We're back at Wrigley Field for at least one more baseball game of the 2017 season, and that's a good thing. It has been a wild ride for the Cubs, from a sub-.500 first half to a big second-half surge, to a heart-pounding National League Division Series against the Nationals and then an NLCS that has featured two Joe Maddon ejections, a walk-off home run, a controversial collision at home plate, an umpire admitting he blew a call, a player starting two games at shortstop after one start there all season, more Yasiel Puig facial expressions than an army of mimes, a John Lackey Face, a bases-loaded walk to a pitcher, a Chris Taylor "Oh, man, this guy can play" breakout on the national stage and now a Game 5.
The most important thing of the day: It's Clayton Kershaw starting with the opportunity to pitch the Dodgers into his first World Series and the first for the franchise since 1988. If you don't find that storyline compelling, then you're probably the kind of person who would skip the novels in English class and just read the CliffsNotes.
NLCS Game 5: Dodgers at Cubs (Dodgers lead 3-1)
Clayton Kershaw (18-4, 2.31) vs. Jose Quintana (7-3, 3.74), 8:08 p.m. ET (TBS)
The stakes: Simple, really. Kershaw has the chance to put that stamp on a memorable playoff performance. The perfect postseason won't happen, but going 11-0 felt like an impossible achievement anyway. "They're the world champ, and you know they're going to fight to the end," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said after the Cubs won Game 4. "I think the thing is you can't win them all. You're not going to win them all." The Cubs, however, do have to win all the games remaining in this series to have a chance to defend their title.
If the Dodgers win: They would get four days off before the World Series begins Tuesday at Dodger Stadium. That would mean Kershaw could start the opener on his regular four days' rest, although a likely scenario has Roberts starting Rich Hill or Yu Darvish in the opener and giving Kershaw an extra day of rest, lining him up to start Games 2 and 6 instead of 1 and 5.
If the Cubs win: If they beat Kershaw to extend the series, that would really put the hammer on the Dodgers, even with the series returning to Dodger Stadium for Game 6. It won't be easy, as closer Wade Davis threw 48 pitches in Game 4, so unless Quintana goes the distance, Maddon will be using somebody else to finish. The pitching matchups in L.A. would seem to be pretty even, with Hill versus Jon Lester in Game 6 and then Darvish versus Kyle Hendricks in Game 7 (assuming nothing crazy happens, like Lester pitching in relief).
One key stat to know: The Cubs have scored seven runs in four games. They've hit six home runs. All their runs have come on home runs, as one of the home runs was a two-run homer. Kershaw has allowed at least one home run in seven consecutive starts. Granted, in six of those starts he allowed just one home run; in the other, he allowed four. No matter how you slice and dice, Kershaw hasn't really dominated since his return from the DL, with a 3.80 ERA in eight starts.
So here's the stat, via ESPN Stats & Information: Batters are hitting .538 on the first pitch against Kershaw since his return on Sept. 1. Of the 14 hits he has allowed on the first pitch, four have been home runs. In Game 1, the Cubs swung at just three of 20 first pitches, the second-lowest first-pitch swing rate against Kershaw all season. On the other hand, the Cubs did force Kershaw to throw 87 pitches and he was gone after just five innings. Will the Cubs be aggressive, or will they once again try to run up Kershaw's pitch count and get to the secondary Dodgers relievers?
The matchup that matters most: Cubs pitchers vs. the strike zone. They survived eight walks and a hit batter in Game 4 as the Dodgers left nine runners on and hit into two double plays. For the series, Cubs pitchers have issued 26 walks while Dodgers pitchers have issued just four free passes. Give credit to Dodgers hitters for some tough plate appearances -- we've mentioned that they had the lowest chase rate of any team in the majors in the regular season -- but the Cubs aren't going to win this series if they keep walking so many batters.
The prediction: Kershaw vs. a Cubs offense that can't score except when hitting home runs. The Cubs are still hitting just .172 in the postseason. Maybe the 3-2 win in Game 4 will pump them up, and they'll certainly remember beating Kershaw at Wrigley in Game 6 last year. But the call here says Kershaw delivers six scoreless innings. Brandon Morrow and Jansen combine for the final nine outs, and the Dodgers clinch the series with a 3-0 victory.