Two of the NL's most historic franchises have seven games to settle the score, advance to Fall Classic
Both the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago Cubs had wild roads to get to the National League Championship Series.
The Dodgers, the most injured team in baseball this season, slugged their way to a fourth straight NL West title and an NLCS appearance by beating the Washington Nationals in five games in the NLDS. Manager Dave Roberts’ played the perfect hand in Game 5, tapping his closer, Kenley Jansen, in the seventh inning to protect a one-run lead. Jansen did his job, throwing a career-high 51 pitches to earn seven of the last nine outs needed. With two on, one out, and a one-run lead in the bottom of the ninth, Roberts called on his ace, the best pitcher of this generation, Clayton Kershaw, to get the final two outs — on one day’s rest. Kershaw delivered, get NL MVP candidate and postseason stud Daniel Murphy to pop out and then striking out Wilmer Difo to send the Dodgers to the next round.
The Cubs were darlings of the summertime, winning an MLB-best 103 games and the NL Central title by an amazing 17.5 games over the Cardinals. The Cubs survived the Giants and their even-year voodoo in the NLDS thanks to their pitching staff — no, not on the mound, but at the plate, as Cubs pitchers hit two home runs and drove in six (#PitchersWhoRake) in four games against San Francisco.
And of course, the comeback. Oh, that comeback! When it felt like the Cubs were up to their old October ways — three outs away from having to make the cross-country trek back to the Windy City for a decisive and stressful Game 5 — this team never panicked, unlike their fans. Down three, they scored four runs in the top of the ninth on a series of seeing-eye singles, walks, and bad bunt attempts, against a shoddy Giants bullpen. That collapse looked all too familiar to Cubs fans; it’s just that it wasn’t their team that was crumbling in the clutch. Curses? Humbug.
Los Angeles Dodgers vs. Chicago Cubs
|Game||Day||Time (ET)||TV||Pitching Matchup||Location|
|1||Sat., Oct. 15||8:00 p.m.||FS1||Kenta Maeda vs. Jon Lester||CHC|
|2||Sun., Oct. 16||8:00 p.m.||FS1||Clayton Kershaw vs. Kyle Hendricks||CHC|
|3||Tues., Oct. 18||8:00 p.m.||FS1||Jake Arrieta vs. Rich Hill||LAD|
|4||Wed., Oct. 19||8:00 p.m.||FS1||John Lackey vs. TBD||LAD|
|5*||Thurs., Oct. 20||8:00 p.m.||FS1||TBD vs. TBD||LAD|
|6*||Sat., Oct. 22||TBD||FS1||TBD vs. TBD||CHC|
|7*||Sun., Oct. 23||TBD||FS1||TBD vs. TBD||CHC|
Three Things to Watch
1. Rotation Questions
The Dodgers somehow managed to hang on to the NL West lead without Clayton Kershaw in the rotation for the entirety of July and August. A bad back sidelined the lefty ace for 10 weeks, but the Dodgers kept pushing on, using 15 different starting pitchers this season, an unheard of number for a team trying to win a pennant.
With the NLDS Game 5 heroics of Kershaw, pitching the ninth inning on one day’s rest, and pitching on short rest prior to that in Game 4, it is very likely that he won’t start until Game 3 of this NLCS, giving the Cubs a golden opportunity against Kenta Maeda in Game 1 and likely Rich Hill in Game 2 — both at Wrigley Field.
For the Cubs, Jon Lester takes the bump in Game 1. Lester has been outstanding this season, putting his name on top of the heap in the NL Cy Young race. Game 2 and going forward will be the big question. Kyle Hendricks, also a Cy Young candidate, was hit in the right forearm by a comeback line drive in Game 2 of the NLDS against the Giants, causing him to exit early. Hendricks is expected to pitch this series, but how effective he will be with an ailing throwing arm is unknown, especially for a pitcher who is all about command. If Hendricks can’t go in Game 2, the ball will probably be given to Jake Arrieta, last year’s Cy Young winner. Arrieta turned in a stellar first half of the season, but has since been hit and miss, often losing command of his fastball in the early innings in recent games. He turned in a quality start (6 IP, 6 H, 2 ER, BB, 5 SO) in Game 3 of the NLDS, putting the Cubs in position for the sweep before the bullpen imploded in the bottom of the eighth. Arrieta has come up big in the postseason (last year’s Wild Card game win in Pittsburgh), but he’s also had his issues in October (6.75 ERA in NLDS and NLCS last season). Another vintage performance from Arrieta on the mound is more what the Cubs need rather than production at the plate. Although his three-run home run off of Madison Bumgarner in the NLDS was mighty impressive (and put the Cubs up 3-0).
2. Baby-Faced Superstars
Hey East Coast, it’s time to get familiar with Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager. The little brother of Seattle third baseman Kyle Seager, Corey is the best player on the West Coast not named Mike Trout — and he’s only a rookie. In his first full season in The Show, Seager belted 26 home runs, 40 doubles, and slashed .308/.365/.512 with an OPS of .877. Oh yeah, he also played Gold Glove-caliber defense at shortstop — pretty good for 22 years old. Seager is just one of many important pieces in the Dodgers’ lineup, but assuredly the most important for the Cubs’ pitching staff to avoid.
Unless you’ve been hibernating for the last two summers, you know who Kris Bryant is. In just his second full season, Bryant is one of the most identifiable faces in baseball and he’s the best player in the National League as well as the newest MLB poster boy (Perhaps you’ve seen his Express commercials). Last year, Bryant burst on the scene as the NL Rookie of the Year, but in his sophomore season Bryant has separated himself from the pack (.292, 39 HR, 102 RBI, .939 OPS) and is currently the clubhouse leader in the race for the NL MVP. But all the talk of curses or added pressure as being “the guy” in Chicago hasn't phased KB. So far this October he hit the game-tying, two-run home run in Game 3 of the NLDS to keep the Cubs’ hopes of a sweep alive, and then started the series clinching four-run rally in the top of the ninth in Game 4.
This series is a perfect opportunity for MLB to showcase the brilliant young talent it has to offer, and it’s not just Seager and Bryant either. The Dodgers also have Justin Turner, Kershaw and Jansen, while the Cubs also feature Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, Addison Russell and Hendricks.
3. Battle of Depth
Both Roberts and Cubs manager Joe Maddon outsmarted their counterparts in the NLDS and now will match wits in the NLCS. Both managers have the lineups to put up runs and bullpens to keep the opposing offenses in check. But what could be the deciding factor in this series is how each decides to use his bench and utility players.
Maddon has a handful of Swiss Army knives, players who can play multiple positions in both the outfield and infield (Ben Zobrist, Willson Contreras, Chris Coghlan, Bryant, Baez) without sacrificing defensive integrity or pop at the plate. In the other dugout, the Dodgers have a bevy of players with tons of postseason experience that are available for Roberts to play chess with offensive matchups. Yasiel Puig, Howie Kendrick, Josh Reddick, Carlos Ruiz, Charlie Culberson, and Andre Ethier could all be valuable assets for the Dodgers to keep up with the hard-hitting Cubs offense.
The Dodgers are one of the more well-rounded teams in all of baseball. They do everything just a little bit better than a good team and nothing too poorly that they have any glaring weaknesses. They’ve got a dangerous lineup, good enough starting pitching (with Clayton Kershaw healthy), an impressive bullpen, and are solid defensively. But for as well rounded as the Dodgers are, the Cubs are just a little bit better in every facet. They have the best starting pitching and defense in the NL, the deepest lineup, and a lights out bullpen. The x-factor in this series very well could be the matchup of the minds and philosophies between Dave Roberts and Joe Maddon, giving the Cubs a slight advantage.
This is shaping up to be a great series between to blue bloods of the National League. The only thing missing is Vin Scully.
Prediction: Cubs in 6
— Written by Jake Rose, an avid baseball fan who also is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)