PHOENIX -- The Los Angeles Dodgers have punched their ticket to yet another National League Championship Series. This will be L.A.’s fifth attempt at winning the franchise’s 23rd pennant, a number that would move them into a tie with the Giants and Cardinals for the most in NL history.
However, as we know, recent history hasn’t been kind to the Dodgers when it comes to taking that last step toward the World Series. Since 1988, when Los Angeles last won a championship, the Giants have won five pennants and three championships, while the Cardinals have racked up four and two, respectively. Thus the Dodgers’ claim to historical bragging rights in the senior circuit has disintegrated.
After dispatching the upstart Arizona Diamondbacks in the NLDS, the Dodgers have never been better positioned to once again draw even in those historical standings. But the next step will be a doozy, whether it’s the Chicago Cubs or the Washington Nationals who emerge from the other side of the NL bracket.
With a 2-1 comeback win over the Nationals on Monday night, the Cubs took a 2-1 lead in the series. Whom should the Dodgers be rooting for? Dodgers manager Dave Roberts wouldn’t say after his team finished off Arizona. You wouldn’t expect him to.
“There is no preference,” Roberts said. “Both clubs are very good, very talented. So we’re going to have our hands full. We’re going to get back, celebrate tonight, get back home, and prepare for whatever team advances. They’re both great ballclubs and managed well.”
So we’ll consider the problem for him.
Three reasons to root for the Cubs
1. Recent history: This is wading into small sample territory, but the Cubs had all sorts of trouble scoring on the Dodgers during the regular season, when L.A. took four of their six meetings. The Dodgers posted a 1.71 ERA in those contests despite a start from Clayton Kershaw in which he gave up 11 hits and four runs in just 4⅓ innings. The Cubs scored just one run against the Dodgers’ bullpen, and that was off Sergio Romo, who was waived midseason. But again, this is small sample stuff.
2. Free passes: The Dodgers and Cubs ranked first and second this season in drawing walks. So if these teams meet again in the LCS, get ready to see some grinding at-bats. However, while the Dodgers were the second-stingiest team in baseball when it comes to limiting walks, the Cubs ranked just 22nd. Four of Chicago’s pitchers who sported double-digit walk percentages are playing prominent bullpen roles in the postseason: Carl Edwards Jr., Wade Davis, Pedro Strop and Mike Montgomery. Given the Dodgers’ ability to platoon at most positions with disciplined hitters, you really have to like the late-inning matchups against the Chicago bullpen.
3. Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg: Yeah, it’s a fear-based concern from the Dodgers’ perspective, but Scherzer was the National League’s best pitcher during the regular season and at some point during his six no-hit innings at Wrigley Field, it became pretty apparent his hamstring injury is not a lingering concern. If the Nationals survive the Cubs and Scherzer isn’t burned in a bullpen role, he’d be lined up for Game 1 at Dodger Stadium on Saturday.
Scherzer struck out 14 Dodgers there in a 2-1 Washington win on June 6. He looks just as vicious now.
Strasburg, meanwhile, has been on top of his game. Since the beginning of July, Strasburg has a 1.11 ERA. That’s so tiny I had to check it twice to make sure it was actually there. And you remember last season, when the Dodgers barely survived their NLDS series against Washington? Strasburg didn’t pitch in that series.
Three reasons to root for the Nationals
1. Recency: Simply put, the Nationals have not been firing on all cylinders for quite some time. OK, there were injuries, not the least of which was Bryce Harper's. Still, as of Aug. 30, the Nationals were on pace to finish with a plus-184 run differential. They finished at plus-147. The slide was entirely due to offensive woes. On that aforementioned date, Washington was on pace to give up 676 runs. The final number was 672. But the offense was on pace to put up 860; it ended up at 819.
It was a season-long trend. Here’s the runs scored pace for Washington at the beginning of each month: May 1, 1,078; June 1, 914; July 1, 896; Aug. 1, 896, Sept. 1, 851, Oct. 1, 819. Is that all due to Harper?
His injury might've played a big role, but that’s still a bad trend line for a team about to take on the National League’s stingiest run prevention unit.
Of course, there's this: If the Nationals beat the Cubs, then perhaps that trend line has changed.
2. Rotation matchups: The Nationals have as dynamic a top two in their rotation as anyone in Scherzer and Strasburg. The Dodgers can hope to go toe to toe if the Game 1 matchup lands on Kershaw against Scherzer. You have to give Strasburg the edge over whomever the Dodgers would start in Game 2, even if it’s the good version of Yu Darvish.
After that, things swing wildly in the Dodgers’ favor. Gio Gonzalez has had a terrific season but has looked gassed during his past few outings. And the Nationals don’t have a great fourth option. Think about this: The Dodgers slotted Alex Wood at No. 4 in their NLDS series against Arizona. Wood was 16-3 with 2.72 ERA and made the All-Star team.
3. Bryce Harper: This may be poking the sleeping bear, but the fact of the matter is that Harper has rarely had great success against the Dodgers.
Harper’s career .712 OPS against Los Angeles is his lowest vs. any opponent save for four AL clubs he has faced only a couple times. His career OPS at Dodger Stadium is .683. The past three years, Harper has hit a combined .176 at Chavez Ravine. In last year’s NLDS, he was 4-for-17 without a homer against the Dodgers.
You get the idea: Harper doesn’t have a great history against the Dodgers.
Still ... you wouldn’t want to wager your house that this is going to continue forever. Plus, when you look at the Dodgers’ roster, Harper presents a late-inning dilemma. Lefties Grant Dayton and Luis Avilan are ailing, though Avilan is working toward a possible return. The Dodgers picked up Tony Cingrani and Tony Watson at the trade deadline, and they’ve mostly been fine.
None of these options is an ideal solution for Harper in a high-leverage, late-game at-bat when it’s too soon to call for Kenley Jansen.
Let’s face it, in this year’s postseason as much as any in recent memory, there are no gimmes. The Dodgers will be tested no matter who emerges from the Chicago-Washington series. That said, if I’m Roberts, I want to see the Nationals.
Bottom line: The Cubs have more quality options, better defense and a tremendous recent track record in the postseason. The Nationals have the star power, but so do the Cubs, and the Dodgers have a decided advantage at more roster spots against Washington than they do against Chicago.