Cubs vs. Dodgers National League Championship Series Preview and MLB Playoff Picks

The Los Angeles Dodgers looked like the obvious National League representative in the World Series during their 43-7 run midseason. However, the team stumbled towards the finish line, casting doubt on its ability to overcome the postseason demons that have kept them from reaching the Fall Classic despite repeated NL West titles. The last 10 games of the regular season and breezing through the Diamondbacks in the NLDS has helped them look like favorites once more. To get to the World Series, however, Los Angeles will have to go through the same Chicago Cubs team that bumped them from the postseason last year and went on to break the Curse of the Billy Goat.

Starting Pitching Matchups

Joe Maddon used Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana between Games 4 and 5 of the NLDS on Wednesday and Thursday night. As a result, somebody will have to come back on short rest unless John Lackey gets his first appearance of the postseason.

Lackey has plenty of postseason experience, but he hasn’t thrown in a while. If Chicago doesn’t want to give him the ball in Game 1, the most likely option would be Quintana. He did get into Game 5, but threw only 12 pitches in relief.

The availability and order of the rotation for this series is a question, but the names are known. Assuming Lackey isn’t starting, we likely have Quintana in Game 1, then Lester toeing the rubber in Game 2. The southpaw threw only 55 pitches in Game 4 of the NLDS. That leaves Arrieta and Hendricks to pitch the first two games when the series shifts back to Wrigley Field.

The starting pitching is what regressed for the Cubs between last year and this year, and that’s the reason the team wasn’t as dominate as experts expected.

That said, this team did win at a .662 clip in the second half. It’s no coincidence that the team’s second half rotation performed much better than the first half.

The addition of Quintana was part of that. The southpaw went 7-3 with a 3.74 ERA after joining the Cubs. He was great in the NLDS and showed in the World Baseball Classic he can handle the big stage.

Arrieta threw very well down the stretch, returning to his Cy Young form. His injury, however, is still a concern after he went only four innings in Game 4 of the NLDS.

Hendricks is another arm that got better in the second half. He’s not a strikeout guy per se, but he locates well. While his fastball rarely breaks 90, his movement keeps the contact weak.

Lester is a veteran. He knows how to win, but his lack of a pickoff throw is still a weakness the Dodgers will try and exploit. Lester also had his worst season since 2012 with a 4.33 ERA, but his relief appearance was dominant on Wednesday.

While the Cubs’ rotation is still in question, the Dodgers will start Clayton Kershaw in Game 1. Alex Wood was slated to start Game 4 of the NLDS before Los Angeles clinched the series in three games. He’s the likely Game 4 starter again while Rich Hill and Yu Darvish will start the other two games.

Dave Roberts hasn’t revealed which of Hill or Darvish will start Game 2.

Darvish is the team’s No. 2 starter and pitched remarkably in the Game 3 clincher over the Diamondbacks earlier in the week, but he may get Game 3 again to allow Hill to pitch at home where he’s had much greater success.

Kershaw still must work through some postseason struggles. He’s been very pedestrian in October with an ERA a couple runs higher than his career mark in the regular season.

At this point, some of the playoff issues must be mental for Kershaw. He’s thrown well in most games but has fallen off at the end of the outing. Roberts needs to be a bit more careful with his ace and pull him a bit earlier than he normally would in a game in June. Ending on a good note in Game 1 could go a long way in helping him in his later starts in the series.

As for Hill, Wood and Darvish, it’s Darvish with the worst ERA. He went 4-3 with a 3.44 ERA after joining the Dodgers. Hill and Wood each made 25 starts with 3.32 and 2.72 ERAs respectively.

Darvish is the one with the best performance this postseason. He stifled a powerful Diamondbacks lineup and showed the ace-like stuff that Los Angeles was hoping it was getting at the trade deadline.

Positional Breakdown

For as good as the Cubs’ offense was in 2016, the unit was better in 2017. The power surge across the league didn’t skip Chicago. The Cubs got at least 20 home runs from six different players. Meanwhile, others like Albert Almora Jr. and Jon Jay batted nearly .300 while offering great outfield defense.

We saw both Jay and Almora start the NLDS Game 5 against the Nationals with Kyle Schwarber and Ben Zobrist on the bench. Those two along with Jason Heyward gives the Cubs their best defensive alignment on the grass. These five players, along with Ian Happ,  give Joe Maddon the versatility to play the best matchups.

Like the Cubs, the Dodgers are another team that will send out a variety of different lineups based on matchups.

Batting second through fourth for the Cubs are Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras. Those guys are not interchangeable, but the rest of the order is. We saw Almora start the game batting fifth on Thursday night before getting lifted for a pinch hitter.

That fifth spot in the lineup has been variable for the Dodgers, too. For an offense that has been as good as Los Angeles has been, the fifth spot in the order has been a surprising black hole.

Last year, southpaws were a huge issue for the Dodgers. While lefties can still find success, L.A. has done well improving in that area. Kike Hernandez is a force against lefties and will be a central part of the order against Lester and Quintana. Justin Turner, Corey Seager, Chris Taylor, Logan Forsythe and even Cody Bellinger have done well against lefties this year, too.

In their first three postseason games, the Dodgers got good production against lefties and righties with guys up and down the order producing. Austin Barnes had a nice series and a big homer. Turner and Yasiel Puig combined for nine RBI in three games.

In Chicago, both Almora and Jay got on base. Addison Russell had a couple big hits and four RBI. This lineup goes through Bryant and Rizzo. Both Bryant and Rizzo were 4-for-20 on the series, though Rizzo did have a few big hits including a home runs, but the duo struck out 16 times.

Bullpen Analysis

The bullpen was the biggest perceived potential weakness for both the Dodgers and Cubs heading into the postseason. It showed to be a bigger issue for Chicago in the NLDS.

Maddon called on Carl Edwards, Jr. in all five games, but got only 2.1 innings out of him as he allowed six runs and walked four. His command in and out of the zone was a huge issue. Edwards was a key man setting up Wade Davis in the regular season.

Unless Edwards gets his command back, Maddon will have to go elsewhere to bridge the gap to his closer. Pedro Strop and Justin Wilson are solid options. But the Chicago skipper’s confidence in most of his relief core is tepid at best which is why you saw both Lester and Quintana in relief with a chance for the Cubs to clinch.

Davis is a proven postseason closer. He took one for the team against the Nationals with a seven-out save on Thursday. Davis wasn’t asked to get more than three outs in the entire regular season. Does that extended outing have any lingering effect for the NLCS?

The Dodgers had the best pen in the NL based on ERA, but the concerns about the middle innings lingered. Los Angeles’s main setup man most of the year, Pedro Baez, wasn’t throwing well at the season’s end.

Brandon Morrow stepped into the setup role in the NLDS and did well. Roberts trusted Kenta Maeda with some key right-handers in the ALDS, too, and he came through with flying colors. His stuff really plays up in the pen.

We’ll see if Roberts is willing to use Maeda against lefties in the NLCS. In his two outings against Arizona, he faced only right-handers. The Cubs have a much more balanced lineup. They alternate lefties and righties up and down the order.

Speaking of lefties, Tony Cingrani has emerged as the primary left-handed specialist. Tony Watson is another option, though he didn’t do well against the D-Backs.

As for the closer spot, both Davis and Kenley Jansen are lights out. Jansen, however, had the more dominate regular season with a 1.32 ERA and 0.75 WHIP. He will also be more rested. In either case, if either team has the lead going into the ninth—or even in the eighth—it’s pretty much a done deal.

Quick Pick: Dodgers over Cubs in Six

The Cubs topped the Dodgers a season ago, but these are different teams.

Last time around, the Cubs were the ones that had the time to set their rotation while the Dodgers were scrambling for options in the first two games. Now, the shoe is on the other foot and the Dodgers have Kershaw ready to go for Game 1.

Yes, Kershaw’s postseason resume is lacking. Yes, the Cubs already knocked off another team with recent postseason struggles, but this is the Dodgers’ year.

Los Angeles ended the year with the best record in baseball. While they had a month where they struggled, this was a nearly unbeatable team for five months. They looked like one again this past week against Arizona.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *