The 2016 National League Championship Series between the NL West champion Los Angeles Dodgers and NL Central champion Chicago Cubs begins on Saturday night at Wrigley Field in Chicago.
The host Cubbies, who famously have not won a World Series since 1908, went wire-to-wire to win their division going away by 17.5 games with a 103-58 record.
The visiting Dodgers last won the Fall Classic back in 1988. They struggled early, falling below .500 as late as May 22nd.
But the club rallied over the summer, and stormed past the arch-rival San Francisco Giants in late August, ultimately winning the division by four games.
Manager Joe Maddon then guided the Cubs past those Giants in the NLDS in four games, but not without drama.
Chicago won the first two games, but San Francisco won game three and held a 5-2 lead into the 9th inning of Game Four, looking to tie things up and force a winner-take-all deciding game.
The Cubs rallied off an embattled Giants bullpen, scoring four times in the top of the 9th for a 6-5 victory which advanced them into the NLCS for a second straight season. They were swept a year ago by the New York Mets.
The Dodgers found themselves in even more dire straights in their NLDS against the Washington Nationals.
Los Angeles trailed the Nats by two games to one, and Game Four rolled into the bottom of the 8th inning at Dodger Stadium tied at 5-5 with the hosts facing elimination.
But the Dodgers came up with a run to win it, then took a dramatic 4-3 victory in Game Five back in Washington thanks to big relief work from Kenley Jansen and Clayton Kershaw.
The Dodgers advance into the NLCS for the third time in the last nine seasons. They lost each of the previous three, to the Philadelphia Phillies in 2008 and 2009, and to the Saint Louis Cardinals in 2013.
The Cubs and Dodgers met seven times during the 2016 Major League Baseball regular season, with Chicago taking four of the seven games.
During four games at Wrigley Field that led from May into June, the Cubs took three of four games in a series highlighted by great pitching.
In late August at Dodger Stadium, the Cubs won the opener. But the host Dodgers came back to win a pair of one-run games in which the two clubs scored a total of six runs between them.
In all, the seven games this season between the Dodgers and Cubs resulted in 35 total runs scored. I’ll do the math for you: five runs total per game.
Despite these two teams having offensive chops, those are the types of games that we are likely to see in this NLCS. Low-scoring, pitching dominated affairs that turn on a big hit or two, or a defensive miscue, or some wild, crazy, unforgettable play.
The Cubs certainly have more of that offense. They were third in baseball, second in the NL only to the Coors Field-fueled Colorado Rockies in runs scored. The Dodgers? Only 14th in scoring.
Chicago outscored the Dodgers 808-725 over the course of the regular season, but the two clubs were relatively close in homers and extra-base hits.
The difference in the two teams offensively came from the Cubs efficiency and production. Chicago was third in MLB in OPS, while the Dodgers were just 19th, a .772-.728 difference.
Neither team runs much. The Cubs stole just 66 bases (20th) and the Dodgers swiped only 45 bags (27th), so it is not likely to become a major factor, at least not as a consistent offensive strategy.
In examining the two offensive attacks, the Cubs would appear to the team more likely to come through with the big hit in the big moment.
Both teams have strong overall pitching staffs. Chicago was first and Los Angeles finished fifth in ERA among all the teams in baseball.
The Cubs received much better work from their starting rotation. Chicago’s starting pitchers tied for the MLB lead in Quality Starts with 100, while the Dodgers rotation produced just 60, worst in the NL and 2nd-worst in baseball.
However, while the Cubs starting pitching delivered consistent excellence, the Dodgers bullpen helped even up the overall staff work.
Chicago and LA finished 1-2 in Batting Average Against. The Dodgers led all pitching staffs in the sport with 1,510 strikeouts, and the Cubbies staff was third in the game, striking out 1,441 opposition batters.
An area of the game that favors Los Angeles comes in the two teams’ defensive work. The Dodgers finished 7th in Fielding Percentage, 3rd in the NL, while the Cubs were down at 21st in baseball.
The Cubbies fielders did exhibit greater range and athleticism, as exhibited by their finishing 5th in fielding chances. The Dodgers were just 26th, possibly a result of half of their starting lineup regulars being north of 30 years of age.
An examination of the two managers shows that the 62-year old Maddon has far more experience. He has managed three different organizations over parts of 13 seasons, with an overall record of 981-852.
Maddon won two AL East Division crowns as the Tampa Bay Rays skipper in 2008 and 2010, taking the Rays to the 2008 World Series before losing to the Phillies in six games. This year’s Cubs were his 7th team in the last nine years to win 90 or more games.
Dave Roberts was a rookie manager this season, though he did lose a game in 2015 as interim skipper with the San Diego Padres after the firing of Bud Black.
While Maddon clearly has experience on Roberts, and is widely considered by baseball observers to be one of the top handful of managers in the game today, Roberts demonstrated by his use of Jansen and Kershaw in the decisive NLDS game against Washington that he knows how to win in October.
The Cubs lineup is led by young stars in 24-year old third baseman Kris Bryant and 26-year old first baseman Anthony Rizzo, and veteran second baseman Ben Zobrist, who was with Maddon in Tampa Bay.
But the Cubs have an array of young, exciting players capable of coming up in the big moment in shortstop Addison Russell, center fielder Dexter Fowler, catcher Willson Contreras, and the versatile Javier Baez.
The Dodgers lineup also features talented youngsters in shortstop Corey Seager, right fielder Yasiel Puig, catcher Yasmani Grandal, and center fielder Joc Pederson.
Los Angeles also leans on veteran first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, second baseman Chase Utley, and third baseman Justin Turner.
The Game One pitching matchup is a good one, with Cubs lefty Jon Lester bringing 17 games of postseason experience into the start against Dodgers righty Kenta Maeda, a rookie in name only at 28 years of age and with eight years experience in the Japanese Central League.
The rest of the matchups for the next three games should unfold as follows: Kyle Hendricks (CHI) vs Clayton Kershaw (LA), Jake Arrieta (CHI) vs Rich Hill (LA), and John Lackey (CHI) vs Julio Urias (LA), though Roberts has not formally announced beyond the opener.
Dan Israeli of Fansided explained the Dodgers rotation situation in this way in his breakdown of the NLCS pitching rotation:
“Despite throwing a total of 218 pitches in seven days, the Dodgers want Kershaw to pitch as early as possible in the NLCS to expedite his second start in the series. Kershaw did not face the Cubs this season due to injury.“
Right-handed rookie Ross Stripling and lefties Alex Wood and Brett Anderson are likely to be on the final LA roster for the NLCS, and any could be pressed into one start. If that happens, it would most likely happen in Game Two, in order to get Kershaw and Hill an extra day of rest.
Righties Jansen, Joe Blanton, and Pedro Baez are likely to be leaned on heavily by Roberts out of the pen, while Maddon will set closer Aroldis Chapman up primarily with the combination of Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop.
The Chicago Tribune just announced that Maddon has opted to add lefty Rob Zastryzny to his NLCS roster to counter the large number of left-handed bats available to Roberts and the Dodgers.
As a Phillies fan, I honestly have enjoyed watching Utley, Blanton, and Carlos Ruiz come through for the Dodgers in this playoff run. I fully understand why Phils’ fans have dubbed them “Phillies West” in this postseason.
However, I don’t share their enthusiasm for seeing the trio win another World Series in Dodger Blue. I simply think the Cubs are a better team, and thus, my prediction is for Chicago to win the NLCS in five games.