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NLCS Notebook: Cubs vs. Dodgers

   10-20-2017

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Los Angeles wins the series, 3-1.

For dad

Kiké Hernandez had just become the 10th player to hit three homers in a postseason game to lead the Dodgers' 16-hit attack in a 10-1 victory that clinched the club's first National League pennant in 29 years. He had been drenched in champagne and beer by his teammates, interviewed on and off camera. But the Game 5 hero still wasn't ready to celebrate, not until after he'd shared the high point of his career with his dad. "The No. 1 thing for me, I just wanted the game to be over so I could give my dad a big old hug," Hernandez said. "I didn't care about anything else." His dad, Enrique, Sr., who has fought multiple myeloma cancer, undergone a bone marrow transplant last year and his now in remission, had waited patiently in the visitors' family area at Wrigley Field while his son did multiple interviews. He couldn't have been happier. “Before the game, he told me ‘Papa, I feel very well today,” Enrique told Yahoo! Sports. “I feel good about my swing. I'm going to hit well.”  When he finally allowed himself a beer and a moment to reflect, Hernandez was also proud he had been able to give his people in Puerto Rico a moment of respite from their struggles as they recover from the hurricane that devastated the island. “You never dream of hitting three home runs in a game,” he said. “It means the world to me to give the people of Puerto Rico something to cheer for, even if it's for three or four hours or however long this game lasted."


 

National League Championship Series, Game 5
Chicago Cubs vs. Los Angeles Dodgers
Oct. 19, 2017 

Kershaw tries again

It's always awkward during postseason play for the next day's pitcher to answer questions about his preparation at the daily pre-game press conference when that potential start comes with the “if necessary” caveat and the best-case scenario means that he doesn't pitch at all the next day. So Clayton Kershaw tried his best to explain the mindset for a pitcher in that situation. “I have to expect to pitch and then be surprised when we win,” he said before Game 4. “It's a tough spot because, obviously, I believe in our team and I believe that we can win (game 4). But I can't let myself mentally go there.” Turned out, the Dodgers didn't sweep the series and Kershaw would get his chance to help the Dodgers secure their first World Series berth in 29 years. The left-hander has the lowest career earned run average (2.36) among active pitchers, seven consecutive All-Star Game appearances and three Cy Young Awards, but the World Series has eluded him despite being part of three previous teams that reached the NLCS. He was about seven months old the last time the Dodgers won the pennant in 1988.  “I think we're in a pretty good spot,” manager Dave Roberts said. “We have our No. 1 pitcher going tomorrow.”

Rested pitchers

Not only was ace starter Clayton Kershaw relatively untaxed for the third week of October and pitching Game 5 on four days' rest, but set-up man Brandon Morrow and closer Kenley Jansen were both held out of the Dodgers'  loss and ready to pitch multiple innings, If necessary, for the Dodgers in Game 5. Despite the loss and a fifth-inning exit for starter Alex Wood, the Dodgers' bullpen has held the Cubs scoreless in the series. The ninth-inning single Tony Cingrani surrendered was just Chicago's third hit off the Los Angeles relief corps. Manager Dave Roberts has used multiple relievers and taken advantage of match-ups. A combination of Ross Stripling, Tony Watson, Kenta Maeda, Cingrani and Josh Fields kept the Dodgers in Game 4 until the end.

Quintana looking to send series back to L.A. 

Facing another potential elimination game, the Cubs will  turn to José Quintana in Game 5. Quintana started the first game of the NLCS, but was tagged with the loss. In three postseason games (two starts), Quintana carries a 1.59 ERA in 11 1/3 innings pitched. He has struck out 11, while allowing opponents to hit just .132. “Q's been great,” manager Joe Maddon said after Game 4. “He's ready to play all the time. Q's just good stuff. The stuff's really been spiking in a positive direction, velocity has been up, curveball has been better. I know one thing, he'll be ready to pitch tomorrow night.”

Báez powers Cubs to #FlytheW

Javier Báez was 0-for-20 in the 2017 postseason prior to Game 4. With the Cubs on the verge of being swept by the Dodgers in the NLCS, Báez delivered. He smacked two home runs to pace the Cubs' offense as they forced a Game 5 with a 3-2 win. For Báez, it was his second-ever multi-home run game and first since since Aug. 7, 2014 at Colorado. Maybe Báez just saves his best for potential elimination games, as four of his five postseason home runs have come in those games. “I've been trying to get a base hit so hard,” Báez said after the game. “Tonight I just said to myself not to try too much, and I didn't, and there you have it. I had two good contacts and win the game by one run.” 

Today's Turner stat

Justin Turner, who went 2-for-2 with a homer and two walks in Game 5, now has the highest on-base average in postseason history among players with at least 100 at-bats, according to statistician extraordinaire Ryan Spaeder. Turner's .495 is ahead of both Lou Gehrig (.483) and Babe Ruth (.470).  He has five hits and five walks in 18 plate appearances this series and two of those hits were home runs. The 32-year-old Turner has been in the majors for nine seasons, but he wasn't a regular until after joining the Dodgers in 2014 and only this season made his first all-star team. The work ethic that got him this far works wonders in the clubhouse, as well. “I think one of the things is he can connect with a lot of guys because he's done a lot of different things,” Clayton Kershaw said. “He's been a utility player. He's been released, non-tendered, all that stuff. So he's had to really fight for where he's come from, so he can really relate to now he's a superstar.”


 

National League Championship Series, Game 4
Chicago Cubs vs. Los Angeles Dodgers
Oct. 18, 2017 

Taylor terrific

At 26, Chris Taylor wasn't even considered one of the Dodgers' top prospects in late March when he was sent out to Triple-A Oklahoma City near the end of spring training. Now, entering Game 4, he is the catalyst of a club on the verge of reaching the World Series. A fixture at the top of the lineup after coming on by storm during the regular season and batting .288 with 21 home runs and 72 RBIs, Taylor has been maybe more valuable due to his versatility in the field. He played left field, center field, second, third and shortstop not this season but just in the six postseason games the Dodgers have played – and won – the last couple weeks. He hit a 444-foot home run and added an RBI triple for the Dodgers in Game 3, the home run being the longest measured by Statcast technology this postseason. In the Dodgers' first six postseason gamer, Taylor was hitting .280 with a .379 on-base average, a double, triple and two homers. He'd scored six runs and batted .375 with runners in scoring position. If this offense firepower sounds incredible for a 6-foot-1 utility player who doesn't crack 200 pounds and had hit just one home run in 120 major league games before this year, it's because it is. Taylor was at a crossroads in his career this offseason when he decided to make a mid-career swing change, introducing a leg kick and adjusting his hand positioning in an effort to drive the ball more. “I really didn't know what to expect. I was coming in, I had to feel uncomfortable. That was the biggest thing. I knew I had to kind of make that drastic change right away and get out of my comfort zone,” Taylor said after his Game 3 outburst. “I always have confidence in my ability, and obviously I was hoping it would come.” That the swing adjustments worked doesn't seem like a sufficient explanation for Taylor's success this season, but it's a start.

Well-earned start

It's testament to the Dodgers' depth, execution and efficiency that Alex Wood could go 16-3 with a 2.72 ERA and not be needed in the postseason until NLCS Game 4. That's how well Los Angeles has pitched and played defense in sweeping the Diamondbacks and jumping out to a commanding 3-0 lead in the championship series. That also makes Wood's first postseason start (he relieved in NLCS Game 4 last year) a potential pennant-clinching game for the Dodgers. Although the 26-year-old left-hander wasn't quite as sharp in the second half as he was in the first when he went 10-0 with a 1.67 to make the NL All-Star team, Wood told the media he's ready and unconcerned about the three-week layoff between starts. "I feel good with where I'm at," Wood said. "Getting that time off, too, it's late in the year. So how your body feels throughout the year, and that part of it is probably a little more of an advantage getting your legs back underneath you." Wood told reporters he thought the two simulated games he's recently pitched against regular hitters was a good way to remain ready. “Obviously, it's a little bit different getting in the game scenario and (in terms of) your endurance.”

Play it again Jake!

Jake Arrieta is probably the pitcher most associated with the Cubs' renaissance and first World Series championship since 1908 last season.  Traded by the Orioles to the Cubs in 2013, the right-hander from Texas had a strong 2014 then won the Cy Young Award in 2015 when he was 22-6 with a 1.77 ERA over 229 innings. He was 18-10 with a 3.10 in 2016, earning his first trip to the All-Star Game and leading the franchise to its curse-breaking World Series win. So with the knowledge that he will become a free agent after the season and might not be coming back, the tall 31-year-old wasn't in the mood to entertain the possibility his Game 4 start would be his last at Wrigley Field. “Hopefully we come out ready, as I know we will, and I get another shot,” he told the media. “… We've been pretty good for an extended period of time, being able to win multiple games in a row, and that's exactly what we intend to do.”


 

National League Championship Series, Game 3
Chicago Cubs vs. Los Angeles Dodgers
Oct. 17, 2017 

Game Turner

Long Beach, Calif.-born Justin Turner knew exactly where he was when Kirk Gibson limped to home plate and hit his dramatic walk-off home run against A's closer Dennis Eckersley in the 1988 World Series exactly 29 years ago to the day before he hit his own postseason walk-off home run in Game 1 of the 2017 NLCS on Sunday night. “One of my earliest baseball memories was being at my grandma's house and watching that game in '88 and seeing Gibby hit that homer,” said Turner, who was just about to turn 4 at the time. “So, yeah, it feels pretty cool. I thought about doing the fist-pump around the bases, but we'll wait until we get to the World Series for that, hopefully.” Turner's three-run home run to center with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, sent delirious Dodgers fans happily into the night with a 4-1 win. He was the first Dodgers player to hit a walk-off in postseason play since Gibson's legendary blast. Turner, who drove in all four Dodgers runs, having already delivered a game-tying single in the fifth inning, is becoming a postseason legend himself. The 32-year-old third baseman now has a .377 batting average with 22 RBIs in postseason play and is 13 for 18 with runners in scoring position (.722), including 6 for 8 this year. Among players with at least 90 postseason plate appearances, only Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth (both 1.214) have a higher OPS than Turner's 1.115.

New Yu

Yu Darvish is no longer the same pitcher he was with the Rangers and the early part of his tenure with the Dodgers following the July 31 trade. The 31-year-old right-hander from Japan was 6-9 with a 4.01 in 22 starts for the Rangers and 2-5 with a 5.34 ERA in his first six starts with the Dodgers before he and the club decided to try some adjustments. They've adjusted his arm angle to close to where it was before his Tommy John surgery simplified his repertoire, dumping his split-finger and change-ups, to focus more on his devastating slider. “I think the biggest difference is that the pitch that I use I throw for strikes,” Darvis said through an interpreter on Monday. “That's my main priority right now, I think that's what I'm doing well compared to what I was doing before, throwing those pitches for strikes.” During his final three regular-season starts, Darvish was 2-0, allowing just one run on nine hits and a walk and brought his ERA down from 4.08 to 3.86 for the season. In the NLDS clincher over Arizona, he allowed just a run on two hits over five innings. Manager Dave Roberts praised Darvish for buying into the adjustments and putting in the time and effort to make them work. “It's a lot to take in. But he's just so athletic, he's so intelligent, and he competes. So now you take the information part and you take kind of the biomechanics part and just working on his bullpens and trying to have success in a major league game, which is tough. But he's been really diligent about trying to figure it out."

Hendricks takes the ball in Game 3

With 2017 being just his fourth season in the majors, Kyle Hendricks seems like a veteran when it comes to postseason pitching. He made two NLDS starts –Games 1 and 5 – and went 1-0 with a 3.27 ERA in 11 innings pitched. Hendricks struck out 13, compared  to just four walks. The right-hander from Newport Beach, Calif., – about an hour from Dodger Stadium – is no stranger to the Dodgers. In last year's NLCS, Hendricks started the clinching Game 6, throwing 7 1/3 shutout innings as he earned the victory. “He's had success against these guys in the past, especially in this building,” manager Joe Maddon said. “So I feel really good about it.”

Chicago in need of offense

As Chicago returns back home for Game 3, the Cubs will be looking for an offensive jolt, as the club has scored just three runs in two games. The help could very well come from centerfielder Albert Almora. The 23-year old led all Cubs with a .364 average at Wrigley Field this season. First baseman Anthony Rizzo also sports a .436 on-base percentage at the Friendly Confines. 


 

National League Championship Series, Game 2
Chicago Cubs vs. Los Angeles Dodgers
Oct. 15, 2017 

Middle of the action

Charlie Culberson has appeared in 197 regular season games and another four in postseason play over five seasons but the journeyman infielder hadn't been in the Dodgers' lineup for two weeks when he got the call on Friday night that he would be starting at NLCS Game 1 in place of shortstop Corey Seager, who was left off the roster when his lower back didn't respond sufficiently to treatment. The 28-year-old was the 51st overall draft pick in 2007 when he was coming out of Calhoun (Ga.) High School but played most of his baseball this summer for Triple-A Oklahoma City before joining the Dodgers in September. But in Game 1 he batted eighth and contributed a game-tying sacrifice fly in the fifth inning and a seventh inning double after which he would score in Game 1's most controversial play. Racing to score from second on Justin Turner's single, Culberson missed home on his slide but the umpires ruled that catcher Willson Contreras had blocked the plate.

Man of the moment

Yasiel Puig, who is not the type of player who would shrink from the moment, delivered big for the Dodgers in Game 1. The Wild Horse doubled in a run in the fifth inning, homered leading off the seventh, kissed his bat, wagged his tongue and delighted the crowd at Dodger Stadium. His teammates are enjoying the show. Cody Bellinger, a finalist for the 2017 Players Choice Award as the NL Outstanding Rookie, was caught on camera exchanging playful tongue wags with his teammate. “He's having fun out there and we're all feeding off him,” closer Kenley Jansen told USA Today. “The fact is that he plays hard, plays with passion, energy, and we love him.” The Cuban-born slugger is batting .467 in the postseason.

The Dodgers' pen

The Cubs' final 18 batters went down in order following Albert Almora's two-run homer in the fourth inning. Clayton Kershaw pitched through the fifth then the bullpen tag-team of Tony Cingrani, Kenta Maeda, Brandon Morrow, Tony Watson and Kenley Jansen was perfect from there. Maeda, who has moved to the bullpen for the postseason, got the win after a thrifty five-pitch, three-out performance. “The credit goes to Kenta as far as buying in and understanding that every out in the postseason is important,” manager Dave Roberts said. “So when he gets his opportunity, he's been light's out.”

Lester is ready

Veteran left-hander Jon Lester was given the Game 2 assignment for the Cubs, the 21st postseason start of his 12-year career. He wasn't concerned about being able to bounce back after throwing 55 pitches Tuesday in Game 4 of the Division Series. Lester, 33, retired the first 10 batters he faced and allowed just one hit over 3 2/3 innings in his first relief appearance since Game 7 of the 2016 World Series. “I'm not worried about it. It's kind of just work in between (starts),” he said. “Just got to do it (throw) in the game as opposed to on the side. So I don't think it's a problem. This time of year you have to adjust and figure it out.” Words of wisdom from a man who has three World Series rings.


 

National League Championship Series, Game 1

Chicago Cubs vs. Los Angeles Dodgers
Oct. 14, 2017

 

Setting the stage

Get ready for Cubs-Dodgers, Part II. The teams competed in the NLCS last season, as well, with the Cubs advancing in six games. This season has a little different feel, though. The Dodgers enter with the best record in baseball (104-58), while last season the Cubs were tops in the regular season. The two teams met six times during the regular season, with Los Angeles taking four of six, including a three-game sweep at Dodger Stadium. Game 1 gets underway from Chavez Ravine on Saturday at 8 p.m. ET, while Game 2 is set for Sunday at 7:30 p.m. The series will shift to Chicago and Wrigley Field for Game 3 on Tuesday, with Game 4 on Wednesday. If necessary, Game 5 would be Thursday, while Games 6 and 7 would be back in Los Angeles, on Saturday, Oct. 21, and Sunday, Oct. 22, respectively. The Dodgers pitching staff was fierce at home in 2017, carrying the major's lowest home ERA at 3.01, while the team went 57-24 at Dodger Stadium.

The Wild Horse Factor

Can Cubs pitching corral the Wild Horse? One way or another, Yasiel Puig will be an important factor in the NLCS. The sometimes enigmatic but always entertaining Cuban-born slugger was in rare form in the Dodgers' Division Series victory over the Diamondbacks. For the series, Puig was 5-for-11 (.455) with two walks, just one strikeout and four RBIs. He also flipped his bat on a single to center and twice licked his bat. The first time was just after fouling off a fastball from Taijuan Walker in the first inning of Game 4 and he followed that with a run-scoring double. "They throw me a lot of fastballs," Puig said. "A lot of sliders. I fight the best I can, and all the time I hit a foul ball, I thought it was my bat, and the next pitch, hit a double. That's good. I'm going to keep doing that." At 26, Puig batted. 263 with a career-high 28 homers and moved up to the fifth spot in manager Dave Roberts' order. "This season I played the best I can with my teammates," Puig said. "They helped a lot, my manager, and that's the reason I played better this year.”

Daring to dream

Clayton Kershaw has packed an awful lot into his first 10 seasons with the Dodgers. The 29-year-old left-hander has won three Cy Young Awards and appeared in seven All-Star Games. He's had an NL-best earned run average four times, while leading the league in wins and strikeouts three times each. He's also been on Dodgers teams that have reached the NLCS four times. But the 6-foot-4 Texan still hasn't pitched in a World Series. While enjoying the champagne celebration with his family in the visitors' clubhouse in Arizona, Kershaw dared let his mind go there.  “This was a lot of fun,” Kershaw told the Los Angeles Times. “The next one, I've never done it before. I bet it's going to be bigger. And then the next one — I might not sleep for 10 days after that.” Kershaw, who took the loss in Game 6 of the 2016 NLCS, came back to lead the NL in wins (18), ERA (2.31) and strikeout-to-walk ration (6.73) this season. He won his Division Series start in Game 1, allowing four runs on five hits with three walks over 6 1/3 innings while striking out seven. It was Kershaw's only start of the postseason and now he will have had seven days' rest for his NLCS Game 1 start on Saturday. “No one wants it more than he does, and no one is going to compete more,” Roberts said. “But I think to have the guys in the ‘pen, who I feel very confident in going to, lends itself to not pushing him.”

Dodgers Magic?

Dodgers co-owner Earvin Magic Johnson knows a little bit about the excitement of sports-crazy Los Angeles during the playoffs, having been there 13 times during his Hall-of-Fame career with the Lakers, so he's proud of his team and happy they're going to experience that same feeling he felt every spring in the 1980s. "But I can't hit and pitch or play defense. I sit back and watch these guys do it, and they're doing a wonderful job,” Johnson told ESPN. “It's their turn. I've had my moment … The town is on fire right now with the Dodgers." Magic, of course, also knows that winning a championship is the best feeling of all. "I want a World Series for the Dodgers so bad,” said Johnson, who played on five NBA championship teams. “I want it for the players. Clayton Kershaw, Adrian Gonzalez. Man, I want it for them. I want it for the fans, who have waited so long. I want it for Dave [Roberts], he's done such a good job," Johnson said. "I want that World Series for them all so badly."

Check out our #MLBPlayers411 series for more information on some of the players participating in the postseason: 

Los Angeles Dodgers

Chris Taylor

Kenley Jansen

Cody Bellinger

Chicago Cubs

Wilson Contreras

Pedro Strop

Ian Happ

Mike Montgomery



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