The Cubs advanced to play in their third straight National League Championship Series, beating the Nationals in an epic, absolutely insane -- if not necessarily beautiful -- Game 5. They get a rematch with the Dodgers, the first LCS rematch in either league since the Phillies beat the Dodgers in 2008 and 2009.
A few items to consider heading into the series, which begins Saturday night:
Clayton Kershaw won't see the seventh inning.
We all know about Kershaw's postseason history of hitting a wall in the seventh. It happened again in Game 1 against the Diamondbacks. Leading 7-2, manager Dave Roberts sent Kershaw back out for the seventh, and after getting one out, he promptly gave up back-to-back home runs to light-hitting Ketel Marte and Jeff Mathis -- his third and fourth home runs allowed in the game. Given his performance in that game and his postseason history, it's going to be six and done for Kershaw -- no matter the score.
Even knowing that, and even knowing this is the best Dodgers team Kershaw has been part of, no player left in the postseason has more weight on his shoulders than Kershaw. Look what's happened to the other big-time aces this year: Corey Kluber had two bad starts (he may have been injured); Chris Sale had one rough start and then faltered in relief; and Max Scherzer had a great start and then also faltered in relief. Only Stephen Strasburg carried over his domination from the regular season. Pitching in October is a different animal than April through September.
The Dodgers have a big advantage in Game 1.
Kershaw will be starting with plenty of rest, but in the final two games of the Division Series, Cubs manager Joe Maddon churned through Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana. That likely leaves No. 5 starter John Lackey, who gave up 36 home runs in 170 innings, to pitch the opener. Closer Wade Davis pitched both games, including 44 pitches in the clincher, so you have to wonder about his availability. Other than Lackey, it's going to be an exhausted Chicago pitching staff for Game 1.
The big-picture concern for Maddon is the state of that bullpen. Carl Edwards had become the top setup guy, but he had a rough NLDS, allowing six runs over 2.2 innings as he pitched in all five games. He faced one batter in Game 5 and walked him; Maddon immediately went for the hook. Maddon used Lester for 3.2 innings in Game 4 -- even though the Cubs were up in the series -- which seemed a bit of an indictment of the trust he has in the back end of the pen. The guess is if the Cubs are to steal one of the first two games, they're going to need some big outs from Justin Wilson, Brian Duensing and Pedro Strop.
Meanwhile, Roberts has figured out his bullpen.
Heading into the postseason, the big concern for the Dodgers was the middle relief situation in front of closer Kenley Jansen and Brandon Morrow, who emerged as the top setup guy. Roberts had a masterful game in Game 3, a strong indication of what he'll do moving forward. He used Tony Cingrani in the sixth to face lefty David Peralta. He then brought in Morrow to face the heart of the Arizona lineup -- Marte in the sixth and then Paul Goldschmidt, J.D. Martinez and Jake Lamb in the seventh. Kenta Maeda then faced the bottom of the order in the eighth and Jansen closed it out.
An important note there: Maeda had a dominant inning, with his fastball hitting 95 mph, much harder than he throws as a starter. He absolutely looked like a weapon. Now, with his slider as his big wipeout pitch, he has had sizable platoon splits, so Roberts will use Maeda only against righties or a situation where two of the three batters he's going to face are right-handed. The key is the flexibility with Morrow to face the meat of the lineup, having two lefties in Cingrani and Tony Watson to face the lefties who won't get pinch-hit for and then Jansen's ability to go more than three outs when necessary.
The Dodgers are going to grind out at-bats.
If you saw the game when the Dodgers beat Zack Greinke, you saw what this offense can do when it's locked in. The Dodgers led the majors in chasing the fewest pitches out of the zone, a pretty remarkable achievement for a National League team. Greinke thrives on getting batters to swing out of the zone, but the Dodgers did a nice job laying off those pitches and hitting 21 foul balls, running up Greinke's pitch counts before finally hitting home runs on his 98th and 105th pitches of the game.
Cody Bellinger and Corey Seager are the young studs, but Justin Turner is the heart and soul of this lineup. We all know how he changed his swing to transform himself from utility infielder to All-Star third baseman, but he found another way to improve this season, adding not striking out to his résumé. In 2016, he had 2.2 strikeouts for every walk; this season, he had more walks than strikeouts and was the second-toughest hitter to strike out. Against the Diamondbacks, he went 6-for-13 with a home run and five RBIs, and he has hit .377 over 21 career postseason games.
Another key is Yasiel Puig, who went 5-for-11 with a double, triple, four RBIs, two walks and just one strikeout against Arizona. He looked much more controlled at the plate compared to previous postseasons, when he had a career 34 percent strikeout rate. If he can keep producing disciplined plate appearances, it makes the lineup that much deeper beyond Seager, Turner and Bellinger.
Albert Almora is a key guy for the Cubs.
With Kershaw, Rich Hill and Alex Wood, the Cubs will likely see three lefty starters, along with Yu Darvish. Maddon moves guys all over the place, but against lefties that means Almora in center field, Ben Zobrist to left and Kyle Schwarber to the bench. That's not necessarily a bad thing. The Cubs lose a lot in the power department, but an Almora/Zobrist defense is better than a Jon Jay/Schwarber defense. It's a small sample of 125 plate appearances, but Almora did hit .342/.411/.486 against lefties.
It actually may be difficult for Maddon to make Schwarber's presence felt in the series. Since he and Zobrist don't play center, Almora's platoon partner would be Jay or Ian Happ, so if a righty comes in, one of them is the more likely pinch hitter -- otherwise you're using two guys off the bench. But if Schwarber is reduced to a late-inning pinch hitter for a pitcher or somebody else, there's a greater chance he will see Cingrani or Watson out of the pen, and he hit just .171/.306/.341 against lefties.
Defense will matter.
The defense across the board in the first round was atrocious. Both Game 5 losers -- the Indians and Nationals -- hurt themselves in the clinching game with some shoddy play, and even the Cubs had a four-error game earlier in the series (which they won).
Watch the catchers. We saw Willson Contreras' ability to pick off runners at first base when he nailed Jose Lobaton in the controversial replay overturn. Roberts has two good catchers, Yasmani Grandal and Austin Barnes. Grandal is one of the best pitch-framers in the business, but struggled at the plate the final two months (.187/.281/.403) and Barnes started two of the three games in the Division Series.
Anthony Rizzo vs. Dodgers lefties.
These showdowns are going to be fun. Rizzo doesn't really have a platoon split and hit 10 home runs off lefties (only Bellinger had more left-on-left home runs). Rizzo doesn't try to do too much with runners on base, hitting .283/.416/.531 with men in scoring position, and he's a rare hitter today who will choke up with two strikes and try to get the ball in play. Last postseason, Rizzo didn't necessarily dominate, hitting .277 with three home runs and 10 RBIs in 17 games, but he seemed part of every crucial Cubs rally, whether with a hit, walk or hit by pitch. If the Cubs advance, it's probably because he managed to get on base against Kershaw, Hill & Co.
Prediction: Kershaw's four-homer game certainly creates the concern about whether he's at the top of his game, but this team doesn't need him to carry it. Plus, the Cubs' bullpen may be an even bigger concern right now. After that awful stretch where they lost 16 of 17 games, the Dodgers are back on track. Kershaw delivers six great innings in the opener, they win the first two at home and take the series in six games.