After Mets KO Arrieta, Maddon's punchless Cubs need magic at Wrigley

NEW YORK -- Some teams dress in dead silence after they fall behind 2 games to 0 in a postseason series. And then there are Joe Maddon's Chicago Cubs.

That song they heard blaring in the manager's office Sunday night, after their 4-1 loss to Noah Syndergaard and the New York Mets, was no death march, no plaintive ballad, no singing of the blues from B.B. King, Albert King or even Dave Kingman.

It was -- what else? -- the theme from "Rocky."

"Gonna fly now. Flying high now." ... Aw, you know the rest. But even if you don't, take our word for it. Just another night of Joe Maddon doing his thing. Galvanizing. Motivating. Inspiring.

"I'm sure he'll be playing it on the plane," catcher David Ross predicted, as his teammates were filing toward the bus to the airport. "Heck, he might have Rocky himself on the plane, dressed up with boxing gloves."

But as amusing and uplifting as the manager's choice of soundtracks was intended to be, his team is going to need to do more than sing those Rocky lyrics if it wants to climb out of the mess it has made for itself, with the help of the hardest-throwing starting rotation in the history of the universe and the hottest October hitter in the history of the Mets' franchise.

In Game 1 of the National League Championship Series, it was Matt Harvey outpitching Jon Lester, as Daniel Murphy did his nightly Reggie Jackson impression. In Game 2, Murphy got to work on his trot again. But it was Syndergaard -- fresh off a relief outing Thursday in which he threw approximately 788 pitches in the bullpen while warming up -- who did something no one else has done in almost three months.

He beat the unbeatable man. He beat Jake Arrieta. Who knew that was even possible?

When we asked Ross if he could even remember the last time Arrieta lost a game, he was stumped. This is understandable, considering it happened on July 25. That was 85 days ago -- and, for Arrieta, an incredible 16 starts ago. And it took a no-hitter (by Cole Hamels) to beat him that day.

His team hadn't lost a single game he'd started in all that time, regular season or postseason. And it hadn't lost a road game he'd started since June 26. So when Arrieta was asked if this game surprised even him, his answer was short but not so sweet.

"I didn't pitch well," he said. "So yeah."

His teammates rallied around him, of course. Said the right things. Said them with total conviction.

"I'm not shocked," Ross said. "It's baseball."

But here's the truth: When Arrieta pitches in October, with his team already down a game and Jacob deGrom awaiting Tuesday at Wrigley Field, that's a must-win game. And when those must-win games slip away, they leave scars.

Not psychologically maybe. Not emotionally. Especially not on teams as resilient and strong-minded as this one. But realistically, they dig holes that are deeper than only one game -- because they mean it's going to be at least three more games before they get to run this guy back out there.

With those Lester and Arrieta starts in the rearview mirror, the Cubs have huge matchup problems in Games 3 and 4. It'll be Kyle Hendricks against deGrom, the Cy Young-slayer, in Game 3. Then comes Jason Hammel against the Mets' secret weapon, Steven Matz, in Game 4.

And given the short leash Maddon has lassoed around both of his next two starters, get ready for large doses of Trevor Cahill, Fernando Rodney, Clayton Richard and the rest of this team's reclamation bullpen parade. Don't say we didn't warn you.

But it isn't only the matchups that are trouble for the Cubs. Whether they want to attend math class or history class to learn this lesson, neither paints a picture they'll feel like hanging in the Art Institute of Chicago any time soon.

Of the 47 previous teams to lose Games 1 and 2 of a best-of-seven series on the road, only 10 have roared back to win. And how has it worked out for the Cubs the four previous times they lost Games 1 and 2 anywhere -- in the 1938, 1932, 1929 and 1910 World Series? You can probably guess. They haven't even won Game 3 in that situation since 1929.

So when that ugly math and depressing history was laid on Arrieta, he was in no mood to pretend this wasn't going to present a challenge.

"Well," the ace said, "we've got work to do."

Uh, they sure do now, thanks to maybe the strangest start of Arrieta's Cubs career. He walked to the mound, on a night more suitable for the giant slalom than a baseball game, wearing short sleeves, to pitch in front of a double-play combination (Starlin Castro and Javier Baez) wrapped in ski masks. And as if that wasn't bizarre enough, the first three hitters he faced then went: Curtis Granderson single, David Wright double, Murphy homer.

So kaboom, 13 pitches into Arrieta's night, it was Mets 3, Cubs 0. And as Citi Field erupted in frostbitten blue-and-orange elation, the Jake Arrieta historians were already hard at work, trying to digest what had just happened here.

For some pitchers, the first inning is their kryptonite. But he isn't one of them. He hadn't given up a single run in the first inning since May 29. That was 26 starts ago. He hadn't given up three runs in the first inning since July 30, 2010. That was the 10th start of his major league career. This was his 133rd.

But even though this happened to him on a night that felt like baseball at the North Pole must feel, Arrieta made it clear there wasn't going to be an excuse of any kind rolling off his tongue.

"The cold, that didn't bother me much," he said. "It's a different environment. That weather, it's different than we've seen all year. But you understand going in what the conditions are going to be. So you just try to prepare for that."

Frustrated as he was, he swatted away every potential rationalization for what had just happened: Short sleeves. Stiff breeze. His intense workload. Not interested in any of that.

He's up to 248 2/3 innings this year, counting the postseason -- by far the most of his life and 88 more than last season. And his fastball velocity was a tick or two lower in this game than it had been for most of the year. But again, Arrieta wasn't interested in giving in to any of that.

"I'm conditioned as good as anybody," he said. "Or better. Physically, if your velocity is down, you should still be able to make pitches. There's no guarantee you can throw 97 every night."

But lost in the dissection of his outing were the actual facts: After giving up those hits to the first three hitters, his line looked this way: five innings, one hit, eight strikeouts. And the only hit was an infield single by Yoenis Cespedes that drove in the fourth run he gave up.

So the truth is, this was a game defined by 13 pitches in the first inning. They just happen to be 13 pitches that will now hang over the rest of this NLCS.

"When you think about both games we played here, that's the difference in the game in both of them -- the first inning," Chris Coghlan said. "Things went their way. They got the big hit. And then they just held us in check."

As they had the night before, the Cubs hitters felt they'd hit enough balls hard, had a good enough game plan and got enough pitches to hit that they could have, and should have, scored more than one run. But "could-haves" don't count this time of year. What counts is 0-2.

But this is a tightly knit team that's heading home, and a team that had just finished ripping off a 12-1 streak over the 13 games before it arrived in New York. So while the prognosis may be grim, this is a group that doesn't expect a long stay in the intensive-care unit.

"I don't think of it as, 'We're down 0-2.' I think of it as, 'We've got Game 3 tomorrow,' " Coghlan said. "And the first team to win four games wins this series. So I don't feel any anxiety or pressure or worry or fear. It's just a matter of, they out-executed us and won tonight. Now we've got to go out and win Game 3."

To do that, they'll need all the Wrigley karma they can conjure up. Not to mention finding a way to score against a team that just beat the top three finishers in the 2015 Cy Young race in the span of nine days -- a feat never before duplicated by the way, not this time of year.

But there will be some Maddon Magic sprinkled in there, too. Flyin' high. Tryin' everything.

"That's just Joe's personality, and it's perfect for this group," Ross said. "He's not scared to lose. He's not scared of what's ahead of us. And neither are we."