The last time the Chicago Cubs played a postseason game at Wrigley Field, they were eliminated in a series that only added to the star-crossed franchise’s frustrations. This time, they’re just trying to extend their season by a day.
The Cubs hope their top hitters get untracked Saturday as they look to keep their season alive in Game 3 of their NL division series against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
This is the first playoff game at Wrigley since Chicago lost Game 7 of the 2003 NL Championship Series to Florida. The Cubs returned home up 3-2 in that series, but an infamous eighth-inning meltdown in Game 6 cost them a chance to reach their first World Series since 1945.
If the Cubs don’t win Saturday, next year will mark the 100th anniversary of their last World Series title.
Chicago is in dire need of increased production from its top three hitters - Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez and Alfonso Soriano. The trio is a combined 4-for-27 (.148) with no RBIs in the first two games, and each hitter has struck out four times while the Cubs lost both games in Arizona.
“It’s probably trying to overdo. … You don’t need to hit three home runs in one at-bat. They pitch away, hit the ball to right center,” Cubs manager Lou Piniella said.
All three hitters have poor histories in the playoffs. Soriano is the best of the bunch with a .231 batting average in 40 career games. Lee is a .213 lifetime hitter in the postseason, and Ramirez is batting .208 during his postseason career.
While Chicago’s experienced hitters haven’t gotten the job done in this series, Arizona’s youngsters have done the most damage against the Cubs. Rookies Mark Reynolds and Chris Young and second-year shortstop Stephen Drew have combined to go 8-for-22 with seven RBIs.
Diamondbacks manager Bob Melvin doesn’t expect his young team to be intimidated by the atmosphere at Wrigley Field.
“You know, the younger guys kind of feed off some of our veteran guys, but we have so much youth here that I think they get caught up in the moment and don’t look too far ahead and the distractions that are involved with this,” Melvin said.
“It can be done,” Piniella said. “It would be nice to win three games in one day, but it’s not going to happen.”
The manager has already made one adjustment to his lineup, announcing he will insert veteran catcher Jason Kendall over rookie Geovany Soto. Soto was 1-for-6 in the first two games, including a two-run homer in the second inning of Thursday’s 8-4 loss.
Kendall is 11-for-31 (.355) in his career against Livan Hernandez, who will start Saturday for the Diamondbacks. Ramirez has also enjoyed success against the right-hander, hitting .385 (10-for-26) with four homers lifetime.
Hernandez began his career by going 6-0 with a 2.84 ERA in his first eight postseason appearances, including six starts. However, he hasn’t pitched in the playoffs since he went 0-2 with a 14.29 ERA in two starts during the 2002 World Series with San Francisco.
The veteran has been excellent in his career at Wrigley Field, going 4-3 with a 2.92 ERA in nine outings.
“The stadium is going to be packed and crazy and people screaming,” Hernandez said. “I think it’s great for baseball. I love it. It’s something I like, see the people screaming. It’s something I’m looking for.”
Hernandez went 11-11 with a 4.93 ERA this year, but did not face the Cubs. He is 4-1 with a 2.55 ERA in his last five starts against them.
Rich Hill will oppose Hernandez in his first career postseason start. He was solid in his first full season with the Cubs, going 11-8 with a 3.92 ERA.
“When this guy has got his curveball going and can alternate with his fastball, you look at his numbers, especially the last month or so, he’s pitched very well,” Melvin said. “We’ll take him like anybody that we go out there.”
The left-hander had a higher ERA at home than on the road, but went 6-2 with a 4.26 ERA in 15 outings at Wrigley Field.
“It’s just another game, really,” Hill said. “If you try to make it more than it is, yeah, outside the lines, it’s hyped up and it’s the playoffs, it is a big deal. But when you get inside the lines, it’s the same exact mentality that you’ve taken all year long, attack and be aggressive.”
Hill is 1-1 with a 4.13 ERA in four career starts against Arizona. He faced the Diamondbacks once this season, giving up two runs over six innings and not receiving a decision in a 3-2 loss on July 21.
Arizona’s bullpen has pitched 5 1-3 scoreless innings in this series. Diamondbacks relievers also yielded only one hit in eight scoreless frames when the club won the final two games of a series at Wrigley in July.