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World Series Notebook 2: Choke Job

Let's face it: Jon Lester choked.

Sure, the Cubs' bats (and Joe Maddon's managing) went cold again, but the game's winning runs were scored in the first inning, when the tone was set.

"It comes down to the first inning," Lester said afterward. "The first inning was tonight's game."

Of course, the other big inning was the seventh, when the Cubs loaded the bases with nobody out and failed to push even one run across the plate.

This is where Maddon - and the (controversial) rostering of Kyle Schwarber - came into play.

With the Cubs down 3-0, Ben Zobrist opened the inning with a single. Schwarber drew a walk. Javy Baez singled to left. Willson Contreras pinch hit for Chris Coghlan, who got the start in right over Jason Heyward. Contreras flied out to shallow center, but Schwarber took off for third anyway. Only the inattentive Rajai Davis prevented an easy double play there by throwing home, even though Zobrist didn't attempt to score. Schwarber made it back to second in time to watch Addison Russell and David Ross strike out to end the threat.

It was nice that Schwarber walked, but is that the match-up you really want there - a guy who hasn't seen a major league pitcher for six months who slashed .143/.213.268 against lefties last year facing the best lefty reliever in the universe in Andrew Miller? Seems like the perfect time to bring Contreras in instead of waiting for the Coghlan at-bat. (Coghlan is slashing .289/.426/.474 against lefties in the last 28 days.)

This is where Schwarber's place on the playoff roster bites you. As much as you probably wouldn't have started righty Contreras as the DH against the Corey Kluber, who is hell on right-handers, you might have liked to have had lefty Tommy La Stella and/or righty Matt Szczur available.

Now, some folks are saying Schwarber had the best Cubs at-bats all night. Perhaps. But here's Maddon:

"You could see on the finish sometimes maybe the brace grabs him just a little bit. I kind of noticed that."

Look, Schwarber could turn out to be a World Series hero. It just feels like the Cubs' bench is suddenly short, given that you have two guys who can't hit in Heyward and Miguel Montero and one guy who can't field in Kyle.

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The Tribune's David Haugh, who advocated for Schwarber's inclusion on the roster, said on The Score this morning that "They need to get the hot hitter in the lineup." He was talking about Contreras.

With the DH spot taken up by Schwarber and Ross and Montero slated to catch the first two games of the series, that means left field, a position he has barely played since July, with Ben Zobrist (who went 3-for-4 last night) shifting to right.

I'm not sure you want to do that - at least on the road in an unfamiliar park.

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If not for the Cleveland's home field advantage thanks to a Kansas City Royal in a pretend game three months ago, I wonder if Schwarber would've been taken just to sit around waiting to pinch hit in the first two games and again in possible Games 6 and 7.

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Now watch Schwarber win tonight's game with a grand slam. Still, as Maddon likes to say, don't fall victim to outcome bias!

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But he just missed a home run!

No, he didn't.

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Pitch Framing
It must be hard to be a sports fan who thinks every umpire and broadcaster is against your team. Cubs fans sounded like White Sox fans last night, particularly when it came to the strike zone. Breaking news:

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From our very own Roger "White Sox Report" Wallenstein:

Pat Tomasulo on WGN this morning predicted that no pitcher would be able to beat the Cubs three times in a seven-game series, negating Corey Kluber's chances of matching, for instance, Lew Burdette's three wins in 1957 against the Yankees (3 starts, 3 complete games, 2 shutouts along with a 4-2 win) or even Madison Bumgarner in 2014 when he won twice, limiting the Royals to one earned run in 21 innings.

Tomasulo might turn out to be correct, but Kluber's statistics dictate that the Cubs had better win the games Kluber does not pitch.

Consider the following:

Kluber started 32 games this season, 16 at home and a like number away. He faced the Tigers, a hard-hitting team, four times, recording a 3-0 record and a 2.25 ERA. They hit .173 against him. His WHIP was an eye-opening 0.821.

He also started four times against the Royals, the defending champions, and was 2-1 with a 2.59 ERA. The Royals hit .233 against him. Kluber's WHIP in those games was a more-than-respectable 1.192.

In the eight games against Detroit and Kansas City, Kluber pitched 45 innings and allowed just 38 hits.

So a team's familiarity with Kluber doesn't necessarily mean that he is more vulnerable. In fact, it's the opposing hitters who might be more vulnerable, judging from the record.

Kluber was 10-5 at home with a 3.24 ERA. Opponents hit .221 against him at Progressive Field. On the road, Kluber went 8-4 with a 3.03 ERA and opponents hit .210. He gave up 22 home runs this season, 14 at home and eight on the road. Hence Kluber was maybe a tad more effective away from home than he was pitching in front of the home crowd.

Kluber also was a much better pitcher after the first two months of the season when he was 4-6. The rest of the season he went 14-3 including 8-1 the final two months with a 2.87 ERA. His only loss was a 4-3 decision against Houston on September 6.

Francona pulled Kluber after 88 pitches last night. I'm not saying that no other manager would have done that, but some non-thinkers might have kept him in the game. Kluber seems poised to pitch again Saturday night at Wrigley and certainly could be available for a Game 7.

Francona is well aware that no other available starter can approach Kluber's caliber. Take tonight's starter Trevor Bauer. Although he finished 12-8, in August and September he was 5-4 with an ERA of 5.62. In addition, the guy has been pretty awful in the first inning where he's yielded 20 earned runs in 28 innings for an ERA of 6.43. He's also been ineffective in the third inning this season with a 6.11 ERA. If Francona leaves him in until the sixth inning, which is doubtful, his ERA for that frame is a whopping 7.25.

So the Cubs need to get to Bauer early, not only tonight but down the line if Bauer gets another start. And it would behoove the North Siders to gang up on any pitcher not named Kluber in this series.

Having said all this, in the LCS Clayton Kershaw, obviously in the same class as Kluber, shut out the Cubs in Game 2 but got bounced around in Game 6. That's what makes this game so interesting.

As I said on The Beachwood Radio Sports Hour #124 on Saturday, I learned from the Minnesota Twins' World Series championships that you only need two starters and a closer to get through baseball's playoffs. That's perhaps the biggest factor that makes playoff baseball different than regular season baseball - and why so many folks think the playoffs are a crapshoot that doesn't necessarily reward the season's best team. I'm still not so sure about that kind of analysis, because who's to say Cleveland isn't the best team right now, but this would be one argument to bolster the notion.

Plus:

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Bullpen Bollocks
Who do you trust in the Cubs bullpen right now? Justin Grimm and Hector Rondon stunk it up last night, and everyone except Maddon has learned you can't bring Aroldis Chapman in unless it's to start the ninth. Travis Wood has devolved to a left-handed specialist. Basically, you've got Mike Montgomery and Carl Edwards Jr., with Pedro Strop if you must.

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Posted on Jun 24, 2017

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