There’s no way around it: To win a seven game series, you have to win on the road. The Dodgers, behind another brilliant performance by postseason hero Clayton Kershaw, stole one in Chicago Sunday night. That victory gives the team homefield advantage with three straight games at Chavez Ravine upcoming. Protect your house and you’re in the World Series. Lose even once and you’ll have to eliminate the Cubs at Wrigley Field.
The first two games have been a promising split for Los Angeles. The Dodgers rallied from three runs back to tie it in game 1 before Miguel Montero hit the third pinch-hit grand slam in playoff history. L.A. didn’t lose any confidence, however, and proved it in game 2. Kershaw was dominant again and Adrian Gonzalez’s solo home run evened the wins at one apiece. By the way, is “Kershaw struggles in the postseason” still a narrative? It was never true to begin with, but now it’s certainly time to move on.
As previously mentioned, if the Dodgers win their home games, they win the National League. Two wins mean they carry a 3-1 lead to Chicago, with Kershaw presumably pitching in game 6 or 7. The pressure on Chicago is otherworldly enormous at this point. And their bats aren’t making things easier. The Cubs are batting .193 in the 2016 playoffs.
Chicago’s offense just hasn’t found the production that helped win it 103 games. A deeper look:
Anthony Rizzo: .043
Addison Russell: .045
Jason Heyward: .111
Dexter Fowler: .167
Ben Zobrist: .182
Can a team win the pennant with five of its eight regulars batting beneath the Mendoza Line? We’re about to find out. All the attention is on how Dave Roberts will manage the Dodgers’ rotation and bullpen, but if Chicago’s offense doesn’t find its rhythm, it may not matter who takes the mound. History suggests it is very, very hard to rebound from slumps in October. The Cubs have already beaten the odds (and evens, or as some may call them, the San Francisco Giants) and it looks as though to win their first National League title in 71 years, they’ll have to overcome another difficult “circumstance” (seems to be a theme of the league championship series).
Since the epic game 5 in D.C., the Dodgers look relieved. As I and others have mentioned before, they know they aren’t the favorites here. They don’t care. They’re playing with house money. It’s reflecting on the team and Roberts’ energy has unlocked a whole other level. Los Angeles’ confidence is at a season high. With that said, it has a few flaws that could sink the ship.
Most importantly, can someone besides Kershaw and Kenley Jansen consistently get outs? As Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times pointed out, the duo has combined for 44 percent of the Dodgers’ outs against Washington and Chicago. The strategy is working, and Roberts has done a sensational job handling it, but it’s optimistic to think that rate is sustainable. Also of note: The Dodgers are 0-4 in games Kershaw hasn’t taken the mound.
One source of problem is Kenta Maeda, who hasn’t made it past the fourth inning in roughly a month. There’s been outside speculation the team could give him extra rest before his next start, perhaps rolling with Rich Hill in game 3, Julio Urias in game 4, then using Kershaw in game 5. Of course, with Roberts there’s no telling what could be in play.
Hill and Urias cannot be counted on to exceed five innings. The normally reliable Joe Blanton had a major hiccup in game 1. Pedro Baez has gotten a fair bulk of work while keeping the ball in the park. But the non-Jansen relievers are going to have to come up big. Their No. 1 regular season ranking means nothing now.
ESPN’s Jayson Stark offered his insight on Buster Olney’s “Baseball Tonight Podcast” Monday morning (titled “The Narrative”). He expressed concern over Kershaw and Jansen’s workload and laughed about how “wacky” the Dodgers’ season has been. He added that he finds Roberts to be a breath of fresh air.
“It’s really been interesting to watch how these [postseason] games have been managed,” Stark said. “And especially how Dave Roberts has managed his first time through this … They’ve got to figure out a way to get through the next three so Clayton can play hero again in game 6. It’s been incredible to watch the urgency with which Dave Roberts manages the games … It’s refreshing. We haven’t seen nearly enough of that until this postseason.”
Olney alluded to Buck Showalter’s gaff not pitching Zach Britton in the American League wild card game as one reason for the surge of bullpen creativity. Regardless, Roberts and Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona have been the stars of the playoffs. Their styles may have a bleeding effect that becomes a staple of future postseasons.
Offensively, how about getting Adrian Gonzalez some help? Andre Ethier went yard in game 1, but Gonzalez did the rest of the damage. In game 2, the team had three hits: one by Kershaw, one by Josh Reddick and the solo homer from Gonzalez. Corey Seager, the team’s best batter in the regular season, doesn’t have a hit after the first inning this postseason. Even if the Cubs bats don’t wake up, they can still win because of L.A.’s own offensive ineptitude. The series could be as simple as which offense shows ANY semblance of life first.
In the end, the Dodgers have homefield advantage in the NLCS. What they do with it – and if they can win without Kershaw taking the mound – will be the deciding factor if L.A. is to win its first pennant since 1988.