After that miraculous ninth-inning comeback Tuesday night to put away the San Francisco Giants, who were looking to yet again cash in on their even-numbered-year success, a dear friend texted me.
“After that 9th inning, I think it’s safe to crown them,” he said.
“Nope. Not a chance. Not until they win it,” was my reply.
Yes, the Cubs showed a lot of heart in turning away the Giants and their streak of 10 consecutive wins in elimination games, and in San Francisco no less, but, just like the last matchup, I’m nervous as they move on to the National League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers tonight at Wrigley Field.
Thursday night, I watched most of the deciding National League Division Series game between the Nationals and Dodgers, and I saw one team that scared me, and it wasn’t from Washington.
I don’t know why the Nationals aren’t exactly intimidating. I can’t put my finger on it. But I’ll tell you, the Dodgers petrify me.
Much like Chicago, L.A. showed their late-inning postseason prowess in turning a 1-0 deficit in the top of the seventh into a 4-3 win.
And Dodgers manager Dave Roberts did it with bold bullpen moves like bringing in his closer, Kenley Jansen, in the bottom of the seventh and taking him out for one of the all-time great starting pitchers in Clayton Kershaw, yes, Kershaw, who did his best Madison Bumgarner impression in getting the final two outs of the ninth to send Washington home early yet again.
It’s those kinds of daring moves that make this a great matchup with the always-innovative Cubs skipper Joe Maddon.
And Roberts had to be enterprising this season to keep afloat this team that faced a 60-day disabled list stint by Kershaw. How long would his ailing back keep him out? Was this the beginning of the end? And don’t forget the “As-the-World-Turns”-esque drama that surrounded Yasiel Puig earlier this season. Would he be traded? Could he ever return to the same Puig that burst on to the scene in 2013?
Even with the faces of the franchise not on the field, and numerous other issues, Roberts led his team to a 91-71 record and a National League West division title in his first season at the helm.
Granted, the San Francisco Giants, who at 57-33 had the best record in baseball at the All-Star break, were in free fall for the entirety of the second half. Still, Roberts held the Dodgers steady with a 40-31 record after the break, easily catching and passing their NL West arch rival, who posted a 30-42 record during the same period.
Cubs and Dodgers in 2016
But now, it’s the Cubs’ turn at those plucky and determined Dodgers.
During the 2016 campaign, the Cubs were 4-3 against their NLCS foes. Chicago took three of four at Wrigley Field, while the Dodgers took two of three at Dodger Stadium.
That mirrors how both played in front of their home crowds. The Cubs were darn-near unbeatable at the Friendly Confines at 57-24, good enough for a .704 winning percentage, but the Dodgers were nearly as impressive at 53-28, just four games off Chicago’s torrid pace.
Road records, of course, were the difference. LA was 38-43 away from Chavez Ravine, while the Cubs were a respectable 46-34.
The reason? Much like a football team’s running game and defense travel from stadium to stadium in the cold weather months, pitching and defense travel from diamond to diamond in the postseason, and those may prove to be the difference in this series.
Pitching and defense matter
As for pitching, Maddon is going with Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jake Arrieta and John Lackey for Games 1 through 4, identical to the Giants series. Three out of the four are fearsome, with both Lester and Hendricks getting Cy Young consideration and Arrieta the defending award winner. Plus, Lackey is a gamer with plenty of postseason experience.
As of this writing, Roberts is playing it a little close to the vest, naming only rookie Kenta Maeda as his Game 1 starter, while it is expected that Kershaw will be ready for Game 2, according to ESPN. Also, according to the network, Jansen is expected to be ready for Game 1, should he be needed, even after his 51-pitch effort Thursday night.
Fair warning, this is the part of the post that is heavy on statistics. Skip past this portion if you would rather jam a fork in your eye than slog through dry numbers. If that kind of thing floats your boat, keep reading.
Lifetime, the Dodgers are hitting .174 off of Lester with no home runs and 7 RBIs; off of Hendricks, they’re hitting .189 with 3 homers and 6 RBIs; Arrieta, .205, 2 homeruns and 5 RBIs; and Lackey, .230, no homeruns and 8 RBIs.
Though there’s little room for error, statistically, it gets easier for the Dodgers from Game 1 to 4.
No Dodger with more than 10 at bats against Lester has performed particularly well, so look for the Cubs to have the advantage there.
As for Hendricks, this is only his second full year in the league, so no one has more than 10 at bats against the right-hander. But given how he’s performed thus far this season and postseason, look for him to have a good game, as well.
Adrian Gonzalez is the only Dodger with more than 10 at bats against Arrieta, and he’s hitting a cool .286 against the cross-firing ace, but Josh Reddick is hitting .444 over nine at bats, so he also may play a big role in Game 3 in L.A.
In Game 4, look for Gonzalez to again have a big day against Lackey with his .350 average over 20 at bats.
As for who Chicago will see, this will be the first time Maeda has pitched against the Cubs, but off of Kershaw, they’re hitting .239 with 2 home runs and 12 RBIs.
Cubs center fielder and lead-off man Dexter Fowler may have a big Game 2 against Kershaw, with his .409 average over 44 at bats.
Defensively, no one was better than the Cubs this season. The Northsiders saved 95 runs above the average team. The next best? Houston at 60. The Dodgers? 41.
Nearly 73 percent of the balls put in play against Chicago resulted in outs, which was tops in baseball. The next best team was Toronto at a shade over 70 percent. The Dodgers? Just less than 70 percent at 69.9.
That’s an historic defense for the Cubbies, so says this CBS Sports article from September.
What does that all mean?
As mentioned above, pitching and defense will win you games on the road, especially if the weather — and bats — are cold, and given those stats, the Cubs seem to have the upper hand on both accounts. Though, to be fair, it remains to be seen who L.A. is trotting out for Games 2 through 4.
Yes, on paper, the Cubs should play pretty well this series. Again, I say should.
But will they? Our beloved Cubbies have found untold ways of breaking our hearts, as every fan knows, so it’s hard to say.
Like I said last week, if any team can break this curse, it’s this one, as currently constructed.
I want to believe. I do.
But I just can’t.
I’m still very nervous.