Witness the Cubs in the first two games of their National League Division Series against Arizona, chasing one offspeed pitch after another en route to striking out 23 times in 67 at-bats. A dangerous team, one capable of pounding the long ball, Chicago has been neutralized by a steady diet of curveballs, sliders and changeups thus far -- many of them out of the strike zone.
And who lurks next? The junkiest of right-handed junkballers: Livan Hernandez and his never-ending array of take-a-little-off here and change-speeds there. The Cubs need to figure out an answer, and fast, or they'll soon be done for the winter.
The Diamondbacks, naturally, won't cop to having a particular philosophy of avoiding the hard stuff against sluggers Alfonso Soriano, Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez -- who are a combined 4-for-27 so far. But there's no doubt that's what they've been doing. Soriano knows it, and he's not the only one.
"They throw a lot of breaking balls, and I have to make an adjustment and be more selective at home plate," said Soriano. "Saturday, I have to get a better idea at home plate."
As for what Chicago can do about it, that's less obvious. Soriano has no desire or intention to look for the breaking stuff. He just wants to lay off it when he sees it. But if the Arizona pitchers keep getting two-strike counts on him and his cohorts, it's much tougher to let those pitches go by.
"I think to be successful on the offspeed you have to get ahead, and you're able to expand," said Doug Davis, who struck out eight on Thursday night -- all of them on curveballs or changeups. "I had a decent curveball. I threw it early for strikes early in the game, and then when it got around the fourth or fifth inning, I was able to expand it and get swings."
Davis was able to do two different things with his curveball on Thursday. He threw it for strikes earlier in the count, then out of the strike zone later. It was a potent combination. On Wednesday, in Game 1, teammate Brandon Webb mixed his pitches up much more than usual. Known almost exclusively for his devastating sinking fastball, Webb mixed in breaking balls and changeups. He got ground balls with his sinker, and strikeouts with his other pitches.
Meanwhile, Davis had the Cubs so turned around with his offspeed stuff that when he did throw a fastball, they had a hard time taking advantage. He left some heaters up and over the plate, but often didn't pay a price for it.
In the two games of the series thus far, Arizona starters have fanned 17 Cubs in 12 2/3 innings. Fifteen of those K's have come on offspeed pitches of one stripe or another. The Diamondbacks bullpen has relied on its usual hard stuff, and had success. But the starters have stuck to a consistent regimen of junk, and it's working.
And that sets up perfectly for Hernandez, who throws fewer than 60 percent fastballs on a typical basis -- as opposed to Davis and Webb, who normally both come close to 80 percent fastballs. Hernandez takes back the word "crafty" from left-handers, pitching with guile and location more than power.
He'll be looking for that aggressiveness, hoping to help turn it into overaggressiveness and finish off the series. Indications thus far are that he'll succeed.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less