did that by holding a meeting before every game of that postseason, Nelson said. And in those meetings, their manager, Torre, had a way of restoring order when it was needed most.
“He had unbelievable confidence in the way we played,” Nelson said. “He had unbelievable confidence in his players. He never said, ‘We have to do this,’ or not to do that. There was nothing negative at all. We won 114 games. But those 114 wins have to be in the back of your mind. You can’t think, ‘We’d better win because we’ve got to complete this great year.’ Joe had that confidence, and it carried over to us.”
So now maybe it’s up to another manager named Joe to somehow transmit that same feeling to these Cubs. And Joe Maddon seemed to understand that intuitively Tuesday night.
“They’re going to react to how I’m going to react,” Maddon said. “I’ve always believed that. I’ve always thought, for me, regardless of the situation, that I have to be consistent when I walk into the room. They have to see consistency from me, which hopefully they’re going to be able to do. But beyond that, man, like I said, there is not a whole lot to do except come out and play again tomorrow.”
So is this their moment of truth? You decide. On one hand, Bryant observed hopefully, this isn’t anywhere near as bad as being down 3-0, as they were in last year’s NLCS to the Mets. But on the other hand, these are the facts:
This is a team that spent one day of this entire season out of first place. And that day was April 8. Then the 2016 Cubs hit the accelerator. They started 8-1. And 17-5. And 25-6. They held a nine-game lead in their division by May 14. And they never led by fewer than five games at any point in their last 115 games.
So has there been any game since last year’s NLCS that carried the weight of the game they will play Wednesday at Chavez Ravine? That answer is nope. So this is that moment, when we find out what they’re really all about.
“Teams that win the whole thing always have games that define them,” Coghlan said. “They always have games you look back on and say, ‘Holy cow, I can’t believe they won that game,’ or, ‘How did they pull out of that?’ Well, I feel like we’ve had a couple of those already. … And I think every person in this locker room feels like we’ll have a couple more of those in us now.”