We have seen, over the last couple of years’ worth of postseason games, managers take out starting pitchers earlier and earlier. It’s become nearly an epidemic this year, especially with the Cubs: Just one Cubs starter, Kyle Hendricks in the very first game of this year’s postseason, has pitched in the seventh inning.
Why is this happening? Because teams are attempting to shorten games by acquiring multiple closers. Of the four teams still alive in this year’s postseason, two of them have done that to great effect, and a third has that option, though they haven’t had to use it — yet.
The Yankees have three relievers who have been closers, either now or in the past: Aroldis Chapman, David Robertson and Dellin Betances. Betances took over the closer’s role briefly for Chapman when he faltered midseason, and Robertson was the team’s former closer, who departed via free agency, then returned via trade.
The Dodgers, too, have relievers who have closed in the past, including Brandon Morrow, Tony Watson and Tony Cingrani. The latter two were briefly closers for N.L. Central teams before being acquired by the Dodgers.
Will Harris and Luke Gregerson both were closers for the Astros last year, and Tyler Clippard has closed before, but they haven’t really needed those guys to shorten up games in the ALCS because starters Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander have gone deep into games, with Verlander throwing that magnificent complete-game win on Saturday.
The Cubs don’t have any of this, really. Of Cubs relievers on the NLCS roster, only Hector Rondon has previously been a closer, and his tenure in that role got so shaky in midseason 2016 that the Cubs went out and acquired Chapman. If the Cubs could somehow resurrect the 2015 version of Hector they’d be in good shape, but that pitcher appears long gone.
The Cubs’ bullpen got overextended in the tough five-game division series against the Nationals, and because Jon Lester was used in relief during that series, the starting rotation entered the NLCS in sort of a mess. Meanwhile, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts was able to have a well-rested rotation and bullpen for the NLCS, which allowed him the luxury of taking both of his starters out after five innings, or fewer. And he had the bullpen to back up those decisions. Meanwhile, Joe Maddon didn’t really have anyone he could trust to lock down innings other than Wade Davis.
Now, please note that I’m not suggesting that Joe Maddon mimic Roberts, because he doesn’t have the horses to do that, not this year, anyway. This year, especially in Game 2 Sunday, he really had no other choice but to go to his pen after Lester threw 103 pitches without finishing the fifth inning. Lester also threw 55 pitches four days before that, and four days before that threw 86 — so in a nine-day span he threw 244 pitches in three outings. No wonder he appeared gassed and had little command. If the Cubs can send the series back to Los Angeles Lester will go in Game 6, but he’ll have had five days’ rest by then.
The point here is this: It appears that for teams to have a serious chance to advance in postseason series going forward, they are going to have to build the sort of bullpen that the Dodgers and Yankees have. Right now, the Cubs don’t have that kind of pen. It’s something that Theo Epstein & Co. are going to have to address this offseason, in addition to going out and finding rotation pieces for the probably-departing Jake Arrieta and John Lackey.
In the meantime, we can hope that Monday’s day off will help the Cubs get the rest they need. The offense, in particular, looks exhausted. This is still a talented team and we have seen all year how they have followed pathetic offensive displays with run-scoring outbursts. They can still win this series, and it would help if the team would score some more runs and give the beleaguered pitching staff a break.