Second City October: NLCS Game One, Cubs (0-0) at Dodgers (0-0)

The war of attrition that was NLDS Game Five in Washington is over. Choose your analogy: General Grant wearing down opposing forces, Virgil shepherding Dante through the nine circles of Hell—they all fit. In the end, it was a big ol’ goofy end to a lean and mean series, with pitchers being worked through the sausage grinder and managers praying that no Upton Sinclair would emerge to critique their process. The resulting Pyrrhic victory handed the Cubs an opportunity to face the Dodgers in a rematch of last year’s riveting NLCS.

Even If It Kills Me

Unlike last year, this year’s NLCS carries a heavier imbalance between the two teams’ current status. The Dodgers cruised to a sweep of Arizona, escaping with minimal damage done to their pitching. The Cubs… well, whatever the opposite of that is, that’s the case with the Cubs. In the final two games of the NLDS, the Cubs pitched all four of their playoff starters, with Jon Lester and José Quintana pitching in relief. On Thursday, the only relievers who did not make appearances were John Lackey and the pariah Justin Wilson. For context:

Throwing twice as many pitches and finishing three days later puts the Cubs on the defensive immediately in this series. Carl Edwards, Jr., pitched in all five games but only tallied 2 ⅓ innings, walking four of 13 batters faced and allowing five runs. Mike Montgomery has been similarly rocky, facing nine hitters, only striking out one and walking one, but surrendering three runs. Those two pitchers will have to right the ship versus Los Angeles if the Cubs are to survive.

Adding Hector Rondon to the roster would do well to quell doubts about the bullpen. Joe Maddon clearly lacks faith in Justin Wilson, and Rondon pitched very well in September both before and after his injury. Rondon would lengthen the pen significantly, allowing Maddon to have a shorter leash with Edwards and Montgomery on the way to Pedro Strop and Wade Davis.

Speaking of Davis: the righty’s gutsy seven-out save in Game Five will be the stuff of playoff legend, but he’s certain to be unavailable on Saturday. Maddon will have to be immediately creative with his ‘pen if the Cubs are to win.

Everything Is Alright

And yet… the Cubs won. Despite the cobbled-together pitching of Game Five, the Cubs emerged with a victory and a shot to return to the World Series. There are signs of life on this team, most prominently in the starting rotation.

Quintana should garner the start in Game One, as he only threw 12 pitches to four batters in successful relief on Thursday. Theo Epstein, before boarding the booze cruise plane departing Washington, alluded to Quintana’s potential status, and the likelihood is that we are treated to Quintana versus Clayton Kershaw on Saturday. Quintana finished the season strongly and tossed 5 ⅔ innings of one-run ball in a scratched-out victory on Monday versus Max Scherzer. Once again, the lefty lines up versus one of the best pitchers in the majors, and he’ll have to be close to perfect to walk away with win on Saturday. For a snapshot of how Quintana fared on Monday, revisit Mary Craig’s recap.

Kris Bryant finally roused himself from a two-game long slumber, during which he struck out six times in eight plate appearances. Thursday’s game looked to be much of the same early on, with Bryant turning in ugly first at-bat versus the struggling Gio Gonzalez, but he doubled in the third to begin the Cubs’ comeback. The jury is out on Bryant, who performed brilliantly throughout the 2016 postseason, but who has failed to put together sound at-bats so far this October.

Willson Contreras finished with an impressive NLDS, with six walks and three hits, including a home run, in 20 trips to the plate. Jon Jay had a solid Game Five, despite facing a lefty. The Cubs have a few hitters trending in the right direction, and they’ll need to be on their games if they are to avoid embarrassment at the hands of Dodgers pitching.

The Future Freaks Me Out

Last year’s NLCS topped the tense wackiness of last year’s NLDS versus the Giants. This installment will have its work cut out if it’s to top the instant classic that was the Cubs-Nationals series, but the pieces are in place: the Dodgers are solid favorites considering their regular season performance and a surfeit of rest, but they also come in seeking revenge for last year’s series loss. The Dodgers are young, hungry, and firing on all cylinders, like the Cubs of last year.

Kershaw did allow four runs in 6 ⅓ innings last Friday versus the Diamondbacks, surrendering an astounding four solo home runs, three of which came in the sixth and seventh innings. Arizona wore him down, as Kershaw also issued three walks and finished with 100 pitches. If the Cubs are to find any runs off of Kershaw, they will either have to strike early with a home run or two, or wear him down as the Diamondbacks did. With Quintana on the rubber opposite Kershaw, the Cubs should feel good. Or, as good as one could feel with a depleted bullpen and the best pitcher on the planet set to start for the other team.

GIF courtesy Jeff Kranz.

Lead photo courtesy Jayne Kamin-Oncea—USA Today Sports

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