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NLCS Preview: The Cubs Are Headed For The World Series

John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

The Cubs have not won a National League pennant since 1945. This is the year that changes.

The Chicago Cubs are an embattled franchise. That’s not news to anyone. They have not brought home a World Series title since 1908 and have not won a pennant since 1945. They have suffered embarrassing season after embarrassing season and heart-wrenching loss after heart-wrenching loss. Cubs fans have lived and died without seeing their team win a damn thing.

This series will serve as the beginning of the end for all the struggles that the Cubs have endured. This is the series where the Chicago Cubs start to establish themselves as one of the league’s premier franchises. If anyone wrote or said that sentence out loud anytime within the last 70 years, that person would be sent for psychiatric care. Now, it’s still mildly outlandish, but certainly not out of the realm of possibilities.

What shouldn’t be lost in all of the Cubs fanfare, though, is that Los Angeles have suffered in their own way over the last three decades. The Dodgers have not won a pennant since 1988. That’s not nearly as bad as what the Cubs have gone through, but it’s still quite a drought.

The Dodgers have also been through a lot of disappointing postseasons in recent years. This is the fourth NLCS for the Dodgers in nine seasons, and the first three did not go well. On top of that, Los Angeles has made several NLDS exits in the last decade, too.

If the Dodgers were to emerge victorious from this series, they would exercise many demons of their own. But this series is all about the Cubs. President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein is trying to one-up what he did with the Red Sox and lift a franchise that has not won a title in 108 years to a championship.

The “108 years” reference has been brought up repeatedly throughout this season, but it cannot be overstated. That is an unfathomably long time for a franchise to exist and not even just get lucky enough one time to stumble into a championship. The Marlins were created in 1993 and have won two World Series titles in the 23 years since. The Rays were born in 1998 and have won a pennant since then. It is absurd that Chicago hasn’t even won a pennant in about as long as the average life expectancy of people in the United States.

It has been a horrifying 108 years for the Cubs, but they have a decided advantage in just about every category against the Dodgers, and now the tragedy can finally begin to end.


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John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

Starting Pitching


Pitching Matchups

Game 1: Jon Lester vs. Kenta Maeda

Game 2: Kyle Hendricks vs. Clayton Kershaw

Game 3: Jake Arrieta vs. Rich Hill

Game 4: John Lackey vs. Julio Urias

Game 5*: Jon Lester vs. Kenta Maeda

Game 6*: Kyle Hendricks vs. Clayton Kershaw

Game 7*: Jake Arrieta vs. Rich Hill


It’s fair to say that the Dodgers have the best pitcher in this series. Was Clayton Kershaw perfect in the NLDS against the Nationals? No, but Los Angeles won each of the three games he appeared in and Kershaw pitched on one day of rest to close out the series. Kershaw is everything to the Dodgers, but after him things start to get a little murkier on the mound for L.A., and that gives the Cubs a decided advantage here.

Chicago is simply much deeper in starting pitching than Los Angeles. The Cubs will run out Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jake Arrieta, and John Lackey in that order for the first four games of the series. Their respective ERAs for the regular season were 2.15, 2.44, 3.10, and 3.35, and their FIPs were 3.20, 3.41, 3.52, and 3.81. To be able to run out four starting pitchers of that quality during the postseason is invaluable.

Hendricks was forced to exit his Game 2 start in the fourth inning after being hit in the arm by a line drive, but he appears to be completely fine and that’s important for the Cubs. He and Lester were ranked first and second in ERA in Major League Baseball, and Hendricks’ FIP was ranked fourth despite a K/9 of just 8.09. Chicago is loaded on the mound. The starters allowed just seven earned runs against the Giants in the NLDS, good for an average of less than two earned runs per start.

Again, the Dodgers do have Clayton Kershaw, and that comes with its advantages. As of the writing of this article, manager Dave Roberts had not announced his starting rotation plans outside of Kenta Maeda starting Game 1, so my projected rotation is just an educated guess. Kershaw starting Game 2 would mean he would have started Tuesday, received one day off, pitched in relief Thursday, received two days off, then will start again. That would be almost unheard of to ask of a starting pitcher, but not Kershaw. It wouldn’t shock me if, after starting Game 2, Los Angeles trots Kershaw out for Game 5 on three days rest if it is facing elimination.

But once you get past Kershaw, things get shaky. Maeda pitched poorly in his start against the Nationals. He allowed four runs, five hits, and two walks in just three innings of work. Rich Hill has not looked particularly convincing on the mound so far this postseason, allowing five runs over seven innings of combined work. And Julio Urias, although good in his relief appearance, is only 20 years old.

The Dodgers may surprise us all, and Kershaw might get on the mound and do Kershaw things three or four times during this series, but the Cubs definitely have a decided advantage in starting pitching for this series.


Edge: Cubs

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Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports


Offense


Projected Lineups


CubsDodgers
CF Dexter Fowler2B Chase Utley
3B Kris BryantSS Corey Seager
1B Anthony Rizzo3B Justin Turner
LF Ben Zobrist1B Adrian Gonzalez
SS Addison RussellRF Josh Reddick
RF Jason HeywardCF Joc Pederson
2B Javier BaezC Yasmani Grandal
C David RossLF Andrew Toles


This is another clear win for the Cubs in this series. They had one of the best offenses in baseball during the regular season and, unlike the Red Sox, that trend has continued through the postseason so far.

To be fair, Chicago was not as productive during the NLDS as it was during the regular season, but it was still more than productive to get the job done. The Cubs were second among National League teams in runs per game during the NLDS (behind the now-eliminated Nationals) and fourth including the American League. They also struck out the least of any National League team.


Probably more importantly though, they proved on two separate occasions how clutch they can be. First, after the bullpen surrendered a 3-2 lead in the bottom of the eighth of Game 3, Kris Bryant belted a two-run home run to knot the score at 5-5 and send the game into extra innings. The Cubs would go on to lose the game, but the eventual MVP did what MVPs are supposed to do: come up with the clutch hit when his team needs him most.

The best example of Chicago’s offensive clutch-ness, though, is obviously the ninth inning of Game 4. Down 5-2 and facing the prospect of heading back to Wrigley with all the momentum in San Francisco’s camp, the Cubs rallied.


Every part of this tenacious lineup came through during this rally. Bryant led off the inning with a single, Anthony Rizzo followed him with a walk, and Ben Zobrist brought home Bryant on a double to deep right. With runners on second and third and no one out, Willson Contreras came on to pinch hit and poked a perfectly-placed single into center field, bringing both runners home and tying the game.

After a failed bunt attempt by Jason Heyward and a throwing error by Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford that allowed Heyward to move to second, Javier Baez, for the second time in this series, drove home the game-winning run. The Cubs are formidable up and down the lineup card, and any one of them can play the hero on any given night. That’s what makes this team so dangerous. Even the guys coming off the bench can beat you.


The Dodgers lineup is talented in its own right. It was one of the better lineups in the National League this season, and it showed that it can take advantage of the opportunities presented to it. But it’s not as dynamic or consistently powerful as the Cubs lineup. Los Angeles isn’t going to be able to out-muscle Chicago in this series. The Cubs will only improve from here.

Edge: Cubs


Bullpen


Closers and Set-Up Men

Cubs: Aroldis Chapman and Hector Rondon

Dodgers: Kenley Jansen and Pedro Baez (and Clayton Kershaw?)


The first half of the season, the Cubs’ bullpen was their only tangible problem. But Epstain and company resolved that issue swiftly before the trade deadline. Since the All Star break, Chicago has had one of the best bullpens in the league with the second-best ERA, seventh-best FIP, second-best K/9, and the best WHIP. Acquiring Aroldis Chapman will do that.

But the bullpen struggled for a moment in the NLDS against the Giants. In Game 3, the Cubs’ relievers gave up three runs in the bottom of the eighth inning and relinquished the lead handed to them by Arrieta. The bullpen would later surrender the winning run in that game. Outside of that one glaring instance, though, the bullpen was solid, particularly Chapman.

In Games 1, 2, and 4, Chapman pitched three innings, allowed one hit, zero walks, and zero runs, struck out six, and recorded three saves. If the Cubs can get that type of performance out of their deadline acquisition, they will be enormously difficult to beat.

That said, the Dodgers bullpen has been tremendous for the most part, too. In 22.1 innings of work in the NLDS, the Dodgers’ pen allowed just seven runs, had a .173 batting average against, and struck out 28. Closer Kenley Jansen had a rough Game 3, allowing four runs over 0.1 innings, but was tremendous in his three other appearances, especially Game 5.

Jansen entered Game 5 in the seventh inning. The Nationals had just hit a two-run home run to get back in the game and swing momentum their way, and Jansen shut them down. He threw a career-high 51 pitches over 2.1 innings of work and walked off the mound a hero for Los Angeles as Kershaw trotted out of the bullpen.

The Dodgers may not need an effort that prolific out of Jansen to win this series, but he’ll need to be next to perfect every time he steps out onto the mound. The Cubs get the slight edge here because they do have a little bit more depth in their pen, but just barely. We shouldn’t underestimate Jansen’s ability to shut teams down in high-leverage situations.

Edge: Cubs, slightly

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Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Coaching


Managers

Cubs: Joe Maddon

Dodgers: Dave Roberts


I mean no offense to Dave Roberts because he is a fine manager, but Joe Maddon is clearly the best manager in this series.

Maddon has won a pennant with a team that was far less talented than the one he is currently managing. He has shown time and again that he knows the ins and outs of the teams he is facing and can exploit their weaknesses. He has been adept at managing his bullpen, he knows when he needs to coax players along or give them a shot in the arm, and he knows how to rally his team when it needs to most.

Los Angeles comes into this series a bit of a mess because of what it had to do just to get here, and because of that Roberts will be tasked with finding a way to fit all the pieces together to make it work. The rotation is not as pristine due to the use of both Hill and Kershaw in Game 5. He’ll have to decide when it’s actually best to get Kershaw into games and when he has to pull him. He’ll have to adjust his lineup to reflect each Cubs starter’s individual abilities.

For the Dodgers to pull this off, they are going to need Roberts to manage the series of a lifetime, and he might, but more than likely the wily Maddon will find a way to needle at all of L.A.’s issues and put his team in the best position to win every single game.


Edge: Cubs


Verdict


For the Dodgers to win this series, they are going to need to not only win every game that Kershaw starts, but find two more wins otherwise, and I just don’t see that happening.

The Cubs have a better lineup, a better bench, better starting pitching, and a better manager. They have home-field advantage and you can rest assured that Wrigley will be rocking any time the Cubs host a game. The Dodgers are good enough to make this series interesting, and I think they will, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if the Cubs did what the Mets did to them last year and swept their way to the World Series.

Prediction: Cubs in five

Edited by Julian Boireau.

SQuiz
Which starting pitcher led the Cubs in ERA during the 2016 regular season?
Created 10/14/16
  1. Kyle Hendricks
  2. Jon Lester
  3. Jake Arrieta
  4. John Lackey

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