Cubs' offense perks up just enough to keep World Series hopes alive

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo (44) offers a smile after making a diving stop in the eighth inning during Game 5 of baseball's World Series at Wrigley Field in Chicago on Sunday, Oct. 30, 2016.

    Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo (44) offers a smile after making a diving stop in the eighth inning during Game 5 of baseball's World Series at Wrigley Field in Chicago on Sunday, Oct. 30, 2016. Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 10/31/2016 12:02 AM

This year was supposed to be different.

And it was different, at least through the regular season and through most of the National League division and championship series.

 

But when crunchtime -- aka the World Series -- arrived last Tuesday in Cleveland, the Chicago Cubs' offense shifted back into 2015 mode. In other words, it stalled.

Last season, the Cubs led the majors in strikeouts by a wide margin, going down swinging or looking 1,518 times.

The Cubs still managed to make the playoffs as a wild-card team and the offense made enough contact to get past the Pirates and Cardinals in the first two rounds.

In the NLCS, the Cubs scored just 8 runs in 4 games and were swept by the Mets. They hit just .164 in the series and struck out 37 times in 128 at-bats.

Considering they were coming off five straight losing seasons, the Cubs' offense was almost expected to slip and fall at some point in the 2015 playoffs.

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But after so many young hitters gained invaluable postseason experience, and after the Cubs signed patient, veteran free-agent hitters Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward, this year was supposed to be different.

Maybe it will be.

Trailing the Indians 3 games to 1 heading into Game 5 Sunday night at Wrigley Field, the Cubs scored just 7 runs and were batting a minuscule .204 in the World Series with 39 strikeouts in 137 at-bats.

From Kris Bryant (1-for-14) at the top of the lineup to Javy Baez (2-for-17) down below, hits were hard to come by, much less runs.

"Offensively, we have to generate more consistent contact," manager Joe Maddon said before the Cubs beat the Indians 3-2 Sunday night to force a Game 6 Tuesday night in Cleveland.

The Cubs made plenty of contact in the fourth inning, scoring all 3 runs on 5 of their 7 hits for the game. For now, that will have to do.

"We're still here, right?" leadoff man Dexter Fowler said. "It's win or go home. We've got two more, we've got to win both of them or we're going home. We're excited, we're up for the challenge and until the season's over we're going to keep fighting."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The Cubs trailed the Dodgers 2-1 in the NLCS after being shut out in back-to-back games. The outlook was bleak, but they won three straight while scoring 23 runs and moved on to the Fall Classic.

They only scratched out 3 runs against the Indians Sunday night, but Bryant came alive with a solo home run to start the scoring, Addison Russell woke up and Anthony Rizzo showed he might be heating back up again as well.

In his last game at Wrigley Field before he retires, it was only fitting that catcher David Ross's sacrifice fly in the fourth scored what proved to be the deciding run.

"I was focused on the game and really not thinking about what all is going on," said Ross, who was feted by Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder during the seventh-inning stretch. "We'll enjoy this win and it's nice to give these fans something to cheer for. Nobody was talking about getting to Cleveland. Everybody was talking about tonight when we walked in here today.

"I think that was a nice focus. We focused on trying to get guys on base and get to (Indians starter) Trevor Bauer and we did that really good, and then the momentum kind of switched our way."

• Follow Scot's baseball reports on Twitter @sgregor.

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