Four-gone conclusion

The NLCS was supposed to be a big party for the Cubs and their fans. Instead, the Mets are closing in on a sweep thanks to a four-point plan.

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CHICAGO — The letdown is not that the party’s over. It is that the party never began. That’s the one small disappointment of this amazing Chicago Cubs season. It was a beautiful and bewildering summer in the Second City, with surprise gifts just about every day. Meet Kris Bryant: Watch him crush baseballs. Meet Kyle Schwarber: Watch him hit home runs to the moon. Meet Addison Russell: Watch him play shortstop like a dream. And, of course, you already know Jake Arrieta: Watch him pitch like Bob Gibson.

Every day this Cubs team, loaded with a bunch of kids who didn’t seem to know any better, played wonderful, joyous baseball. Anthony Rizzo visited sick children in hospitals by day and drove in runs under the Wrigley lights. Jon Lester joined Arrieta to give the Cubs their best righty-lefty combination probably since Fergie Jenkins and Kenny Holtzman back around that crushing 1969 season. Nine players hit double-digit homers. The bullpen got outs. Every day was a new adventure.

What joy. Team president Theo Epstein would walk home from Wrigley Field after games, and he felt like he was riding a wave of Rizzo and Schwarber and Arrieta jerseys. Baseball fans in Chicago, at least half of them, felt buzzed and alive. It has been so long since the Cubs had made this city feel that way. Then they made the postseason, and the magic lingered, they beat Pittsburgh in that wildcard game, and then they beat the St. Louis Cardinals, the dreaded Cardinals, who had for more than 100 years held their faces to the ground like some overbearing big brother.

All of it happened so quickly, so unexpectedly, that for Chicago it must have felt like pleasantly dozing off during a long car ride, waking up, looking out the window and saying, “Wait, what, we’re already here?”

They were already here: One series away from their first World Series since World War II. They were playing the New York Mets, a team with its own star-crossed history, a team they had beaten all seven times the teams played during the season. Suddenly they were right there, at the gated entryway, ready to have the biggest Chicago party since Prohibition ended …

… and the party never even began. It’s like the parents came home early from vacation.

The parents, in this ridiculously stretched analogy, are the New York Mets, who have done every single thing a team can do to be party poopers and suffocate any and all hope or energy or euphoria in Chicago. They lead this National League Championship Series 3-0 — as a sportswriter, you are obligated to call it a “commanding” 3-0 lead — but that’s not even the point. The Mets developed a four-point plan to crush the exuberance and joy of this Cubs team. And it has worked.

 

Point 1: Score first

In each of the three games, the Mets scored in the first inning to take the lead. That is such a crusher for opponents. There are various impressive statistics showing how often the first team to score wins baseball games, but in a larger sense: It’s just a bummer to ALWAYS fall behind in a playoff game. The Cubs are a team that feeds off power, passion, good vibes — one guy hits, then another guy, then another guy.

And so, all three nights the Mets scored in the first inning, and the Cubs started from behind, and that’s a bummer, man. A real bummer.

 

Point 2: Keep Cubs leadoff hitters off base

You don’t have to do any fancy math to figure that teams score a lot more runs in innings when the leadoff hitter gets on than innings when he doesn’t. Well, the Cubs leadoff hitters are 0-for-25 so far this series, with only a walk and a hit-batter preventing a complete shutout. Almost never getting a leadoff hitter on base is more or less death for an offense … and the Cubs have scored five runs the whole series.

“We’re not hitting the ball like we normally can,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon says, speaking in understatement. It’s staggering to look at how the Cubs are hitting when they lead off innings. Dexter Fowler is 0-for-6 and has not hit the ball out of the infield. Bryant and Starlin Castro are each 0-for-3. It’s been a clinical display by Mets pitchers to start off each inning.

 

Point 3: Have Daniel Murphy get bitten by a radioactive spider

Murphy homered again Tuesday. At some point, you run out of things to say — I mean how many times can you say “unbelievable” or “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

“Overall I thought we pitched him pretty well,” Maddon said. “He hit the home run, so that really stands out. But I thought overall we pitched him pretty good.”

This is Daniel Murphy we’re talking about. Daniel. Murphy. He hit 14 home runs this year, and that was his career high. He’s a lifetime .288 hitter, and he hit less than that this season. You know: Daniel … Murphy. And on Tuesday, he went 2-for-5 with a 421-foot homer (his longest of the year) and two runs scored, and the opposing manager crowed about how they pitched him pretty good?

So, yes, the radioactive spider theory is about the best theory available. He has now hit home runs in five straight postseason games, something only Carlos Beltran had ever done before. He has now hit six home runs in this postseason, which makes him not only the single-postseason record-holder for the Mets but also the CAREER postseason home run leader for the Mets.*

*An aside: The Chicago Cubs’ all-time leading postseason home run hitter is … Kyle Schwarber. Think about that for a moment.

Murphy is so locked in, so utterly focused, that at this point the Cubs just EXPECT him to crush their dreams. Joe Maddon has already intentionally walked Murphy once to face Yoenis Cespedes, something that would have seemed pretty ludicrous a month or two ago but now seems more or less the only human response.

 

Point 4: Throw lots and lots of breaking balls and change-ups

We know that all around baseball, more pitchers than ever are throwing in the mid-to-upper 90s. For the most part, though, those pitchers are relievers. We are talking about guys who can throw lightning bolts but only for an inning or two.

But there are 14 starters in baseball this year who averaged 95 mph on their fastball. And three of those 14 — Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey and Tuesday night’s starter Jacob deGrom — are New York Mets. No other team has more than one of these rare creatures. The Mets can fill an entire series with overpowering fastballs, and that gives them an advantage no other team has.

Thing is: The Cubs LOVE hitting fastballs. As mentioned, they’re young and they’re hungry and fastballs are like Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups to them. Sliders? Curveballs? Cutters? Those are like Circus Peanuts or candy corn or some other horrendous Halloween offering. But fastballs, well, deGrom came out in the first inning Tuesday and threw a 96-mph fastball 10 inches outside of the strike zone to Kyle Schwarber, and the guy just reached out his bat and mashed it into the left-field seats — it was, by Statcast numbers, the wildest pitch any lefty has homered on all year.

He threw 96 mph to Anthony Rizzo, who singled. He threw 94 mph to Starlin Castro, and he singled. And then deGrom had a little talk with catcher Travis d’Arnaud about the lowercase “d’s” that start both of their names. Or, no, they talked about how maybe they needed to stop trying to throw the ball by these Cubs.

“I think I talked to Travis, and I noticed they were hitting the fastball pretty well,” deGrom said. “So I said, ‘Hey, let’s try to throw some off-speed up there early and see if we can get early contact.’”

Yeah, that worked better. He struck out Javier Baez and Bryant on change-ups. In the fourth, he tried to pump it up and throw one by Jorge Soler, 96 mph, and Soler hit it a billion miles for a home run, so he slowed it down even more, getting Baez and Schwarber and Rizzo on curveballs. This is what the Mets starters have done all series, the thing that has really baffled Joe Maddon. It’s not easy to control your off-speed stuff, especially in cold weather, especially under playoff pressure, especially when none of the Mets starters has ever been in this position before.

But, hey, all the kids are throwing change-ups, and the Cubs can’t handle it.

* * *

The four-point plan isn’t only crushing the Cubs, it is momentarily smothering the spirit of the season. Cubs fans have not really had a chance this series to feel what it’s like to be here … and tonight it all could end. Of the 34 times that a baseball team has taken a 3-0 lead in a best-of-seven series, 28 have won the fourth game to complete the sweep. Of course, only one team — the 2004 Red Sox against the New York Yankees — has come all the way back, and Epstein was general manager of that team, so there are some faint hopes along those lines. Very faint.

None of this should matter in the long run. The Cubs are here to stay with that incredible young lineup and some money to spend. They should be a great team for a long time. In talking with several big Cubs fans before Tuesday’s game, I got the overwhelming sense that this year has been such a wonderful and promising surprise that even a Mets sweep will not break their stride or slow them down; oh no, they will keep on movin’.

The only slight disappointment — and Cubs fans seem to feel sheepish even bringing it up — is that they had hoped this series would be fun. And it hasn’t been fun at all for them. The Mets have taken all the fun out of it.