Through their first five games, the Chicago Cubs made hitting in the postseason look easy. Maybe a little too easy.
As such, a reality check like the one the Cubs were dealt in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series was coming sooner or later. But given that it was the New York Mets who dealt it, the question now becomes whether the Cubs' bats will be able to recover.
The Cubs weren't able to get much offense going against Matt Harvey in a 4-2 loss in the opener of the NLCS at Citi Field on Saturday night. He did his Dark Knight thing and limited the Cubs to two earned runs on four hits and two walks in seven and two-thirds innings, striking out nine along the way. Jeurys Familia took things from there, allowing only a hit and a walk in picking up a four-out save.
And so, the Cubs' miniature three-game postseason win streak was snapped.
Perhaps more to the point, the offensive roll they were on was snapped. Before they were shut down on Saturday night, the Cubs had hit 12 home runs and averaged nearly five runs per game in five postseason games against the Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals.
Credit where credit is certainly due, though: The opposition in Game 1 had much to do with this.
Though Harvey did get some fortunate bounces (including one very fortunate bounce) here and there, Cubs skipper Joe Maddon had nothing but praise for the 26-year-old right-hander after the game.
Per David Lennon of Newsday:
Maddon's not wrong. After a pedestrian performance in his first postseason start in Game 3 of the NLDS, Harvey came out in Game 1 throwing mid-to-high 90s gas with sharp secondary pitches, and he didn't have much trouble working on the edges of the zone. ESPN.com says he collected 17 swinging strikes, a mark that Harvey met or topped only four times in the regular season.
If there's a bright side for the Cubs, it's that they're not in a position they haven't been in before.
It was barely over a week ago that a flat offensive performance put the Cubs down 1-0 against the Cardinals in the NLDS. But in the next three games, the Cubs broke out the big bats they'd been brandishing in the second half of 2015 and easily overwhelmed the Cardinals to take the series.
But nobody should be kidding themselves. Pulling off that same trick against the Mets won't be as easy.
Though the Cubs' lineup got significantly more dangerous in the second half after Kyle Schwarber—who, for the record, chased Harvey from Game 1 with a monster home run in the eighth inning—and other pieces fell into place, it wasn't able to ditch its fatal flaw. With a 24.9 K%, the Cubs continued to be baseball's most strikeout-y team and, in the end, finished with a .619 OPS against power pitching that ranked in the bottom five of MLB.
Knowing this, it's not surprising that the Cubs were able to come back against the Cardinals. Their starters fell out of the top 10 of MLB in K% in the second half, and they went into the postseason without their most overpowering starter in Carlos Martinez. Without him, they lacked the power arms to keep the Cubs offense down.
But the Mets? Yeah, not as much.
Harvey is really good, but after him in Game 2 comes an even more powerful arm belonging to Noah Syndergaard. After him, the Cubs will see Jacob deGrom, the best the Mets have, in Game 3. After him, they'll see a left-hander in Steven Matz who has a pretty good arm of his own in Game 4.
It's largely because of these four that Mets starters were No. 6 in MLB in K% in the second half of 2015. And more than anything else, what they have in common is exceptional velocity. Harvey, Syndergaard and deGrom each averaged at least 95.0 miles per hour with their heat to place as three of the NL's six hardest throwers in 2015, and Matz wasn't far behind with an average fastball of 94.3 mph.
Of course, the usual refrain goes that velocity isn't everything. But it definitely helps. Especially against the Cubs.
Before the NLCS got underway, ESPN.com's Buster Olney provided the key figures:
• The Cubs hit .229 in at-bats ending in a pitch 94 miles per hour or greater, last in the NL.
• No team in the NL swung and missed more often (24.0 percent) at pitches of that velocity.
In so many words: It's not by accident that the Cubs looked overmatched against Harvey in Game 1.
Being overmatched against big velocity is a bad habit of theirs, and it's one of the roots of their overall struggle against power pitching. And knowing that they're going to have nothing but power arms thrown at them in this series, it doesn't exactly bode well that they were unable to pass their first big test.
To be sure, further struggles for the Cubs against Mets pitching aren't exactly guaranteed.
At the very least, there's an argument to be made that the Cubs had better at-bats and made better contact against Harvey than the box score suggests. And indeed, they would have scored at least three runs had it not been for Yoenis Cespedes' golden arm.
Beyond that, you could also point out that the Cubs did just fine when they went up against Gerrit Cole and Michael Wacha, two pretty hard throwers in their own rights. It's a valid point, as either of them can now vouch that the Cubs' collective abilities to work good at-bats and hit the ball hard are dangerous no matter how hard you're throwing.
But even with these points noted, there's no arguing against the notion that the Cubs offense is looking a little more human now than it had been going into Game 1. In a span of a few hours, Cubs hitters went from flying high to grounded.
And if they can't come up with an answer for the Mets' power arms, they may stay that way.
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