After ending the even-year domination of the San Francisco Giants in four games, the Chicago Cubs will host the Los Angeles Dodgers in what could be one of the most compelling championship series we’ve seen in quite some time. The Dodgers needed epic performances from Kenley Jansen and Clayton Kershaw just to get past Washington Nationals in Game 5 on Thursday night, but what transpired in D.C. has only added the intrigue surrounding the NLCS.
You won’t watch a single pitch during this series without a backstory unfolding. The Cubs are marching towards burying an array of ghosts (and goats), while Kershaw and Co. are looking to put recent playoff defeats behind them.
The Dodgers may have the best pitcher of his generation, but the Cubs have the convenience of lining themselves up for perhaps the most important series the franchise has played in 70 years. The Cubs dominated the regular season and are favored and they are carrying the weight of 108 years on their shoulders. You’ll be able to feel the angst at Wrigley Field from your couch.
It’s easy to say from behind a keyboard, but Northsiders should take a deep breath and enjoy the next week of baseball. It’s going to take a herculean effort from the Dodgers, and serious internal failure, for the Cubbies not to advance onto the 112th World Series.
It all starts with Jon Lester, who will start Game 1. The Dodgers struggle against left-handed pitching and Lester, who has a resume overflowing with postseason experience, will start twice in the first five games. L.A. hit just .214/.291/.333 against southpaws this season. In addition to Lester, the Cubs also have lefties Aroldis Chapman (15.53 K/9 since he was acquired) and Travis Wood at their disposal.
Kyle Hendricks, Jake Arrieta and John Lackey may be right-handed, but all three are capable of pulling a Madison Bumgarner when they take the mound. Hendricks could be the National League Cy Young winner after leading the league in both traditional (2.13 ERA) and advanced (188 ERA+) metrics. He’s also a tremendous fielder and isn’t prone to issuing free passes (2.084 BB/9), which lends itself to preventing unwarranted rallies like the one the Dodgers pulled off in the seventh inning of Game 5 against the Nationals.
Arrieta struggled towards the end of the season and his 2016 wasn’t nearly as dominant as his 2015, but you had to expect some numerical regression. He still allowed the fewest hits per nine innings (6.294) in the NL. He’s started walking more batters, but remains a no-hitter waiting to happen. Lackey, 37, is a better postseason pitcher than he gets credit for at this stage in his career. Over 131.1 innings, he has a 3.22 ERA, 103 strikeouts and he’ll undoubtedly give Joe Maddon respectable innings.
The Cubs scored 17 runs over four games against the Giants, but the offense was largely disappointing. In the early portion of the series, Chicago’s pitching delivered several timely hits. Dexter Fowler, Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell and Jason Heyward combined to go 8-for-75 (.106 BA) in the NLDS with no home runs, two RBI and 19 strikeouts. Yikes.
Despite those horrible numbers, Chicago advanced and L.A.’s rotation gets shaky after Kershaw, who may not even start until Game 3.
The one player who did hit as expected in the NLDS, Kris Bryant, mashed pitching with a .375/.412/.688 line. He led all NL players with 7.7 WAR this season after making significant improvements on what was a Rookie of the Year campaign in 2015. He reduced his strikeouts while increasing his power and recorded 14 DRS this season across every position aside from catcher and second base. He’s the ultimate swiss-army knife on a team that also employs Mr. Utility Ben Zobrist.
So bring on Clayton Kershaw and Corey Seager, raise Chase Utley and Carlos Ruiz from the dead, let Dave Roberts pitch Kenley Jansen for nine innings and let Justin Turner’s red hair run wild. Heck, bring a goat and Steve Bartman along too.
It doesn’t matter. The Cubs are going to the World Series.