This piece, written by BP Wrigleyville’s Clarissa Young, forms part of our in-house coverage of the Cubs in the playoffs, “Second City October.” Additional Game Two coverage can be found here.
When most starting pitchers throw a side session, it doesn’t involve securing the final two outs in Game 5 of a Division Series, but of course that’s exactly what Clayton Kershaw did last Thursday, coolly staring down leverage indexes of 7.13 and 6.56 in those key at bats like a man who perhaps hadn’t been warned about his narrative identity as a postseason choke-machine. Most pitchers are not Clayton Kershaw.
Although technically on normal rest, Sunday night’s Game 2 at Wrigley represented Kershaw’s third start and fourth appearance in 10 days, and for most pitchers, that would still be cause for real, even prohibitive concern, with the potential for cumulative fatigue ever-present, waiting in the wings. Again: most pitchers.
The Dodgers rode a Kershaw gem to a slim 1-0 victory to even the series at one apiece. Scoreline aside, the contest felt anything but close, with Kershaw remaining perfect through 4 ⅔. He was scorchingly brilliant against only one of the best offenses around, controlling the strike zone and getting the most from the exquisite sink on his pitches.
While it’s difficult to quantify the effect of that particular adrenaline spike the postseason provides, here’s a number: 96 MPH, the speed of Kershaw’s usual 93-94 MPH fourseam as he completed a swinging strikeout of Javier Báez in the second inning, one of six on the evening. The ace’s workload during these playoffs is drawing increasing comparisons to Madison Bumgarners’ titanic playoff feats, and at that moment he even had the arm angle to match, casually dropping to a more sidearmed approach for the occasion.
It was Báez, however, who broke up Kershaw’s perfecto in the fifth, his team down 1-0 thanks to Adrian Gonazalez’s second-inning home run. It was unsurprising that Báez was once again the hero in this way, but he still had to work for it, adjusting both his timing and bat position mid-swing to rope a single into center field. It’s the sort of little thing you likely wouldn’t have seen from the swing-happy infielder a year ago, but as in all aspects of his game, Báez is always learning and applying that knowledge with zeal.
Nowhere was Báez’s intelligence and quickness more on display than in the sixth inning, Carl Edwards Jr. having just taken the mound in relief of Kyle Hendricks with one out and runners on first and second. It was a play which surgically sliced its way around the spirit of the infield fly rule.
A shallow ball off the bat of Joc Pederson provided the spark, and it was really pretty far from a fly, more so a soft liner with short hang time. Because of this, no doubt, the rule was not called, and you can argue for or against this interpretation all day. Crucially, though, Báez played the ball deliberately on a short hop and got the force at second with Addison Russell, whom he then directed (read: yelled at) to initiate a rundown between second and third with Gonzalez eventually getting tagged to complete the inning-ending double play. By WPA (+0.091), this was indeed the Cubs’ top play of the night.
Javy did threaten once more against Kershaw on a hard-hit, deep fly ball finally caught by Pederson at the warning track to end the seventh and end Kershaw’s efficient, 84-pitch outing. That at-bat was the game in a nutshell really: Báez creating excitement but Kershaw continuing to vanquish personal postseason narratives. And the Dodgers coming out on top.
Balls hit like @javy23baez’s flyout have resulted in an .899 AVG this year.
— #Statcast (@statcast) October 17, 2016
It was Mike Montgomery, Edwards, Pedro Strop, and Aroldis Chapman who combined on the scoreless bullpen effort for the Cubs. Hendricks was no Kershaw, but he wasn’t bad in his own right. His pitch to Gonzalez which tipped the scales was not itself poorly located, though he did run into a little bit of trouble in walking four batters for the first time since June 24. On the Dodgers’ side, it was Kenley Jansen who made the two-inning appearance to continue what Kershaw had started.
After a day of travel, Game 3 picks up on Tuesday night in LA with Jake Arrieta taking on Rich Hill at 7pm CST. It’s a match-up that looks comparatively much more promising for the Cubs, who can’t have been exactly surprised to drop one to the Dodgers with Kershaw on the mound. That said, given how easily Game 1 could have swung in the opposite direction, they’ll be looking for some insurance in the form of the kind of batting we all know they’re capable of. Any improvement from Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell will go a long ways here.
Lead photo courtesy Jon Durr—USA Today Sports.