LOS ANGELES — In the wake of five National League Championship Series games that were as different as black cats and white rhinos, the Cubs have left us with a mystery.
Was that the real Cubs team in the two shutout losses to the Dodgers in Games 2 and 3? Or was that our boys in the victories in Games 1, 4 and 5, when they cranked out 26 runs?
‘‘That was us,’’ manager Joe Maddon declared of the latter onslaught.
The truth is probably somewhere in between because the Cubs are too good to lay goose eggs, but nobody can count on an average of almost nine runs.
Obviously, a huge part of the difference is the pitching the Cubs are facing. Hello, supreme master lefty Clayton Kershaw and solid, reborn lefty Rich Hill.
Those were the two Dodgers winners. They’re a far cry in veteran talent from, say, just-turned-20 Game 4 starter Julio Urias, whom the Cubs shelled.
So let’s say the Cubs’ bats are back. Let’s say that Kris Bryant has never gone away, that Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell are fine now, that Dexter Fowler and Javy Baez are doing their thing and that Ben Zobrist and the catchers will mosey along.
That leaves us with one issue, one that so far has been covered up by the sheer wealth of talent: Jason Heyward. His shocking and continued failure at the plate is now unnerving.
Heyward, 27, is a quiet, diligent worker much respected by his teammates. He’s a very large, lean and muscular man — 6-5, 240 — and his grace afield is mesmerizing. He runs down fly balls that lesser men would never get to, has a cannon arm and his length and athleticism make what he does in right field look easy. And making the difficult appear easy is the hallmark of all great athletes.
But he can’t hit.
This season has been a drop downward from his past performances. He batted just .230 with only seven home runs and 49 RBI this year, and he often looked completely overmatched. Being a left-handed hitter means he plays into the strength of the Dodgers, who have six lefty pitchers, including rookie Urias. Heyward went 0-for-5 in Game 4. He had an RBI, but he left three men on base. Meanwhile, his teammates were cranking out 13 hits and nine other runs.
Compare his stats this year to, say, 2012 with the Braves, when he batted .269 and had 27 homers and 82 RBI. Or his rookie year at age 20, when his first major-league at-bat was a monster three-run homer on Opening Day against — who else? — the Cubs.
Even last year with the Cardinals, he batted .293 with 160 hits, 13 homers, 60 RBI and fewer strikeouts than he had this year.
His youth and history and personality were precisely why Cubs execs Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer pursued him relentlessly, getting into a bidding war with the Cardinals and coming away victorious, signing Heyward to an eight-year, $184 million guaranteed contract.
That is, folks, more money than I, as a regular human, can comprehend. Heyward, basically, is guaranteed a $1.92 million check every month until 2023. No matter what he does.
No, money is not the fair measure of a man. But it says something about the expectations.
And an ‘‘out machine’’ is not what the Cubs had in mind. For now, Heyward has been tucked away, batting down in the sixth position or lower. Maybe you don’t notice him much, but baseball is a game in which everyone must contribute or the other team’s game plan starts to center around your weakness.
Heyward’s average was .083 in the NLDS; it’s .063 so far in the NLCS. He is 2-for-28 in the postseason with a walk, one RBI and nothing else.
Let’s say the Cubs make it past the Dodgers and face the Indians in the World Series. (Can’t believe I just wrote that.) Don’t you think the Indians will burn the midnight oil figuring a way to exploit Heyward’s impotence? Of course, they will.
Should Maddon bench Heyward against certain pitchers (Jorge Soler started for Heyward in Game 3, but Heyward came in later). For now, no. It would send a bad message to the regulars who have been through this hand-in-hand. But a slump can’t go on forever or it becomes something else. Failure.
“Any time you get shut out in back-to-back games, it’s not fun,” Bryant said. “But there wasn’t any panic. It was just a matter of time for guys to get it going and feel good about themselves.”
It sure would be nice if Heyward could feel good about himself at the plate again. The Cubs’ success might depend on it.
Follow me on Twitter @ricktelander.