The 2017 National League Championship Series is finally set.
Thursday night the Chicago Cubs knocked off the Washington Nationals in Game Five of the NLDS (CHC 9, WAS 8) to clinch a spot in the NLCS. The Los Angeles Dodgers, meanwhile, earned an NLCS spot earlier this week when they swept the Arizona Diamondbacks in three games.
The Dodgers had baseball's best record during the regular season, going 104-58 with a +190 run differential. The Cubbies went 92-70 with a +127 run differential, so while they won the NL Central and had an excellent record, they were still 12 games back of Los Angeles in the overall standings.
Here is the NLCS schedule and pitching matchups:
Date & Time
Sat., Oct. 14 at 8pm ET
Clayton Kershaw vs. TBA
Sun., Oct 15 at 7:30pm ET
Rich Hill vs. TBA
Tues., Oct. 17 at 9pm ET
Yu Darvish vs. TBA
Weds., Oct. 18 at 9pm ET (or 8pm ET if ALCS is over)
Alex Wood vs. TBA
Thurs. Oct. 19 at 8pm ET
TBA vs. TBA
Sat., Oct. 21 at 4pm ET (of 8pm ET if ALCS is over)
TBA vs. TBA
Sun., Oct 22 at 7:30pm ET
TBA vs. TBA
* Games 5-7 are if necessary in the best-of-seven series.
A strong case can be made the Dodgers and Cubs are the two current teams most likely to be baseball's next dynasty. The Cubs of course won the World Series last season, and their excellent young position player core ensures they'll remain in contention for years to come. The Dodgers have a very good young core as well, not to mention gobs of money and a farm system that is still producing quality players.
Furthermore, the Dodgers and Cubs both have brilliant front offices with a strong track record of developing talent internally and identifying undervalued players with other teams. Under Theo Epstein, the Cubs have shown more willingness to really go for it with an aggressive trade at the deadline. The Dodgers made their first true all-in trade deadline move under Andrew Friedman this year, when they brought in Darvish.
Here are seven things to know about this year's NLCS.
This is a rematch of the 2016 NLCS
These two clubs met last year in the NLCS, as you may remember. The Cubs won the series in six games despite being shut out in Games 2 and 3. There were a few days there when "why can't the Cubs hit in the postseason?" was a thing. Here are the final scores:
Game 1: CHC 8, LAD 4 (box score)
Game 2: LAD 1, CHC 0 (box score)
Game 3: LAD 6, CHC 0 (box score)
Game 4: CHC 10, LAD 2 (box score)
Game 5: CHC 8, LAD 4 (box score)
Game 6: CHC 5, LAD 0 (box score)
Of course, the 2017 Cubs are not the 2016 Cubs, and the 2017 Dodgers are not the 2016 Dodgers. Based on their regular season records and nothing more, the 2017 Dodgers are better than the 2016 Dodgers and the 2017 Cubs aren't as good as the 2016 Cubs. Yes, this is a rematch of last year's NLCS. It certainly doesn't mean it'll play out in a similar fashion.
The Dodgers won the season series
Since these two clubs are in different divisions, the Cubs and Dodgers played only two three-game series during the regular season. The Cubs won two of three at Wrigley Field in April, in their first home series of the year. They raised their 2016 World Series banner before the series opener and walked off with a win in that game.
The Dodgers returned the favor by sweeping three games from the Cubs at Dodger Stadium in May. It's been a while since these two teams have seen each other.
Chicago's pitching staff is gassed
Game 4 of the NLDS between the Cubs and Nationals was rained out, meaning Games 4 and 5 were played on consecutive days. There wasn't the usual off-day for travel between Games 4 and 5. Brian Duensing, Carl Edwards Jr., and Wade Davis all pitched in both Games 4 and 5, with Davis throwing 44 pitches in 2 1/3 innings as part of a seven-out save in Game 5. He has to be running on fumes.
Furthermore, the Cubs used Jon Lester in relief in Game 4, and let him throw 55 pitches in 3 2/3 innings. He won't be on regular rest until Game 3 of the NLCS. Also, Jose Quintana, who is expected to start Game 1 of the NLCS, threw 12 pitches and got two outs out of the bullpen in Game 5. The Cubs are apparently still comfortable letting him work Game 1.
As for Game 2 of the NLCS, the Cubs have three options. One, Lester on short rest following the 55-pitch relief outing. Two, Jake Arrieta on short rest after throwing 90 pitches in his NLDS Game 4 start. (Arrieta is coming off a hamstring injury, remember.) And three, John Lackey, who hasn't thrown a pitch in an actual game since October 1, the regular season finale.
Between Davis presumably being taxed for Game 1 -- I'm sure he'll be asked to get three outs in a save situation, if necessary, but it's hard to think he'll be able to give more than that -- and the Game 2 starter up in the air, the Cubs aren't exactly coming into the NLCS with their pitching staff in great shape.
The Dodgers won't start Kershaw on short rest
Or so they say. Manager Dave Roberts insists Kershaw will not pitch on three days rest in the NLCS -- they've already announced Wood as their Game 4 starter -- which is same thing he said prior to the NLDS. We've heard this before. Even before Roberts took over as manager, the Dodgers would say Kershaw will not pitch on short rest in the series and then bam, a few days later he's out there on short rest.
Why think this time will be different? Well, two reasons. Once, Wood is the best No. 4 starter the Dodgers have had in a long time, giving the team a viable Game 4 option. And two, Kershaw missed approximately two months with a back injury for the second straight season this year, and the Dodgers might not want to push their franchise player too hard and risk further injury. What happens if they're down 1-2 or even 0-3 going into Game 4? Who knows. But for now, the Dodgers insist Kershaw will not pitch in Game 4 on short rest.
Almora is going to be a factor
Between Kershaw, Hill, and Wood, the Dodgers are going to start a left-hander in five of seven games should the NLCS go the distance. Thy also have lefties Tony Cingrani and Tony Watson in the bullpen as well. Albert Almora generally platoons with Jon Jay in center field, and check out his 2017 numbers against righties:
Albert Almora CF / Cubs
AVG/OBP/SLG: .342/.411/.486 OPS+: 142
The 23-year-old Almora, who was picked sixth overall in the 2012 draft, annihilates lefties, and he figures to see a lot of them this series. Almora went 2 for 6 with a walk in the NLDS, with five of those seven plate appearances coming against lefties. He's going to play and play a lot in the NLCS.
The Dodgers have a secret weapon in their bullpen
Everyone knows about Kenley Jansen, arguably the best closer in baseball and inarguably the best closer remaining in the postseason. He's a monster at the end of games and he will routinely close things out by going more than one inning. Brandon Morrow has revived his career this season and serves as Jansen's primary setup man.
In Kenta Maeda, however, the Dodgers have a right-on-right matchup monster for guys like Almora, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Addison Russell, and Javier Baez, among others. Here is what Maeda, who worked as a starter during the regular season, did against righties this year:
Kenta Maeda SP / Dodgers
AVG/OBP/SLG: .214/.258/.389 OPS+: 72
Maeda threw two innings in the NLDS -- it was two one inning appearances out of the bullpen -- and retired all six batters he faced, including four on strikeouts. He figures to see a lot of Bryant in the NLCS.
Winning Game 1 is important
Obvious statement is obvious: Win Game 1 of a best-of-seven series and your odds of winning the series increase. According to WhoWins.com, the team that wins Game 1 of a best-of-seven series has gone on to win the series 64.1 percent of the time. Win Game 1 at home and it jumps to 67.3 percent. You always want to grab that first game to put pressure on the other team.
That said, the Yankees just showed winning Game 1 isn't everything. They came beat to beat the 102-win Indians in the ALDS after falling behind in the series 0-2. Winning Game 1 is important, but it doesn't guarantee a series win. It sure as heck improves your odds though. Lose Game 1 of a best-of-seven and you have to beat a very good team four times in the span of six games to advance. That's tough. So yes, you want to win Game 1 and improve your odds of winning the series. Just don't think the series is over after the first nine innings.