LOS ANGELES -- There is no good reason to pick the Chicago Cubs in their National League Championship Series rematch with the Los Angeles Dodgers, especially after the Cubs’ grueling five-game NLDS win over the Washington Nationals, which ended early Friday morning 2,295 miles away.
But this a new generation of Cubs, and though they’re taxed, it’s hard to imagine they’ll go down easy.
"Right now, we're playing with that same kind of mental acumen and edge that I've seen the last two years," manager Joe Maddon said Friday after a long day of travel. "Right now, I think we're just playing in real time. Our guys wanted to win [Thursday] night."
But can the Cubs get back to the World Series with so much stacked against them heading into the best-of-seven NLCS showdown?
• After partying into the early morning hours on Friday, the Cubs' plane was diverted on its way to Los Angeles. A stopover in Albuquerque, New Mexico, because of a medical issue on board delayed their arrival to L.A. even longer. They touched down at around noon Pacific time, or just 29 hours before the first pitch of Game 1, and they have to adjust to a three-time zone difference.
• The Dodgers, meanwhile, have been off since Monday after sweeping the Arizona Diamondbacks in three games. They had time to set up their pitching staff in whatever order they wanted. They chose Clayton Kershaw followed by Rich Hill, Yu Darvish and Alex Wood.
• The Cubs had no such luxury as their pitching staff is in shambles. Jose Quintana will start Game 1 after pitching in relief in Game 5 two nights prior. Jon Lester might get the ball in Game 2 after throwing 58 pitches out of the bullpen in Game 4. We haven’t even gotten to the regular relievers yet: Closer Wade Davis threw 44 pitches to finish Game 5 and setup man CJ Edwards made five appearances in five games -- and struggled mightily in them.
• The Dodgers have home-field advantage for the second consecutive series, while the Cubs played in the Eastern time zone for two games, then two in Chicago in the Central time zone, then another back East before traveling to Los Angeles for Games 1 and 2 in the Pacific time zone. If they end up back in Los Angeles for Games 6 and 7, their body clocks will be screaming.
But more than anything, the Cubs are up against a better Dodgers team than the one that lost to Chicago in six games last postseason.
"They are different because they really overcame the inability to really work against lefties," Maddon said. "They made some nice moves. They are more balanced in that regard. They have lefties that hit lefties too, which make them more difficult. They always have a good bullpen. They have a specific plan regarding how they like to pitch."
Maddon had one thing in mind when referencing how the Dodgers will pitch the Cubs: high heat.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Maddon’s team hit just .156 and slugged .247 against the Dodgers this season in at-bats that ended in high fastballs. For comparison, the league averages on high fastballs are .265 and. 458 -- which is about what the Cubs hit against that pitch versus everyone but the Dodgers.
"Our counterattack is to either not swing at it or really force them down," Maddon said. "But if they're executing their pitches, they're going to be tough, period. I don't care what anybody says. It's true. It's true. It's a great way to pitch."
Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber combined to go 1-for-18 in those situations, while Anthony Rizzo and Albert Almora Jr. were 7-for-12. Look for Almora, a right-handed hitter, to get a lot more playing time in the NLCS since the Dodgers will start three lefties in the series.
"They have Mr. Kershaw, obviously, and now they have Darvish," Maddon said. "Listen, we just went through [Stephen] Strasburg and [Max] Scherzer. I mean, that's no day at the beach, either.
"When you get to this time of the year, you really have to be prepared to beat good pitching, which they have."
The Cubs did just enough on offense to beat the Nationals even though they went 1-for-11 with runners in scoring position in Game 5. How they scored nine runs in that game will be discussed for years to come. As for Cubs pitching, Maddon needs to find some arms who can throw strikes. The walk rate of Cubs pitchers in the NLDS, and in the second half of the season, was atrocious. And guess which team was the only one to draw more free passes than the Cubs this season? The Dodgers definitely will be patient if opposing pitchers start nibbling.
And Maddon was right about the Dodgers’ adjustments against lefties. It was their weakness last year, but in 2017 they led the NL in home runs against lefties and ranked third in on-base percentage. Cubs right-handed starter John Lackey should be considered for a bigger role in this series. He’ll throw strikes, and if the conditions are right, it might be tougher to hit a long ball off him than it was earlier in the season.
One thing is for sure: The deck is stacked against the Cubs even if their bullpen is pitching well. But all it takes is one win this weekend, and they can change the prevailing narrative: This is the Dodgers’ series to lose.
Right now it looks that way, but how quickly the Cubs can recover from their 12-round bout with the Nationals will be a key factor in the current fight. The defending champions already have proved that you can’t count them out.
"I can't say they're inexperienced anymore," Maddon said. "I can't say that. I can't use that line anymore. We're young, but we're not inexperienced. I anticipate the same kind of mental effort, regardless of being stuck on the runway [and] getting in late.
"Whatever it takes, our guys are ready to play. Kershaw's good, but so are our guys too."