Yes, the outlook isn't brilliant for the Chicago National League baseball club. After a 6-1 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series on Tuesday, Chicago Cubs fans shuffled out of Wrigley Field, some snapping a selfie with the field and the scoreboard in the background, most trudging despondently down the ramps of the old ballpark, the realization that the season is almost over after eight-plus months of box scores and highlights and cheering and washing that lucky Anthony Rizzo T-shirt for the next game.
But it's not over. Not yet. Sure, the Dodgers are up three games to none and that means it's an almost impossible task for the Cubs to rally, but such a comeback has happened once before. Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein knows about that one. He was the general manager of the 2004 Boston Red Sox, the miracle team that rallied in the ALCS against the New York Yankees and went on to win the World Series.
Here's the thing: That comeback seemed even more impossible than this one appears to be for the Cubs. Even forgetting the enormous weight of the history between the Red Sox and Yankees franchises, the Yankees had won Game 3 by the beastly score of 19-8. "The Yankees stripped the Red Sox of all dignity last night," wrote Boston Globe scribe Dan Shaughnessy. "So there. For the 86th consecutive autumn the Red Sox aren't going to win the World Series."
Let's use their comeback as a blueprint for the Cubs.
Game 4: Red Sox 6, Yankees 4 (12 innings)
The first key is to have the right mindset and keep a positive attitude. Back in 2004, Red Sox manager Terry Francona said, "I can't bail. I won't bail on these guys." Joe Maddon echoed those thoughts after Tuesday's loss. "I've got the little wristband on -- 'We never quit.' Something we've talked about the last three years," he said.
Game 4 featured the famous David Ortiz walk-off home run in the 12th inning to win it, but before that the Red Sox tied the score in the bottom of the ninth off Mariano Rivera. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts knows a little something about that game. He was the pinch runner who stole second base and then scored the tying run on Bill Mueller's base hit.
He was asked about that on Tuesday and while he said he never specifically mentions that piece of history with his players, he did say, "A message I do bring up is the sense of just being prepared for a particular moment, and I was in 2004."
As invincible as Rivera seemed in 2004, so does Kenley Jansen in 2017. He blew one save all season. In seven innings in the postseason, he has allowed two hits and one walk with 12 strikeouts. As the Red Sox got to Rivera, the Cubs will have to get to Jansen.
Ortiz eventually hit the home run off Paul Quantrill. No doubt, it's time for Rizzo or Kris Bryant to hit a big home run. The winning pitcher in that game? Curt Leskanic. Somebody deep in the Chicago bullpen will have to come up big.
Game 5: Red Sox 5, Yankees 4 (14 innings)
Ortiz won this with another walk-off hit, after the Red Sox had rallied in the eighth inning with two runs to tie it. The Dodgers will be starting Clayton Kershaw in this game, but the Yankees had a pretty good pitcher going as well in Mike Mussina. Lesson here: Just because the opponent has a future Hall of Fame starter -- yes, Mussina is a future Hall of Famer -- doesn't mean you can't win the game.
The hero for Boston was Tim Wakefield, who pitched the final three innings in relief. A veteran starter coming out of the bullpen with a clutch extra-inning relief appearance? That sounds a lot like John Lackey, doesn't it? "Your back's absolutely against the wall," Maddon said. "Tomorrow is a Game 7. We have three or four Game 7s in a row coming up right now. We've got to counterpunch it at some point, and that's absolutely necessary tomorrow. We need to gain some kind of mental momentum, and obviously that's our last chance to do it tomorrow."
Having to win four Game 7s means Maddon will undoubtedly have to scramble with his pitching. That's why Lackey probably becomes an important guy at some point, unless the Cubs get some lights-out performances from the starters. An extra-innings victory, like the Red Sox had, also will help because it may then force Roberts to scramble with his pitching staff. An advantage the Dodgers have right now is they don't have to do that; if the Cubs can somehow force that to happen -- make Jansen and Brandon Morrow throw a lot of pitches, or Kenta Maeda to go several innings in relief, then suddenly the Dodgers bullpen will be forced to use some of the back-end guys and you never know what can happen at that point.
Game 6: Red Sox 4, Yankees 2
Curt Schilling's Bloody Sock Game. He allowed one run in seven innings and Mark Bellhorn hit a big three-run homer off Jon Lieber.
With Jake Arrieta going in Game 4 and Jose Quintana in Game 5, this would be Jon Lester's game. He doesn't need a bloody sock, but if anybody is up for a shutdown game, it's Lester. Score early off Rich Hill when the Bellhorn equivalent hits a three-run homer -- how about Jon Jay as the surprise hero? -- and Lester goes seven or eight and the Dodgers never get to Morrow and Jansen with the lead.
Game 7: Red Sox 10, Yankees 3
Now all the pressure will be on the Dodgers. Hey, the Cubs already have a World Series title. They're playing with house money by this point. The Dodgers, meanwhile, haven't been to a World Series since 1988. In this game, the Red Sox jumped all over Kevin Brown. Ortiz hit a two-run homer in the first and then Johnny Damon hit a grand slam in the second.
As good as Yu Darvish looked in Game 3, he's certainly capable of a blowup start. Remember that 10-run outing he had back in July for the Texas Rangers? Or the two games in early September for the Dodgers when he twice allowed five runs in outings of three and 4S innings? When his fastball command wavers, teams can get to him.
The Red Sox also had to scramble for a starter in this one, as Derek Lowe started on two days' rest. The Cubs probably won't have to do anything crazy like that, as Kyle Hendricks would be starting on normal rest. But if things get dicey, they could use Arrieta and Quintana in relief.
Maddon said he wasn't going to do anything out of the norm before Game 4. He said he has three meetings each season: spring training, the All-Star break and before the playoffs. "There is nothing inspirational I could possibly say that's going to make a difference," he said. "I trust our guys."
Plus, my cab driver on the way to the park guaranteed the Cubs would come back. "Look at last year," he told me. "Even when they were losing, they still believed in themselves. They will do it again."
NEW YORK -- The Houston Astros were close enough to see a clear path to the World Series. Leading by four runs late at Yankee Stadium with Dallas Keuchel up next and Justin Verlander lurking beyond that, they didn't need advanced degrees in baseball analytics to realize the math was in their favor.
Things looked promising enough, almost, for Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio to be warming up in the bullpen in anticipation of their ceremonial first pitch duties in the World Series next week at Minute Maid Park.
Then the bottom of the seventh inning arrived, and Aaron Judge sent a surge of energy through the park with a solo home run. The place got louder. After a parade of Houston relievers with scant October track records began taking their lumps, the implosion began in earnest.
The new Yankee Stadium can seem sterile compared to the old model. But as the Yankees churned out big hit after big hit, it felt like the good old days when Derek Jeter was diving into the stands for foul pops and "Cotton-Eye Joe" was blaring from the PA system.
Astros fans will no doubt lament how quickly a 4-0 lead turned into a 6-4 loss in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series. But to the players who experienced the collapse and the manager who felt powerless to stop it, events unfolded agonizingly enough for them to be able to recount every misstep in vivid detail.
"It may look like it was unraveling real quick," closer Ken Giles said. "But in my eyes, they were just slowly bringing us to the ground."
Said manager A.J. Hinch: "It's not a great visual from my side of the dugout. I'm not sure how it was from the other side. We just couldn't get the inning to end."
Now the dynamic has shifted: Instead of being up 3-1 with Keuchel and Verlander on tap, the Astros need to summon their poise against an inspired Yankees team that suddenly feels like it has something magical going on. The series is tied 2-2, but it isn't a reach to categorize the Astros as underdogs at this point.
In a quiet clubhouse after the loss, several Houston players put on brave faces and talked about how they've already put the disappointment behind them.
"This isn't an easy game," outfielder George Springer said. "Our team understands what we have and who we are. This is a game where you have to have a short memory and stay in the present because you play a lot of games, and a lot of things can happen over the span of a playoff series or 162 games. It's on to tomorrow."
With six outs to go, the Astros appeared to be in great shape. Hinch had made an inspired call with his decision to start Lance McCullers Jr., and Yuli Gurriel's bases-loaded double in the sixth was enough to make the Astros feel as if they were in charge against a Yankees team that is hitting .205 in the series.
But the Astros' bullpen was going to have to record some big outs in hostile environs, and the reckoning came in the seventh and a nightmare eighth.
Hinch has said throughout the postseason that he's confident in all his relievers, but it was a telling sign when he used Giles for a 37-pitch save in Game 1 and stuck with Verlander for nine innings and 124 pitches in Game 2.
Somewhere between now and the World Series, Hinch is going to have to cobble together some big outs with the other guys. Chris Devenski had a terrific first half, but he's looking like a guy who's worn out from throwing 80 2/3 innings during the regular season. Joe Musgrove was a late-season revelation in the pen, but he has been doing it for only two months. Will Harris had shoulder issues and pitched only 10 2/3 innings after the All-Star break. Luke Gregerson wasn't the same guy this season, and Tyler Clippard -- another established veteran -- didn’t make the postseason roster.
Still, when McCullers yielded a solo homer to Judge on his 81st pitch of the evening, Hinch took the ball from him and gave him a congratulatory pat on the back for a job well-done.
"He was awesome," Hinch said. "And I'm really proud of him because I know how important this start was for him."
After the Yankees scored a run off Devenski to pull within 4-2, everything unraveled for Houston in the eighth. Todd Frazier singled off Musgrove to lead off, and Chase Headley followed with a single, only to get caught up between first and second base. Astros shortstop Carlos Correa lofted his relay throw to Gurriel at first, and Headley quickly scrambled, changed course and beat the throw to Jose Altuve at second.
New York suddenly had runners on second and third. Then back-to-back doubles by Judge and Gary Sanchez off Giles made it 6-4 and put the capper on the comeback.
Correa said after the game that he was heeding the advice of a teammate -- he isn't sure precisely which one -- when he threw the ball to first base.
"I've got my back to the play there," Correa said. "I heard, 'one, one,' so I threw to Yuli, and he threw to second, and [Headley] beat it out. It was just great, heads-up baserunning on his part.
"We didn't drop the ball. We didn't throw the ball away. We threw the ball right all the time, and he just beat the throw. There wasn't a mistake there. I guess he just did better than we did."
As the Astros try not to dwell on everything that went wrong late Tuesday, they'll look forward to a Game 5 that will be a gut check in many respects. Can a Houston lineup that is hitting .153 and has scored nine runs in four games show any semblance of life? Can the Astros' shell-shocked relievers recover after such a stunning and demoralizing performance?
"I have the utmost confidence in our guys," Springer said. "They can get it done. They've been great all year, and I love 'em all. It doesn't matter who A.J. puts out there. All those guys are going to go out there and compete."
At times like this, a calming veteran voice can carry a lot of weight. Carlos Beltran, the Astros' resident clubhouse sage, was asked if he plans to deliver any words of wisdom to his young teammates to help them turn the page. After a brief pause to consider, Beltran indicated that he will probably take a pass on the inspirational messages.
"You know what? I think we're doing what we have to do as a team," Beltran said. "If you come here early, we're doing the same routine we were doing during the regular season. I don't think there's a lot to say other than, 'Go get them tomorrow.'"
The Astros' ability to bounce back from a loss this difficult will hinge in part on whether they can remember all the things they did right during a 101-win regular season. It's also going to depend on how quickly they can forget a long, traumatic October night in the Bronx.
CHICAGO -- Another game, another hero, and a perfect postseason continues for the title-starved Los Angeles Dodgers.
This time it was Chris Taylor taking his star turn, fulfilling a teammate's wish after Game 2, as the Dodgers pushed the champion Chicago Cubs to the brink of elimination with a 6-1 win Tuesday at Wrigley Field. Taylor hit a mammoth home run off Kyle Hendricks and drove in another run with a triple as L.A. put a stranglehold on the National League Championship Series, leading three games to none.
Taylor, a player who had one big league homer in 120 games before this season, now has two in the NLCS, continuing an unlikely breakout campaign that started with an overhaul to his swing that he underwent with the Dodgers' coaching staff.
"To take a chance on trying to learn a new swing and to bet on yourself, and that's what he did," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. "He committed to it. We saw early in spring training he was a different hitter."
The Dodgers improved to 6-0 during this playoff run, the longest postseason win streak in franchise history. After the game, the Dodgers, on the cusp of their first pennant in 29 years seemed ... business-like?
"We'll come in tomorrow and figure out a way to win a ballgame," third baseman Justin Turner said. "That's kind of been the way we've gone about it all year long. Whatever happened the day before doesn’t matter."
Turner won Game 2 with a three-run, walk-off homer off Chicago's John Lackey -- a moment set up by the walk Taylor drew against Lackey with Turner on deck and a man on second base.
About a half-hour later, Turner went to the media room in the bowels of Dodger Stadium and said, "I wanted to see C.T., to finish it. I thought he was going to get the big hit."
Well, Taylor got two big hits on Tuesday. With the score knotted at 1-1 in the third, he jumped ahead of Hendricks and unloaded a home run that cleared the batter's eye beyond the ivy-covered center-field wall.
Statcast measured Taylor's blast at 444 feet -- the longest homer it has tracked in this postseason. Taylor said he knew early on that the tweaks to his game were going to help.
"To say I expected it to happen as fast as it did, I'd be lying," Taylor said. "Pretty much I felt really good right in spring training, which I was pretty shocked to see that kind of results that fast."
Taylor's home run was the Dodgers' fourth go-ahead homer of the postseason. He has hit two of them, and Turner has hit the other two.
Both of Taylor's homers have come in the NLCS, which makes him the first Dodger to hit multiple go-ahead blasts in the NLCS since Steve Garvey did so in 1978.
"[Taylor's] at-bats are as professional as anyone in the lineup," Turner said. "He controls the strike zone extremely well. He's really a spark plug at the top of the lineup. That's why ever since he was put in that lead-off spot, he's [been] a game-changer for us."
Taylor showed off his speed in the fifth by lacing a drive into the left-field corner and turning on the jets as he rounded second base. He slid into third ahead of the throw from Chicago's Kyle Schwarber, driving in Joc Pederson.
Oh, and there is this: Taylor was making his first playoff start at shortstop in Game 3 after starting the first two games in center field. He became the first player ever to hit homers at both positions in the same postseason.
"To be able to start him in center field the first couple games and then to start him at short," Roberts said, "and to get on base, to slug, drive runs in, catch the baseball -- he's a huge asset for us."
The reason Taylor was playing shortstop, of course, is that star Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager was left off L.A.'s NLCS roster because of a sore back. That was a cause of much anxiety when the announcement was made last weekend, a sentiment summed up by Seager himself, who said, "It sucks, to be honest."
Between Taylor and Charlie Culberson, who played short in the first two games of the NLCS, the Dodgers have actually gotten more production from Seager's position than they did in the NLDS.
Seager went 3-for-11 with one extra-base hit during L.A.'s sweep of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Taylor and Culberson have gone a combined 4-for-10 with four extra-base hits while playing short.
"It's kind of been next-man-up all year," reliever Brandon Morrow said after helping the Dodgers' impermeable bullpen stretch its scoreless streak to 10T innings in the NLCS. "We've had guys step up in so many different situations. Through that amazing stretch we had in June and July, it seemed like it was a different guy every night. That's really been the feeling this postseason."
Taylor's performance overshadowed another outstanding outing by Yu Darvish, who shut down the Cubs over 6 1/3 innings. Darvish allowed Schwarber's solo homer in the first inning but limited Chicago to one run and six hits while striking out seven. He was efficient as well, throwing just 81 total pitches.
The only emotion the always-cool Darvish displayed on the field came when he drew a four-pitch, bases-loaded walk off Carl Edwards Jr. in the sixth to put the Dodgers up 4-1.
"When I stood on the mound, facing a guy who throws 95, 96 with a cutter, he's got something special going,” Darvish said through an interpreter. “I didn't think I had a chance to hit. I just wanted to try to do something -- draw a walk or maybe get hit by pitch. Anything just to score runs.”
Darvish had just one career RBI and one career walk before that plate appearance. He became the first pitcher to be walked with the bases loaded in a postseason game since Philadelphia’s Larry Christenson walked against the Dodgers in the 1977 NLCS.
As Darvish walked off the mound in the seventh, he gave plate umpire Mike Winters a salute. And why not? Darvish's 42 percent called-strike rate was his third-highest of the season.
"The story of the night, obviously, is Yu Darvish," Roberts said. "After that first homer that he gave up on the cutter that backed up, he was dominant. He just had that rhythm, the poise and didn't allow a whole lot of hard contact. He put us in a great spot, and we just fed off of him tonight."
Still, the night also belonged to Taylor, and who could have predicted such a thing would happen when teams reported to spring training way back in February? Taylor had hit .240 over three big league seasons and was traded to L.A. from Seattle in an unheralded move in 2016.
Taylor fits the mold of quite a few of the current Dodgers: strugglers turned into stalwarts. He had untapped innate abilities that he has been able to tap into in L.A., in his case through a swing reconstruction at an age when most players would be averse to such a makeover.
"I knew I had to kind of make that drastic change right away and get out of my comfort zone," Taylor said. "Had no expectations going into it. I always have confidence in my ability, and obviously, I was hoping it would come."
Indeed, it did. Taylor ended up as one of the NL's breakout players in a season in which he turned 27 years old. He hit .288 with 21 homers, 72 RBIs and 17 steals while playing five positions.
That full range of skills was on display Tuesday in front of a jam-packed crowd at Wrigley Field that didn't want to see it. Now, with one more win, the Dodgers will earn their first NL pennant and first shot at a World Series title since 1988.
One more win. But don't tell anyone on the Dodgers that's all they need, even though 29 of the 36 teams that took a 3-0 lead in a best-of-seven series went on to sweep.
"We've got to put it behind us," closer Kenley Jansen said after getting the last three outs of the game. "We're not getting excited over this.
"We've been talking about it all year: trying to win a championship. We know how hard it is. We can't be excited and all that. We have to continue playing good baseball."
NEW YORK -- There were the 52 regular-season home runs. There was the Home Run Derby. And there was possibly an MVP season as a rookie. But if you are going to be the new face of baseball, a potential legend, it really happens in the cool air of October.
For everything the 6-foot-7, nearly 300-pound rookie Aaron Judge has accomplished in 2017, none of his performances were bigger or better than in Game 4 of the ALCS on Tuesday, when he and the New York Yankees took some more punches, absorbing the blows before knocking down their opponent, the Houston Astros. It was Judge who led them as the Yankees tied the ALCS with a come-from-behind 6-4 win over the Astros.
Down four runs in the seventh, Judge first hit a solo homer to start things off. In the eighth, with two more runs already in, he smoked the tying double -- just missing another homer -- off Houston closer Ken Giles. Yankee Stadium was rocking like it was 1996.
Judge's fellow Baby Bomber, Gary Sanchez, finished off Giles and the Astros with a go-ahead two-run double. Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman took care of the ninth, and this game was put into Yankees history books right next to all of their best postseason tales.
The American League Championship Series is a totally, spanking new series as it is now deadlocked at two games apiece. The Yankees have guaranteed that they are sending this one back to Houston for, at least, a Game 6 on Friday and possibly a tantalizing Game 7 on Saturday.
The Yankees' bats could not touch Houston starter Lance McCullers Jr. for six innings in Game 3. After the long break between the top of the seventh inning and the bottom for the Yankee Stadium staple of "God Bless America," Judge sent a mammoth homer over the monuments in center field. That was it for McCullers.
The Bronx crowd, which has been noticeably louder this postseason, was again creating an intimidating atmosphere. With a sellout crowd on its feet, the noise put added weight on the Astros. Their manager, A.J. Hinch, brought in right-hander Chris Devenski. The 26-year-old Devenski, who was an All-Star this season, faced only three batters, and wasn't particularly effective against any of them.
Didi Gregorius smacked a triple and scored after Sanchez lined a sacrifice fly to right, cutting Houston's lead in half.
The Yankees would go on to complete the comeback, once again showing why they are a tough out, especially at home, where they had the American League's best record.
They still have a tough task looming, as Keuchel has posted 13 scoreless innings this postseason. After him, in Houston, the Astros will have Justin Verlander in Game 6.
But this Yankees group is beginning to look like something special. They don't start playing in each series until they are down. In the wild-card game, the Twins held a 3-0 lead before the Yankees came to bat. The Yankees won. Against the Indians, they were in an 0-2 hole in the series. The Yankees won.
Now, they have come back to tie the ALCS at two games apiece. At this point, would anyone dare count out these Yankees?
NEW YORK -- The Houston Astros entered the postseason with the luxury of knowing they were a threat to win every game because of the quick-strike, potent, multifaceted nature of their lineup. Regardless of what city they’re in, the Astros wake up with an offense that doesn't sleep.
Three games into the American League Championship Series, that premise is suddenly being tested. The Astros are never out of any game -- provided they have Justin Verlander or Dallas Keuchel crafting Cy Young-caliber magic on the mound.
The Astros have a 2-1 lead over the New York Yankees in this series thanks to two crisp, dramatic, tightly played victories at Minute Maid Park. But contrary to all expectations, Houston’s prolific offense has gone into a small-sample-size October funk.
In three games against the Yankees, the Astros have scored a total of five runs. They’re hitting .169 as a team and have produced a total of three extra-base hits in 89 at-bats.
The double-play combination of Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa is hitting a combined .391 (9-for-23) against the Yankees. The other guys in the batting order are batting an aggregate .091 (6-for-66). The list of notable offenders includes George Springer, Josh Reddick and Marwin Gonzalez, who have combined for one hit in 30 at-bats.
How rugged was it in Monday’s 8-1 loss to CC Sabathia and the Yankees? The Astros scored their only run when New York manager Joe Girardi saw an opening to throw control-impaired setup man Dellin Betances into the fray with zero pressure in the ninth inning. Betances promptly walked two batters on 10 pitches, and Tommy Kahnle eventually walked in a run with the bases loaded to put Houston on the board.
Appropriately enough, in this debacle of a game for the Astros, the always-reliable Altuve grounded into a double play to end it.
The three games against New York marked only the second time this season that the Astros were held to two runs or fewer in three consecutive games. It happened previously on Sept. 10-13, when they were outscored 19-4 in a three-game stretch by the Oakland A’s and Los Angeles Angels.
If the Astros weren’t so gosh-darned loose and confident as a group, they might have reason to be concerned.
“This isn’t the normal Astros lineup we’re used to,” Reddick said. “Our whole lineup isn’t hitting. We relied on Altuve and Correa a little too much in the first two games, and we’ve just got to come together as a team and maybe talk it out and work on the things we were doing in the Boston series.
“We need to put this game behind us. We got our butts whipped tonight. That’s the only way to put it. We didn’t come out and do our jobs. But it could be worse. We could be down 1-2. At least we’ve got a little bit of a lead now.”
The Astros’ regular-season profile suggested they were that rare team with an offense capable of running the table in October. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, this year’s Houston team was only the seventh club in MLB history to post the highest slugging percentage and fewest strikeouts in a season. The Astros joined the 1948 Yankees and the 1995 Cleveland Indians as the third team since 1911 to achieve that rare double.
That combination of power and contact ability seemed tailor-made for October, and things played out according to script in the Division Series. The Astros beat up on Red Sox ace Chris Sale and logged a .333/.402/.571 slash line as a team while eliminating Boston in four games.
In fairness, New York’s pitching is a major factor in the Astros’ offensive travails this series. The Yankees shut down a strong Cleveland lineup in the Division Series, and Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka and Sabathia have been effective with markedly different styles and repertoires in the ALCS.
Sabathia, who is 9-0 with a 1.83 ERA in 12 starts after a Yankees loss this season, was masterful enough to elicit two animal references in the same postgame quote from teammate Todd Frazier.
“He’s a bulldog,” Frazier said. “Look at the size of him. And he looks like a bear out there on the mound, just ready to pounce on somebody. He’s made for this, for sure.”
Little things are magnified when an offense goes south, and the Astros didn’t catch many breaks in Game 3. Starter Charlie Morton, who pitched better than his box score line indicated, threw a 95 mph fastball over the lower outside corner against Frazier in the second inning, and the Yankees’ third baseman somehow found a way to line it over the fence for a three-run homer.
The Astros had one big, early opportunity to make a dent when they loaded the bases in the third on a Springer walk, an Alex Bregman single and another walk to Altuve. Correa took a strike from Sabathia, then lofted a harmless popup to short on a 91 mph fastball to end the inning.
The prototypical Astros sequence of the evening came in the eighth, when Correa and Yuli Gurriel crushed balls to center field off Yankees reliever Adam Warren. Both balls died in Aaron Hicks’ glove at the warning track. It was that kind of night for Houston.
“The scoreboard doesn’t always show how hard you hit the ball,” Springer said. “I thought we hit some balls hard tonight that didn’t fall. We’re not going to change our approach just because we fly out to the track. We have a plan and an approach, and we stick to it.”
The Astros have struck out only 16 times in three games in this series. So unlike the Indians, they’re at least finding a way to put the ball in play. But contact doesn't count for much when so many Houston hitters wind up jogging back to the dugout.
Next on the agenda: a Game 4 date with Sonny Gray on Tuesday in the Bronx. Three games and 89 at-bats into the series, the Houston batting order is still waiting for a wake-up call.
NEW YORK -- Yankee Stadium was reverberating with the chant, "M-V-P! M-V-P! M-V-P!" On a classically cold night in the Bronx, the sellout crowd serenaded Aaron Judge, putting its own exclamation point on Judge's spectacular fourth inning that included an amazing catch and a three-run homer.
Judge had finally answered Jose Altuve, his regular-season MVP adversary, who had been the far better player in the first two games of the American League Championship Series. More importantly, Judge and the New York Yankees turned Monday night into less of a game and more of a party to tighten this series.
"It was his night," Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch said.
While Judge was the center of attention because of who he is, it was a team effort -- with the old guard, CC Sabathia and Todd Frazier, doing their part -- as the Yankees cruised to an 8-1 win over the Astros in Game 3.
It was such a celebration that in the eighth inning, the fans in the left-field bleachers decided to do a roll call -- when they chant each player's name until they receive acknowledgement, something usually reserved for the first inning. Judge paid his respects by extending his glove as the fans chanted his name.
When Judge made two great plays in the field -- a catch up against the wall in the fourth, followed by a diving grab in the fifth, it was not only the fans who were in an appreciative mood.
"We have guys on this team that will basically go through walls for everybody," Frazier said.
The Astros are quickly finding out what the Cleveland Indians learned the hard way: Being down 2-0 means little to this Yankees team that has an ideal mix of talented youth and veteran grit. Sabathia once again reached back, like his old buddy Andy Pettitte used to, giving the Yankees exactly what they needed with six scoreless innings. Frazier, a Toms River, New Jersey, native, used the right-field porch to slap a three-run homer in the second inning. Those were all the runs the Yankees would need.
In 2017, the Yankees are about Judge most of all, which is why the talk on the subways in all five boroughs and offices around the city will be about the 6-foot-7, nearly 300-pound right fielder on Tuesday.
Did you see Judge's two catches? Yeah, he homered, too.
In the fourth, Judge made an amazing catch, slamming against the wall in right and holding on to the ball like a tight end after being floored by a free safety.
"That pad's only a couple inches thick, and right behind that, it's not moving, even as big as he is," Yankees left fielder Brett Gardner said. "Even though it's padded, it's a pretty good hit he took. But like I said, he's a big guy, so the wall's probably hurting, too."
In the bottom half of the same inning, Judge slammed a three-run homer and the blowout was on.
This postseason, Judge is morphing into a combination of Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. Like the old captain, he has shown a flair for the big moment. In the Yankees' comeback over the Indians, he made probably the most important defensive play of the year when he stole a two-run homer from Francisco Lindor.
While he hasn't had that many hits so far in the playoffs, Judge has made them count. He nailed a two-run homer in the Yankees' wild-card win over the Twins. He had a two-run double in Game 4 of the AL Division Series that chased Cleveland starter Trevor Bauer in the second. Both extended leads.
"We've played how many playoff games -- nine? He [has] seven RBIs," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "He gets his walks, got another one tonight. I know how dangerous he is. He can really change a game really quickly."
This is especially true when he gets his pitch. Judge is so dangerous when pitchers try to go inside on him, like reliever Will Harris did in the fourth. On pitches classified as high and inside, Judge hit four homers on 78 regular-season swings (one for every 19.5). On average, the rest of baseball hits those type of pitches out only once every 65 swings.
But still, his clutchness, a la A-Rod, has come into question from some Yankees fans. He has struck out a lot during his Rookie of the Year (and possibly MVP) regular season, but the whiffs have been more glaring in the playoffs. He has been sent down on strikes in 50 percent of his postseason at-bats, compared to 31 percent in the regular season.
Only nine games into the playoffs, Judge has already broken the record set by Reggie Sanders (1995) and tied by Austin Jackson (2011) for the most strikeouts by one player before the World Series, with 21. It doesn't impact his mood.
"You've got to take the ups with the downs," Judge said. "You can't have all the good, come out here and hit a thousand, even though I want to."
Judge is more than just a home run hitter. In the fifth, he added another really nice catch, coming in to make a diving stop on a line drive hit by Cameron Maybin.
"You don't see people his size move like that," Yankees first baseman Greg Bird said. "At least not in our sport. Maybe the NBA or the NFL, but I never have, personally, up close like this, and it's really impressive to watch."
But like all of the biggest stars, the moment seems to find him. If he and his teammates can claw their way back again from another 2-0 hole, it will be the stuff of legend.
Justin Verlander's 122nd pitch on Saturday was a 97 mph fastball that Greg Bird fouled off. The next pitch was another 97 mph fastball, up and in. His final pitch was a slider that Bird pounded into the ground for the Yankees’ final out. After the Astros then scored the winning run in the bottom of the ninth, Verlander had thrown the first nine-inning complete game in a league championship series since the White Sox remarkably threw four in a row in 2005. That almost feels like a different era of baseball.
Verlander was viewed as a conquering hero, like he had washed up on the shores of Normandy to deliver starting pitchers from the tyranny of bullpens. The last pitcher to throw more pitches in a playoff game was Verlander himself, back in the 2012 American League Championship Series, when he threw 132 in 8⅓ innings. The last pitcher to throw more in a complete game was Mark Prior, way back in the 2003 division series for the Cubs, when he threw 133 in a 3-1 victory over the Braves.
Verlander’s turn-back-the-clock performance, however, has been the exception. He’s the only starter to pitch into the eighth inning, let alone go all nine. Only eight starters out of 42 starts have reached 100 pitches. If there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that managers are relying more than ever on their bullpens in postseason play. They don’t want to lose a game in the middle innings with a starter facing a lineup for the third time or as he starts approaching 90 pitches. Check out the percentage of innings thrown by starters in the postseason over the years, along with ERAs of starters and relievers and the percentage of seven-inning starts:
Maybe those numbers change as we move deeper into the postseason. In the division series, managers have to manage with an almost desperate urgency. We saw Verlander, Chris Sale, Max Scherzer, Jon Lester and Jose Quintana all pitch in relief.
Or maybe that urgency will continue. “For us to be successful, we have to win eight games,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said recently. “So it’s a really bad mental process to think that you’re going to do it with just one or two guys, or have your starters throw 90 to 120 pitches coming off of no rest, pitching 12 significant pitches in a winner-take-all game in Washington.”
Dodgers starter Rich Hill said pitchers just have to adjust to the chaos. “These playoff games, as we’ve seen throughout the entire playoffs, are completely their own animal,” Hill said. “You have to win that game. So you do whatever it takes to win that game.”
So continue to expect more relievers and simply admire Verlander for his rare gem. Other things we’ve learned:
Aaron Judge is struggling
The playoffs sometimes seem so long that the wild-card game feels like another season. Judge went 2-for-4 with a home run and walk in that game, but has gone 2-for-27 since then with 19 strikeouts. There’s no other way to put it: It’s turning into a postseason of historic ineptitude. Alfonso Soriano holds the single-season postseason record with 26 strikeouts, but he did that over 17 games and at least drove in nine runs. Dan Wilson went 2-for-33 for the Mariners in 1995, tied with Bill North of the 1974 A’s for lowest average in a postseason with at least 30 at-bats.
I thought Judge’s struggles were at least partially a case of pitchers just throwing him some really tough pitches, so I looked at the percentage of pitches thrown to him that ESPN Stats & Information labeled as on the black or on the corner. In the regular season, that rate was 8.6 percent of all pitches. In the postseason, it has been 9 percent. Yes, he has faced some tough pitchers, but this mostly appears to be a case of a young player slumping at the wrong time.
He’s not the only young player struggling, however. I checked all players 25 or younger this postseason, a list that also includes some of the game’s biggest stars: Kris Bryant, Bryce Harper, Cody Bellinger, Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, Mookie Betts. Altogether, those 22 position players have hit .214/.298/.422 for a .316 wOBA. Gary Sanchez is hitting .176/.200/.382. Bryant has a .532 OPS. Lindor hit .111 and Ramirez .100 for the Indians.
Players 26 and older, however, have fared much better: .269/.346/.452, a .350 wOBA. So does experience matter? After all, if you’re playing in the postseason at a young age, it probably means you’re pretty good. Postseason numbers from 2010 to 2016:
25 and younger: .234/.297/.378, .299 wOBA
26 and older: .248/.318/.403, .317 wOBA
Now, you’d have to compare those numbers to the regular season to get a more meaningful analytic answer, but younger players are certainly faring worse this postseason than they have in the past. Maybe that’s good news for the Yankees: Judge and Sanchez are definitely due.
“It’s stressful. It’s fun,” Bellinger said of his postseason. “Everything matters a little more, every at-bat matters a little more. But you try to treat it like a regular-season game.”
Easy to say, harder to execute.
Defense does matter
It has been suggested that the increased rate of strikeouts in recent years means defense is less important since there are fewer balls in play. I don’t know if I agree with that -- you can argue that the average ball in play is hit harder now than it was 10 or 15 or 20 years ago. Anyway, the Indians certainly echoed that belief with their decision to play Jason Kipnis in center field (or to play Carlos Santana in left field in last year’s World Series). That’s two years in a row they reached the postseason and played guys at a spot they hadn’t played all year.
Well, one thing we’ve learned this postseason is that the defense most definitely matters. Ask the Nationals. Ask the Indians. Ask the Yankees what happens when you don’t properly execute a relay throw. There have been 35 errors in 22 games so far; last year, there were 38 errors in 35 games. That doesn’t even count all the passed balls and wild pitches.
Ask the Astros about playing great defense. They twice beat Yankees 2-1, and in Game 1 Marwin Gonzalez threw out Bird at home plate and in Game 2 Josh Reddick made a leaping catch at the wall and started the relay that threw out Brett Gardner at third base.
“To play clean baseball is what I’m the most proud of,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch told the media Sunday. “It’s not perfect baseball ... but the cleanliness of our play, being able to make those relay throws, the throw from Marwin in left field, some of the running plays that [Alex] Bregman is making at third. ... Those are small plays that don’t get written about a lot, don’t get talked about a lot. But they’re hugely appreciated in the winning environment.”
Maddon was asked about Javier Baez's place in the lineup since he has been struggling at the plate. He pointed to the play in the first inning of Game 5 of the NLDS, when Baez made a quick, accurate throw to home plate to nail the speedy Trea Turner, which turned out to be a crucial play in a one-run victory. “We would not be sitting here right now if it wasn’t for his play in the first inning against Washington with the drawn-in infield. Don’t ever overlook those things. A lot of our success is based on defense, and Javy is so important to that.”
Not everybody loves the home plate collision rule
Swing the argument this way, however: What if Charlie Culberson had crushed Willson Contreras and put Contreras out for the season with a dislocated shoulder or something? That’s one reason the rule exists. The other: It’s obstruction. It has always been obstruction. It just wasn’t called obstruction for 100 years.
Does Hinch trust his bullpen?
While the Verlander game was impressive, you can argue that it also was a sign that Hinch doesn’t completely trust his bullpen (especially given that Verlander also appeared in relief in Game 4 of the ALDS). On the other hand, Hinch had quick hooks with Brad Peacock and Charlie Morton in the ALDS starts, so it may be more a situation of really trusting Verlander, Dallas Keuchel and Ken Giles. Still, at some point, some of the other pitchers are going to have get some big outs.
LOS ANGELES -- It’s a simple equation, really: Somewhere in the middle of the night, during the 2,000-mile flight from Los Angeles to Chicago, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo will have to find their swings. Maybe it happens over the Rocky Mountains or the plains of Nebraska or the cornfields of Iowa, but it has to happen: The Chicago Cubs need their big boys to start producing.
Bryant went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts in Sunday’s 4-1 gut-punch of a loss to the Dodgers and is now 5-for-28 (.179) in the postseason with 13 strikeouts. Rizzo went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts and is 4-for-26 (.154) with nine strikeouts. In seven playoff games, the Cubs are hitting .162. They’ve scored 20 runs, but nine of those came in one game. In the other six, they’ve averaged 1.8 runs per game.
They’ve run into some good pitching, no doubt. But nobody in a subdued Cubs clubhouse was using that as an excuse. “Obviously, we have to get some baserunners and start stringing some hits together,” Bryant said. But he alluded to another issue: The Cubs have hit just four home runs in seven playoff games. They hit 223 in the regular season, third-most in the National League, just 18 behind the majors-leading 241 that the Yankees hit -- and the Cubs did that without benefit of a DH.
“It seems like it’s a game of home runs, and that’s what happened tonight,” Bryant said. “So I guess we have to hit some home runs.” He was smiling when he said that, but it wasn’t really a joke. That’s how the Cubs score runs -- they draw walks and hit the ball over the fence. They were sixth in the NL with a .255 team batting average, but first in on-base percentage thanks to drawing the second-most walks.
That’s the strange thing about what Bryant and Rizzo are going through; they’re not showing their usual patience at the plate. Bryant saw 16 pitches on Sunday and swung at 11 of them. Rizzo saw 10 pitches in three plate appearances and then was hit by the first pitch Kenley Jansen threw him in the ninth. In the regular season, Bryant’s chase rate on pitches out of the strike zone was 26.3 percent; in the postseason, it’s at 42.1 percent. Rizzo’s chase rate has increased from 28.6 to 43.1 percent. You’re not going to produce swinging at balls off the plate.
Before Game 2, Joe Maddon stressed that the biggest thing with the offense is “we still have to stay in our lanes.” Meaning, don’t swing at bad pitches or expand your normal sweet spot. He talked about when the Cubs are going good, it’s because they’re going up the middle. “When we get into pull mode, most teams, not just us, when you get guys like [Rich] Hill and you want to get into pull mode, he just lights up.” He said if the Cubs were getting two-strike hits and opposite-field line drives, he’ll take it.
That all makes sense, but there’s Bryant saying more home runs are in order. Guess what? This hitting thing is pretty difficult, especially when he has to face a big curveballing lefty like Hill and then adjust to facing two of the best relievers in the game right now in Brandon Morrow and Jansen, who cruised through their combined three innings on just 31 pitches.
It’s all a different story than last postseason, when the Cubs out-homered their opponents 20 to 11. Bryant hit .308/.400/.523, while Rizzo hit .277/.373/.492. Those two were the ring leaders, getting on base and producing some big hits. We also link them together, not just because of the commercials but because they are the heart of the Cubs' offense. They need to feed off each other like they do in the regular season. “It’s always good to have that pick-me-up,” Bryant said. “Sometimes during the season your brain [turns] to mush, so it’s nice having a guy like that hitting behind you.”
The Cubs know adversity, after trailing two games to one in the NLCS last year and trailing three games to one in the World Series. “We have to win four games, that’s the bottom line,” Rizzo said. “Tonight was a tough one, but nothing you can do about it. We have to get on base more. Keep it going. It’s contagious, so we have to just keep battling.”
That’s what you expect them to say and what they should say. It’s 2-0 and the Dodgers look tough and that bullpen looks unbeatable. “Sometimes you have to lay your marbles out there and you get beat,” Jon Lester said.
The good thing is the Cubs are going back to Wrigley. Bryant hit 18 of his 29 home runs there. Rizzo hit .319 and slugged .571 at home compared to .228 and .445 on the road. Maddon is giving the team a day off on Monday. Let them relax, rest up, watch Monday Night Football and gear up for Tuesday.
The task: Oh, just beat a guy named Yu Darvish, who has some of the nastiest stuff of any starter in the league, and a bullpen that hasn’t allowed a hit in two games and just a .123 average over five playoff games so far.
LOS ANGELES -- After four businesslike wins to begin what the Los Angeles Dodgers hope will be their first championship run in 29 years, the habitues of Hollywood finally needed a hero to plaster on their marquee.
They got one on Sunday, and, as with all great Hollywood heroes, the backstory is pretty good.
The hero in question would be Justin Turner, who hammered a John Lackey pitch over the center-field fence for a three-run, walk-off homer with two outs in the ninth, giving the Dodgers a 4-1 win over the Chicago Cubs on Sunday and a 2-0 lead in the National League Championship Series.
The backstory is this: The blast was just the second walk-off homer in Dodgers postseason history, and you probably remember the other one -- or at least have seen the highlights about 1,000 times. It was Kirk Gibson's pinch-hit blast to win Game 1 of the 1988 World Series against Oakland.
Sunday's game marked the 29th anniversary of that iconic play, which sparked the Dodgers to their last World Series win. The Dodgers are really hoping that bit of history repeats itself.
"It's, what did you say, 29 years to the day?" Dodgers manager Dave Roberts asked rhetorically, adding that he was looking for Turner to replicate Gibson's famous, fist-pumping action as he rounded the bases. "It was special. Our guys feel it. We feel it.
"The Cubs, that's a very good ballclub. Those guys fight every pitch, and there is a reason that they're the world champions. So we feel good with where we're at, and we're going to enjoy tonight."
On top of everything, Turner says the Gibson home run stands out in his earliest memories of being a young Dodgers fan growing up in Southern California.
"I've told this story I don't know how many times since I've been a Dodger," Turner said. "One of my earliest baseball memories was being at my grandma's house and watching that game and watching Gibby hit that homer. I can't even put it into words right now. It's incredible."
Turner's homer, the Dodgers' first walk-off homer of the season, should finally shine a bright, national light on a postseason résumé that has even his manager comparing him to some lofty predecessors.
"I'm not saying he's David Ortiz, but I played with David, and you're talking about big spots and coming up big," Roberts said. "And J.T.'s that guy for us. He just has that pulse where he can just kind of keep his calm and stay within the strike zone, just not afraid to fail and just wants to be in that spot."
For Turner, the walk-off homer was his first -- regular season or postseason -- and was the 50th walk-off homer in MLB playoff history. That Turner came through on such a big stage is really no surprise. He now has 22 career postseason RBIs and 10 in five playoff games this season. He also has 13 hits in 18 postseason at-bats with runners in scoring position, and his .722 batting average is the all-time high among players with at least 10 postseason at-bats with runners in scoring position.
"What's not to enjoy about it?" Turner said. "We have an opportunity to bring a championship back to L.A., and, like I said, it's been a long time. So every day we get to step out on the field and play this game that we all love, and we've all put our entire lives into, it's something that I don't think any of us take for granted."
Turner's home run is the headliner -- game-winning home runs always are, especially in October. But what the Dodgers repeatedly call their "pass the baton" approach had everything to do with setting the stage for Turner's star turn.
Yasiel Puig began the winning rally with a leadoff walk against Brian Duensing, his third free pass of the game. Puig went to second on Charlie Culberson's sacrifice but was stuck there after pinch hitter Kyle Farmer struck out. Then, Cubs manager Joe Maddon went to a familiar name in an unfamiliar role -- longtime starter John Lackey, whom Chris Taylor worked for a walk.
"I wanted to see C.T. finish it," Turner said of Taylor. "I thought he was going to get the big hit. But that's the way our offense has been all year. It's been about putting together tough [at-bats] and passing the baton and getting to the next guy, and tonight it was just my turn."
The Dodgers drew nine walks in the game, maintaining their approach even late, when it became apparent that one big hit might take the contest. L.A. saw 174 pitches in the game. The Cubs saw 118, and you can make the argument that their at-bat quality -- a term Roberts loves to use -- deteriorated as the game progressed.
For L.A., it's the result of months and months, even years, of drilling in an organizational mantra on a daily basis and waiting for that message to resonate when you most need it to.
"There are a lot of conversations that we have as far as at-bat quality and not chasing slug," Roberts said. "Just trying to put a good at-bat together and try to take a good swing on a good pitch. So it's a clear, consistent message, and the players are just following through."
The grinding, disciplined approach set the stage for Turner, who turned around a Lackey fastball on the second pitch he saw. Turner drove in all four Dodger runs.
"Once that walk occurred, all bets were off against Turner," Maddon said. "Nobody is a really great matchup against Turner, so it just did not work out."
Rich Hill was masterful for the most part over five innings, during which he allowed just three hits and one run. Hill's eight strikeouts were a postseason career high, but he made one big mistake that the Cubs capitalized on, a grooved fastball that Addison Russell hooked inside the left-field foul pole for the game's first run.
Hill, like everyone else, was thrilled that Turner was the one who stepped to the plate with the game on the line and, especially, that he chose to re-sign with the Dodgers when he was a sought-after free agent last winter.
"He's been incredible," Hill said. "He's been one of the best players on the team. For me, personally, him coming back here, I was excited to see that he was signing back. He steps up every single time. It's incredible to see and I couldn't be happier for him."
While Hill needed just 79 pitches to traverse his five innings, the Dodgers waited out postseason ace Jon Lester, not doing great damage but making him work for his outs. Lester walked five, a playoff high for him, and was done after two outs in the fifth with 103 pitches on his ticker.
The second inning was a perfect example of the Dodgers' game plan against Lester. They didn't swing until his 10th pitch of the inning, during which he didn't allow a hit but walked two. It wasn't a highlight-reel sequence, but it helped create the footage that was recorded in the ninth.
The Dodgers scratched out a run in the fifth to tie the contest and get Hill off the hook. That set up a battle of the bullpens that, given recent trends, would seem to tilt heavily in the Dodgers' favor.
Indeed, Brandon Morrow came on for Hill and mowed through the Cubs over two perfect innings, throwing just 18 pitches in the process. Josh Fields and Tony Watson were just as effective and efficient in shorter stints.
"Those guys know exactly what they want to do, and they're going out there and executing," Roberts said.
By the time Jansen came on for the ninth, the Cubs' drought against the L.A. bullpen had stretched to 0-for-21 during the NLCS. This time, however, the Cubs' bullpen was matching its counterpart zero for zero, and, when Jansen took over, the game remained deadlocked.
Jansen struck out Kris Bryant to begin his outing, his fifth straight punchout to start this LCS, making the Dodgers' bullpen
22-for-22 in retiring Cubs in the series. However, Jansen plunked Anthony Rizzo, ending the out streak and giving the Cubs their first baserunner since the fifth inning.
All told, going back to the NLDS, L.A. relievers retired 24 straight batters -- the longest such streak in postseason history.
"The thing is we all care about each other," Jansen said. "It's not about that one guy or this. We all are here helping each other out to get better every day. That's the whole time it happened since spring training, we've been doing that."
By the time the doors to the Dodgers' clubhouse were opened to the media after the game, the bedlam inside had subsided, but there were still a lot of smiles and a lot of back-slapping. Ace lefty Clayton Kershaw was beaming as he strode past the media, and in the efficient manner he usually has, he pretty much summed up the evening.
"That was really cool," he said.
As the Dodgers and Cubs head to Chicago for Tuesday's Game 3, Los Angeles will be riding the momentum of a nice bit of historical serendipity. And along with that comes this: The last time the Dodgers led a seven-game playoff series two games to none? It was the 1988 World Series.
LOS ANGELES -- If the first round of the 2017 playoffs was defined by chaotic craziness, from starting pitchers getting shelled to defensive blunders of game-changing magnitude to managers hyperventilating with bullpen usage, we’ve had a return to normalcy after the first three games of the League Championship Series.
The Yankees and Astros have played two crisp, low-scoring games, with Justin Verlander throwing a complete-game masterpiece in Game 2. And in Game 1 of the NLCS, Jose Quintana and Clayton Kershaw delivered solid enough performances, both going five innings and allowing two runs.
It’s a reminder that even though managers continue to shift more innings from starters to relievers in the postseason, you still need good starting pitching if you expect to win the World Series. As much as the idea of relying on a conga line of flamethrowing relievers feels like the future of baseball, the early games of the playoffs exposed the risks of that formula -- unless you have a bullpen that goes seven or eight deep, like the Yankees' does. Otherwise, you’re exposing lesser relievers to critical situations, expanding the role of your best relievers, or using starters in an unfamiliar position.
That’s why the matchup of Chicago's Jon Lester versus Los Angeles' Rich Hill still looms as the most important facet of Sunday’s Game 2 at Dodger Stadium. In Lester’s case, the struggling Cubs bullpen needs him to deliver some length. Right now, Joe Maddon doesn’t know exactly whom to trust in his relief corps other than closer Wade Davis. In Hill’s case, the Dodgers' bullpen suddenly looks like a dominant force, which means if he can hand the ball to his relievers with a lead, there’s a strong likelihood of the Dodgers heading to Wrigley Field with a 2-0 series edge.
Of the 19 games played in the wild-card round and the Division Series, a starter failed to go five innings 20 times and got knocked out before finishing even three innings nine times. Hill understands the nature of the quick hook in the postseason and said this is one area where experience does help.
“If you take a guy who is younger, he may be thinking about the hook quicker,” Hill noted. “If you take a guy who is more experienced, it’s a pitch-to-pitch process, and all you’re thinking about is executing that pitch that you have on hand, and that’s it. Whether it’s your first pitch or last pitch, you have no control over that. The only thing you have control over is your effort and the intensity that you bring out there to the mound.”
This will be just the sixth postseason start of Hill’s career, but he speaks with the wisdom of someone who pitched in his first postseason in 2007 with the Cubs -- and didn’t appear in one again until last year with the Dodgers. In those intervening years, he battled injuries, wildness and ineffectiveness, and his transaction log is littered with more moves than a Yasiel Puig home run trot. He was released three times and granted free agency numerous other times. Just three years ago, the Angels purchased him and then cut him after two appearances in which he didn’t retire any of the four batters he faced.
In his start against the Diamondbacks in Game 2 of the NLDS, Hill didn’t have his best command, struggling through 78 pitches in just four innings, allowing two runs off three hits and three walks. It marked his second-lowest rate of strikes in a start this season, and the D-backs swung at just 31 percent of his curveballs, his signature pitch that has turned him into a quality starter the past two seasons.
His plan for facing the Cubs isn’t complicated. “They’ve done enough video and enough homework on all of us, right? But my approach isn’t going to change," he said. "It’s just attack and continue to throw strikes. Make them swing the bat. I think that’s something that I feel comfortable in and I don’t really mind sharing because they know that or any team that’s faced me all year, they’ll come up to the plate saying, 'He’s going to be Strike 1, he’s coming right at you.'"
Hill at least knows that manager Dave Roberts may ask for only five innings out of him, given the way Kenta Maeda, Brandon Morrow and Kenley Jansen are throwing in relief right now. The Cubs' bullpen, however, has allowed 16 runs in 20S innings in the postseason with nearly as many walks (15) as strikeouts (17) -- and those numbers include Lester’s own relief outing against the Nationals in which he allowed one run in 3S innings.
The state of the Chicago bullpen and the state of the series put Maddon in a tough position with Lester. Being down 1-0 means there’s a certain urgency to not leave a starting pitcher in too long, but handing three or four innings to the bullpen seems even riskier right now.
“We have to get our bullpen in order,” Maddon said after the Game 1 loss. “We have to be able to hold small deficits or small leads in the middle and then hopefully get to Wade in a positive situation.”
Of course, if anybody is likely to deliver a clutch outing, it’s Lester, the guy appearing in his eighth postseason with a career 2.57 ERA over 143 playoff innings. Maddon likes to say managing is more about knowing the heartbeat of the players. Well, he knows Lester’s heartbeat will be slow.
Lester also knows the Cubs have faced these kinds of situations before, noting, “We went through a lot last year in the postseason. I think we were down last year when we came in here. We were down in the World Series. So we know that we can come back in big situations.”
This is one of those matchups buried within in a series that makes the postseason special: these two veteran lefties with vastly different arcs to their careers. But both love the challenge of staring down a tough opponent.
“You get out there in these games and the adrenaline and excitement kind of take over,” Lester said. “So you don’t really worry about how tired you are. You just try to play baseball.”
Then with one jolt from Yasiel Puig, we were reminded that it's not 2016 anymore, and Kershaw now has more help than ever.
Puig hit his first career postseason homer and drove in a run with a double, and Chris Taylor hit a go-ahead homer in the sixth as the Dodgers beat the Chicago Cubs 5-2 on Saturday in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series.
The win ended a five-game skid for the Dodgers in LCS Game 1s and marked only the second time in franchise history the Dodgers have began the postseason with four straight wins.
Puig's performance was further evidence of a talented player who, at the most important time on the baseball calendar, is proving to his teammates that he's a guy on whom they can depend.
"My teammates helped me a lot this year," said Puig, who is hitting .467 this postseason. "My manager and all the coaches, that's the reason I played better this year. I'm so proud of myself, and I want to keep going and do the best I can for my teammates and for myself."
So he's better than ever?
"No, when I was 5 years old, I played better," Puig said. Always the joker.
Now back to that moment in the Dodgers' half of the fifth. It was 2-0, the Cubs on top. Kershaw had pitched fine, but a super-patient Chicago lineup had swung at only 39 percent of his pitches -- the lowest of any opponent this season. Finally, Albert Almora Jr. swung and planted one in the bleachers for a two-run shot.
"It was OK," Kershaw said of his outing. "They battled and got my pitch count up there. They made me fight. Almora put a good swing on a ball that wouldn't have been a big deal if I hadn't fallen behind [Willson] Contreras to start that inning."
It was the fifth homer Kershaw has given up during his two outings of this postseason, more than any Dodgers pitcher has given up during a single playoff year. The press box erupted in typed game narratives about Kershaw's ongoing October foibles.
Part of that was because the lead felt much larger than it was and carried with it a heavy whiff of déjà vu, a reminder of last season, when Kershaw had no margin for error against the eventual champs.
"We just tried to set a tone early against the Cubs," closer Kenley Jansen said. "We understand that they're the champions. They are a really good team. We understand that we won 104 games, but right now, it doesn't matter."
Flashback: In Game 2 of last year's NLCS, Kershaw came through, logging seven shutout innings in a 1-0 L.A. victory. The run in that game scored in the second inning, and it was the last time the Dodgers had scored for Kershaw in NLCS action until the aforementioned Puig jolt. That included the last five innings that night, five innings of Kershaw's Game 6 loss and the first 4S innings on Saturday, stretching the drought to 14S innings.
Back to the present and the key bottom of the fifth. Kiké Hernandez struck out against a rolling Jose Quintana to start the inning. At that point, Quintana had faced the minimum. Meanwhile, Kenta Maeda was throwing in the Dodgers' bullpen, and you figured there was a good chance that Kershaw was done after five innings and 87 pitches. That was the case, as he finished with a no-decision.
"I always want to go as deep as I possibly can," Kershaw said. "I've never had a bad feeling about our bullpen. But realizing that it's one of our strengths, it doesn't change that I want to go as deep as I can. But it's easier to hand the ball off to those guys."
But before we knew for sure that Kershaw was finished, the familiar hallmarks of the 2017 Dodgers -- the NL's top seed, a team that won 104 games this season and swept its division series against Arizona -- re-asserted themselves in a most characteristic way.
"[The walks] were big," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. "And even from the beginning, from the first pitch, I thought our at-bat quality was very good. Yeah, those walks got him in the end."
They also brought Puig to the plate.
Boom! Puig sent a twisting drive to left-center and raised his arms in triumph even as the ball bounded off the wall. Forsythe scored. Then Charlie Culberson -- the unexpected starter at shortstop in place of injured Corey Seager -- tied the score with a sacrifice fly, riding the wave of energy Puig had just sent out over Dodger Stadium.
"His energy is infectious," Culberson said. "When I'm on deck and he's up there doing his thing, I love it. I think our guys love it when he's like that. He's a great player, but he's a better player when he's like that."
Patience, depth and power. These things have characterized the Dodgers' offense for months now. In Saturday's game, they got Quintana out after five innings and set up a game of bullpens.
Frankly, that's a battle the Cubs are going to be hard-pressed to win in this series. Even Cubs manager Joe Maddon seems to realize this is a big difference between the teams over last season.
"Right now, I think the biggest difference is we have to get our bullpen in order," Maddon said. "That's probably the biggest difference between both seasons. That we have to be able to hold small deficits or small leads in the middle and then hopefully get to [closer] Wade [Davis] in a positive situation. I think standing out right now, their bullpen is pretty firm, and we have to really get our feet back on the ground."
For the Dodgers' bullpen advantage to pay off, they first needed a lead to protect. That's where journeyman-turned-leadoff-hitter Taylor came in. Taylor greeted a Hector Rondon fastball with a blast to right-center, putting L.A. up 3-2 to lead off the sixth. In doing so, he became the first Dodgers center fielder to put his team ahead with a homer in the sixth inning or later of a postseason game since Duke Snider in the 1952 World Series.
"People use that word 'poise' a lot, but he has poise," Roberts said. "And in big spots, he has the ability to zone in and swing at strikes and take balls. He's done that all year for us. So to get that big homer to right center really didn't surprise us. Just another thing to add to his special season."
With Seager out of the lineup and off the LCS roster, the Dodgers' lineup lacked a little of its usual firepower on paper, but Puig has emerged as a postseason hero with plenty of sizzle to go around.
Leading off the seventh, he sent a soaring fly ball that kept pushing and pushing until Chicago's Kyle Schwarber ran out of room. The ball carried just past the wall in front of the first row of bleacher seats, giving Puig six RBIs in four games this postseason, more than he has had in his four previous playoff appearances combined.
"When I hit it, I think that it's going, but later I see the left fielder say I got it, and I started running," Puig said. "I think the wind helped me a little bit tonight."
As for that battle of the bullpens, it was no contest. The Dodgers tacked on another run in the seventh against a Chicago pen that has been giving up homers by the bushel this October. Meanwhile, Kershaw and relievers Tony Cingrani, Maeda, Brandon Morrow, Tony Watson and Jansen slammed the door, locked it, and threw they key into the Pacific Ocean.
The final 18 Cubs hitters went down in order after Almora's homer, the last four retired by Jansen, the game's best closer. Jansen became the first postseason pitcher to face at least four batters, strike them all out, and record a save.
"I'm ready for it," Jansen said. "Last season I did it and I've prepared myself all season for it. I'm not trying to be a hero, but whatever the team needs me to do, I'm going to be ready to get our team in the best position to win the ballgame."
What has been the explanation for Kershaw's up-and-down postseason career?
Maybe we should be asking why Kershaw has always been expected to shoulder so much of the load. He no longer has to this season, and the Dodgers' revised formula just keeps working and working and working.
That's four consecutive postseason victories and counting for a team that believes this is its season. With each high-stakes game they take, it's getting increasingly difficult to doubt the Dodgers' collective faith. That seemed starkly true on a day that began with the news that Seager, their 23-year-old superstar, was left off the LCS roster because of a sore back.
It was almost as if that, with his teammate ailing, Puig took it upon himself to lift the spirits of everybody crammed into Chavez Ravine.
"Losing Corey is no fun," Kershaw said. "It's one of the best players on our team. Other guys are going to have to step up and we saw that with [Culberson] tonight.
"[Puig's focus has been] so impressive. The talent has always been there, and he goes through stretches where he does this. But for him to sustain it over the course of a whole game, every single pitch of every single at-bat, that's the potential that he has."
HOUSTON -- On the eve of his 18th career playoff start, Justin Verlander contemplated how he might have fared if he had played in a bygone era when pitchers were allowed to throw 300 innings in a season and finish the games they started.
"I do often wonder how I would've been back then," Verlander said Friday. "I think it would be a pretty cool time to play baseball."
And then, on Saturday, the Houston Astros ace turned back the clock.
With the sellout crowd at Minute Maid Park chanting his three-syllable last name and his supermodel fiancée Kate Upton watching from a luxury suite, Verlander turned in a Game 2 gem in the American League Championship Series that would have made Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson blush. He struck out 13 New York Yankees hitters. He completed nine innings. He threw 124 pitches.
Quite simply, he dominated.
Verlander's teammates noticed. How could they not? In a postseason when elite starting pitchers are getting knocked out of games in the middle innings, performances like this have become as rare as a solar eclipse. So, with the score tied in the ninth inning, after Verlander got slugger Aaron Judge to fly out on a 97 mph fastball, Astros shortstop Carlos Correa turned to second baseman Jose Altuve and said, "Hey, we've got to make this happen."
"When a guy like Verlander goes out there and throws nine innings and 124 pitches, you don't want to play extra innings," Correa said later. "You want to win that game for him."
Few players have more power to do that than Altuve and Correa, the best hitters on the majors' best hitting team. Sure enough, in the bottom of the ninth, Altuve lined a one-out single to left field and Correa followed with a double to the gap in right-center. Never mind that Judge cut the ball off and made a good throw to strong-armed shortstop Didi Gregorius. Astros third-base coach Gary Pettis, known for his aggressiveness, waved Altuve home the entire way.
Gregorius' relay throw easily beat Altuve to the plate -- "If you look at the [replay], when the ball is crossing home plate, he's still not in the picture," Correa said -- but catcher Gary Sanchez was unable to glove the short hop. Altuve slid home safely to give the Astros a 2-1 victory and a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
"Big moments are meant for big-time performers," Houston manager A.J. Hinch said. "From Pitch 1, Justin Verlander was big for this team. He just was every bit the top-end pitcher in the league that he's been for a really long time. He put us on his back today with his pitching."
Verlander became the first pitcher to throw a complete game with at least 13 strikeouts in a playoff start since Tim Lincecum in 2010, and the first to do it against the Yankees since Gibson in the 1964 World Series. The only pitchers with more strikeouts in a postseason game against the Yankees: Koufax (15) and Carl Erskine (14), both in the World Series in 1963 and 1953, respectively.
But here's the thing: In going retro to beat the Baby Bombers, Verlander didn't do anything new. At least, not for him. It marked the seventh time in his career that he threw at least 120 pitches in a playoff start. The last pitcher to throw more than 124 pitches in a postseason game against the Yankees: Verlander (who else?), who tossed 132 pitches in Game 3 of the 2012 ALCS.
"Dude is unbelievable," Astros right fielder George Springer said. "He comes out and just bulldogs. There wasn't any time when I thought he was going to come out of that game. It was awesome seeing him come out for the ninth. If we hadn't scored there, I wouldn't have been surprised to see him come out for the 10th. That's just him."
Hinch certainly wasn't about to lift Verlander. Not after seeing the 34-year-old strike out the side on 12 pitches in the eighth inning. Not even with the heart of the Yankees' order -- Judge, Gregorius and Sanchez -- coming to the plate in the ninth.
Over the years, Verlander has been known for pacing himself through starts to be able to maintain his velocity late in a game. This wasn't any different. His 99th pitch was a 96 mph fastball to Todd Frazier, his 109th an elevated 97 mph fastball that Brett Gardner swung through to end the eighth inning. Seven of his 16 pitches in the ninth inning were clocked at 96 mph or harder.
"It shows you how special he really can be," Astros right fielder Josh Reddick said. "I don't think many guys send their starter out in the ninth inning with 100-plus pitches. That, in itself, is pretty magnificent as well. But he's one of those guys who leaves a little bit in the tank when he needs to. He's got a little bit of a reserve tank. When he needs to dig deep, he goes in there and pulls out some pretty magical stuff."
With the exception of a two-batter hiccup in the fifth inning when he gave up back-to-back doubles to Aaron Hicks and Frazier, Verlander was in complete command. He took 13 batters to an 0-2 count, the most in any game in his career, and retired all of them, seven by strikeout. He threw more strikes (93) than most starters throw pitches, and he leaned on his slider 31.5 percent of the time, the highest percentage in any game in his career. Nine of his strikeouts came on the slider.
And once Altuve and Correa made certain he had won, Verlander was able to sit back, take stock and put this game into context in a brilliant 13-year career that has featured Rookie of the Year and Cy Young awards, an AL MVP crown and 10 postseason victories, but no World Series rings.
"It's definitely up there, if not the top," he said. "With everything that is going on, not just on the personal level but for the team, being in the championship series and being in a 1-1 game the whole way and being able to go nine and, man, just everything. It's definitely one of the most satisfying starts I've had in my career."
You get the feeling there might be more moments like this for Verlander before October is out. Five days ago, Monday at Fenway Park, he pitched in relief for the first time in his career and helped the Astros close out the Boston Red Sox in their division series.
Does anyone doubt Hinch would ask him to do that again? After all, there's nobody the Astros trust more to close out a game, even the ones he starts.
"You talk about the postseason and you're talking about Justin Verlander," Correa said. "MVP, Cy Young, he's been tested before. He's a horse. He goes out there and he's going to shut people down."
And he does it in a way that works in any era.
LOS ANGELES -- Without even playing, chalk up one big loss for the Los Angeles Dodgers heading into the first game of their NLCS showdown against the Chicago Cubs as All-Star shortstop Corey Seager was left off the 25-man roster. His back injury is apparently much more severe than manager Dave Roberts let on during Friday’s media session, when the indication was that Seager would be on the roster and in the lineup.
Infielder Charlie Culberson was added to the roster, and although he started just one game at shortstop in the regular season and you might expect he's around as a utility guy, he's in the Game 1 starting lineup, batting eighth for the Dodgers. But that is not to say Roberts didn't have options, which he might consider later on in the series:
- Enrique Hernandez: 16 starts at shortstop. Hernandez is a right-handed utility guy who has been starting in left field against lefties, including a Game 2 start against Robbie Ray in the NLDS.
- Chris Taylor: 10 starts at shortstop. Taylor came up as a shortstop before moving to the outfield (where he hadn’t played until this season). Taylor, of course, is now the starting center fielder, although he did start six games at shortstop in early September when Seager missed some time with a sore elbow. The Dodgers also added Joc Pederson to the roster this round, after he wasn’t rostered in the NLDS. In their limited action at shortstop this season, Hernandez was at plus-4 defensive runs saved while Taylor was at 0 DRS.
- Logan Forsythe: One start at shortstop. This is more of a long shot, but if Roberts wants to keep Taylor and Hernandez in the outfield, Forsythe could start at shortstop with Austin Barnes or Chase Utley playing second base. Barnes, the hybrid second baseman/catcher has been tearing it up at the plate and started two of the three games against Arizona, so this would be a way of keeping his bat in the lineup with pitch-framer extraordinaire Yasmani Grandal behind the plate. The Dodgers are carrying a third catcher in Kyle Farmer as well.
Most likely, we’ll see a lot of mixing and matching here, as the Dodgers’ depth gives Roberts a variety of options. Still, with lefty Jose Quintana starting for the Cubs in Game 1 and Jon Lester the likely starter in Game 2, no matter what lineup Roberts chooses, he will be down a productive bat minus Seager. Consider how the following players hit against lefties:
- Grandal: .233/.320/349
- Utley: .167/.286/.375 (28 plate appearances)
- Pederson: .204/.291/.306
- Curtis Granderson: .202/.274/.394 (includes Mets numbers)
- Culberson: .143/.143/.286 (seven at-bats, hit .300 versus LHPs in Triple-A)
So Roberts will be choosing between Pederson or Granderson in the outfield (with Taylor or Hernandez at shortstop), or play Forsythe at shortstop, with Grandal and Barnes in the lineup.
Against right-handers, Hernandez almost certainly stays on the bench (he hit .159/.244/.255 against them), Granderson goes to left field and then Roberts can decide whether or not to move Taylor to shortstop and play Pederson in center. Remember, the Dodgers basically buried Pederson in mid-August, sending him back down to Triple-A on Aug. 20. Upon his return, he had just 25 plate appearances with the Dodgers in center. His defensive metrics in center were also poor this year, with minus-12 DRS.
Aside from all that, the Dodgers lost their No. 2 hitter, and one who handles lefties well. With a top of the order that went Taylor-Seager-Justin Turner-Cody Bellinger-Yasiel Puig in the Diamondbacks series, Roberts had a nice right-left-right-left-right balance, making it more difficult for the opposing manager to match up out of the bullpen.
Seager actually hadn’t hit for much power since the beginning of August, with just four home runs in 191 at-bats, as the elbow issues seemed to affect his ability to drive the ball. But he still gave them good at-bats and hit .273 with a .343 OBP.
Is this injury enough to sway the outcome of the series? Dan Szymborski of ESPN Insider certainly thinks so, having crunched the numbers:
ZiPS projections for Cubs/Dodgers with and without Corey Seager in the lineup. SPOILER: He's good. pic.twitter.com/XQxv54jz2M
— Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski) October 14, 2017
There’s no denying it will have an impact, especially since the Cubs will be able to run out Quintana and Lester four times combined if the series goes seven games. The Dodgers were favorites heading into the series and should still be considered as such.
HOUSTON -- By scoring more runs in the regular season than any team in the past eight years, the Houston Astros forged their identity as an offensive dynamo capable of slugging its way into the postseason and possibly even the World Series.
Keuchel continued his mastery of the New York Yankees by blanking them for seven innings. Gonzalez provided a big assist with a perfect throw from left field to nail Greg Bird at home plate to end the fifth inning. And in so doing, the Astros proved they can win cuticle-chomping, low-scoring games just as well as wide-open slugfests, taking Game 1 of the American League Championship Series by a 2-1 margin.
"It just shows you how good of a team we really are," right fielder Josh Reddick said. "We can win the big games where we're up by a lot, or we're down by a few late, or we're up by one or two late. It just shows this team has every aspect covered."
The Astros scored 896 runs during the season, more than any team since the 2009 Yankees. And they won their division series by bludgeoning Boston Red Sox pitching. They scored early (eight first-inning runs in four games) and often (16 runs in the first two games, 24 runs overall), belting eight home runs and 18 extra-base hits.
Yankees starter Masahiro Tanaka tested the theory that subduing the Astros' offense meant defeating them. He held Jose Altuve & Co. to four hits, none of which went for extra bases, and forced the Astros to score runs the hard way in the fourth inning. Altuve reached on an infield single, stole second base and scored when Carlos Correa punched a single to left field. Two batters later, Yuli Gurriel lined a two-out RBI single up the middle.
And that was it. The team with the biggest boppers -- those sluggin' Stros -- played small ball, then relied on its pitching, defense and even its bullpen to carry it through.
"Tanaka was good again. He was able to confuse us and to control the plate," Astros center fielder George Springer said. "If it wasn't for Dallas, who knows?"
Indeed, Keuchel reaffirmed that he's nothing short of kryptonite to the Yankees. Two years ago, he punctuated a Cy Young season by tossing six shutout innings in the wild-card game at Yankee Stadium. He gave up one unearned run in six innings against New York earlier this season. And with the Astros needing him to be almost perfect in Game 1, he scattered four hits in seven innings.
Using his patented sinker, a pitch that sits in the mid-80s, Keuchel finessed seven outs on the ground. But he also recorded 10 strikeouts, joining notorious hard throwers Mike Scott and Nolan Ryan in the 1986 NLCS as the only pitchers in Astros history to notch a double-digit strikeout game in the postseason.
"I mean, we have pretty similar pitching styles, so I would expect myself to be in there," Keuchel said, laughing about his new place in franchise history. "No, I don't know. It's just ... I made a few good pitches and I got lucky on a few. But hey, that's great company to be in. I'll take it."
Keuchel was also perfectly happy to accept Gonzalez's help on what turned out to be the play of the game.
With two out and the Astros leading by two runs in the fifth inning, slumping Yankees slugger Aaron Judge stroked a single to left field on a full-count pitch. Gonzalez fielded the ball as Bird rounded third base and uncorked an on-target peg to catcher Brian McCann. Bird was clearly out, and after Yankees manager Joe Girardi challenged the play, video replay confirmed the call on the field.
"I screamed as loud as I could, like I threw the guy out," Reddick said. "It was a big moment for us. I said to [Springer] that I couldn't believe [Gonzalez] threw it in the first place. I mean, 3-2 count with guys running. Personally, I probably wouldn't have made the throw just for the chance of overthrowing.
"Really glad he did. Put it on the money. He made a heck of a play that a lot of guys don't make it."
Said Gonzalez: "All I was thinking was to get the ball as fast as I could since I knew [Bird] was on second and I knew that was the only chance to get a chance at home plate."
Even the Astros' bullpen -- the team's perceived weakness -- delivered when it was needed. Closer Ken Giles mowed through the heart of the Yankees' order in the eighth inning, getting Judge to ground out and striking out Didi Gregorius with the tying run on first base. Giles gave up a two-out homer to Bird in the ninth inning but closed out a 37-pitch, five-out save by striking out pinch hitter Jacoby Ellsbury.
Low-scoring games weren't the Astros' thing during the season. They scored three runs or fewer in only 57 games, and won only 18 of those.
As the postseason lurches forward, as runs become harder to come by, it can only help the Astros' confidence to win the type of game they're not accustomed to winning.
"It just how our team is built," Correa said. "We don't need to score eight runs every single game in order for us to win or have a chance to win. Two runs today, Dallas did his part, the bullpen did a great job, the defense was there. That's how you win ballgames."
Championships are often won that way, too.
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.