LOS ANGELES -- An overturned call at home plate in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series between the Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Dodgers might get the headlines, but it shouldn't overshadow the emerging storyline of the defending champions in the 2017 postseason: Their bullpen stinks.
It was bad in Round 1 against the Washington Nationals, and it has carried over to this series as Chicago's 2-0 lead and then a 2-2 tie turned into a 5-2 victory for the Dodgers after Cubs starter Jose Quintana was pulled after only five innings.
"I thought he'd had it," manager Joe Maddon said after the loss. "Emotionally, he was pretty much drained at that point. The couple walks were indicators of that, right around 90 pitches after five, that's a pretty heavy load. Based on what he's been coming off of the last couple days, I thought it was the right time to get him out."
Quintana had given up two runs in the fifth inning after walking two batters, but that, along with two hits, was all the damage he had incurred. Considering the 6.75 ERA compiled by the Cubs' bullpen in the division series, perhaps one more inning from Quintana was the better call.
The left-hander thought so.
"I tried," Quintana said of talking Maddon into staying in the game. "I always try. He's the boss and I respect that. ... All pitchers try to keep going. I have all [the] confidence in him and I respect the decision. We are a team. It's not about me."
Quintana didn't arrive in Los Angeles until 10 p.m. local time Friday because his wife became ill on the team plane on the trip from Washington overnight Thursday. His wife is OK, but maybe Maddon had it right about Quintana being emotionally spent. Besides, even if Quintana pitches the sixth inning, the Cubs still needed three shutdown frames from the bullpen. Maddon can't even get one these days.
Rondon had just been added to the postseason roster after being left off for Round 1. That can be viewed as a good thing or a bad one considering the rest of the bullpen was taxed -- but then again, Rondon hadn't pitched in a while. With the score tied 2-2, he promptly gave up a home run to Chris Taylor on a 97 mph fastball down the heart of the plate.
"Just missed the location," Rondon said. "The ball ran a little bit to the center. When you miss, they make you pay."
Was Rondon the right choice? These days, Maddon can't win either way. Perhaps he should lean on October veteran John Lackey a little more; he entered the game Saturday after most of the damage was done. It was his first appearance of the postseason, but considering his experience -- and the daily meltdowns on the relief staff -- perhaps Lackey's role should increase.
At the same time, Montgomery's workload might need to be reduced, as the lefty is off to a horrible start to his October. He was asked to keep Chicago's deficit at one run Saturday, but a 3-2 lead for the Dodgers ballooned to 5-2 after Montgomery entered. He has given up eight hits, three walks, two home runs and five runs in only two innings in the postseason. Saturday's stint lasted an inning and included four hits and a free pass.
"I just have to make better pitches," Montgomery said. "I haven't been commanding the ball the same way I want. That's part of the game. We're going up against good players that are going to take advantage of your mistakes."
Walks continue to haunt the entire pen, a carryover from the second half of the regular season. Cubs relievers averaged 4.9 walks per nine innings after the All-Star break -- the highest rate in baseball. So far in October, they've issued 29 walks, most of any team, despite the New York Yankees having played two more games.
"It's tough," closer Wade Davis said. "With all the adrenaline out there it's tough to keep your emotions under control and make pitches and think freely at the same time."
Davis didn't participate in Saturday's Game 1 partly because the Cubs were losing and he had thrown 44 pitches in Game 5 against the Nationals on Thursday. He was needed in that way because the rest of the bullpen is simply unreliable right now. Davis is hoping that changes. Cubs fans everywhere must feel the same.
"It's a lot easier to forget the day before in the postseason because you're only worried about winning," Davis said. "There are no numbers that matter. I think it can be easy to turn the page on these types of games."
If the offense can't hit against Dodgers starters not named Clayton Kershaw, then it will also be scrutinized. But for now, the spotlight is on the bullpen.
Maybe Cubs relievers can turn the page to the next day, but will a new story be written for them, or is it more of the same in Game 2? With Jon Lester coming off a 55-pitch relief effort Wednesday, he might need some help come Sunday evening. Who will Maddon turn to? There's no good answer right now.