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Cubs' offense stalls in Game 1 loss as wide strike zone hampers approach

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ST.LOUIS -- One Chicago Cubs player simply called it "bad." Others didn't want to say too much on the record about home plate umpire Phil Cuzzi's strike zone after Friday's 4-0 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 1 of their best-of-five division series.

Criticizing umpires usually doesn't help matters, but in a playoff series, a bad night behind the plate can really affect the Cubs at the plate.

"Any time a pitcher can execute and use the zone to his favor, it's tough," outfielder Chris Coghlan said after the game.

Translation: Cardinals starter John Lackey realized early that Cuzzi was calling a wide zone and used it to his advantage. Coghlan struck out looking on a borderline pitch in the second inning and went 0-for-3 in the game.

"You're always going to get upset when you don't get a call your way," Anthony Rizzo said. "He [Lackey] nitpicked and he got those calls."

That's not exactly calling Cuzzi out, but it certainly is painting a picture of a team that wasn't getting any breaks. Rizzo also struck out against Lackey and saw his career average drop to .067 versus the Cardinals' Game 1 winner.

"I have to tip your [my] hat to John Lackey," Rizzo said. "He didn't give myself one pitch to drive. At the end of the day, he beat us."

So it wasn't all about the umpiring -- it never is -- but borderline calls going against the Cubs at a higher-than-normal rate can have a wide-ranging effect on the offense. Moreso than most teams: The Cubs rely on plate discipline and working walks. It's important to who they are. They led the National League in free passes during the regular season, so they need to get the calls they expect from the men in blue.

"That's just something I really want to stay out of," manager Joe Maddon said. "I mean, from the side I voiced my opinion once. It's really hard to argue with an umpire with all that noise in the ballpark, so lest I had gone out there, I would have gotten kicked out. From the side, I saw what you guys kind of saw, but you can report on that as you choose."

That's not exactly saying Cuzzi had a great game, but it's not enough to get Maddon in trouble, either. Instead, let's look at data courtesy of Inside Edge scouting services: The Cubs had six strikes called on 47 pitches out of the zone. Of their six strikeouts looking, four came on pitches outside the zone. That's a big number. Meanwhile, the Cardinals saw two of 48 pitches outside the zone called for strikes, with one coming on a called strike three.

"I voiced my opinion a couple times, but apparently it was the same zone for both sides, and I really can't complain about that," Maddon said.

In any case, six of 47 called outside the zone against the Cubs is even higher than Cuzzi's normal percentage of pitches called strikes that aren't. He was around 10 percent during the regular season.

An even bigger issue than what you might perceive as a few balls called for strikes is what it does to the approach for Cubs' hitters.

"I think we had to expand our zone offensively to try to cover some pitches that we normally don't have to swing at in order to avoid strikeouts," Maddon said, "and the ball is put in play weakly because of that, so I think there was an advantage from the expanded strike zone regarding us not being able to make hard contact."

Added one Cub who didn't want to be identified, "It was really bad. I mean really bad. As bad as any all season."

But on the record, the Cubs had to walk a fine line. There's normal frustration in a regular-season contest, but in a short series, on the road, with a talented opposing pitcher, it's hard to swallow what is perceived as a bad day for whomever is behind the plate. In the clubhouse afterward, asking about the balls and strikes was typically followed by a long pause as players searched for the right words. Criticizing officials is frowned upon and can lead to fines.

"That's a tough question," Coghlan eventually said of Cuzzi's strike zone. "I'm just going to get into trouble if I say anything."

Simply put, a tough night for an umpire means a tough night for the Cubs. Once again, it changes their offensive identity.

"That's a good way to put it," catcher David Ross said.

It's as much as the Cubs would say, but their silence told plenty.