How important is winning the first game of a best-of-five series? Teams that have done so have gone on to win the series 72% of the time, but that rate isn't important just because it's Game 1. It’s also significant because winning even one game in a series this short matters so much (Game 2 victors have won the series 73% of the time, and Game 3's winning team takes the series 72% of the time). The second half of Friday’s Division Series slate finds the four remaining National League teams jockeying for that all-important first win.
• Despite a four-year gap in age and the fact that they throw with opposite hands, the 31-year-old Lester and 36-year-old Lackey have a great deal in common. The two were teammates for 3 1/2 years with the Red Sox, becoming good friends and forming half of Boston’s championship rotation in 2013. Both were traded by the Sox at last year’s non-waiver deadline. Both are big, strong, veteran horses who throw in the low-to-mid 90s and spent most of their careers prior to this year in the American League. Both made World Series-clinching starts before qualifying for a regular-season ERA title (Lackey in Game 7 of the 2002 Series with the Angels, Lester in Game 4 of the '04 Series for Boston).
Most importantly, both have excelled in the postseason ever since. Lackey has posted a 3.08 ERA in 18 postseason starts and three relief appearances. Lester has a 2.57 ERA in 12 playoff starts and two relief appearances, including a pair of dominant wins over the Cardinals in the 2013 World Series.
• Lester has a 2.59 ERA in five starts against St. Louis this season, including a 1.29 mark in two starts at Busch Stadium. Yet, even with those two outings in the 2013 World Series included, the non-pitchers on the Cardinals roster have hit a combined .269/.339/.463 against the southpaw in their careers. Surprisingly, lefty Jason Heyward has the best career line against him, going 10-for-24 (.417) and slugging .708. Jhonny Peralta, a former American Leaguer who has faced Lester a team-high 53 times, has hit .292/.358/.542 with three home runs in his career against him.
• Lackey has posted a 1.93 ERA in 17 home starts this season. He is also 2–0 with a 1.25 ERA in three starts against the Cubs this year and has never given up a home run to player on Chicago's Division Series roster. Lackey hasn’t faced the Cubs since July 6, however, and has thus never faced rookie lefthanded slugger Kyle Schwarber, who led his team in at-bats per home run. He also hasn’t taken on Starlin Castro since he turned around his season.
• Chris Coghlan gets the start in leftfield in this game: He is 8-for-17 (.471) career against Lackey, with all of those at-bats coming since Lackey was traded to St. Louis last July. That’s by far the best batting line in the most plate appearances by any active Cub against Lackey. With Coghlan in left, Kris Bryant returns to his usual spot at third base, with Schwarber staying in right.
• The Cubs’ hitting stars in their 4–0 wild-card game victory over Pittsburgh were lefties Dexter Fowler and Schwarber, the top two hitters in their order; they went a combined 5-for-7 with two home runs (one each), three runs scored and four RBIs. Both had been in long slumps prior to that game: Fowler had gone 105 plate appearances without a home run coming into Wednesday, hitting .226/.314/.280 over that span, and Schwarber had gone 69 PA without a home run, hitting .179/.333/.196 during that time. That makes it very encouraging for Chicago to see both come up big in that game.
Mark J. Terrill/AP
• Kershaw is 1–5 with a 5.12 ERA in the postseason, but those figures overstate his struggles in October. Starting with his first of three Cy Young-winning seasons in 2011, Kershaw has made six postseason starts, four of which have been quality (including both of his starts on three days' rest), and a fifth saw him work six scoreless innings before things fell apart.
If there’s a concern about Kershaw in the postseason, it’s his uncharacteristic lack of endurance. He has completed seven innings in just one of those six starts—Game 1 of the 2013 NLDS against the Braves—and it took him 124 pitches to do so. By way of comparison, he pitched seven or more innings 22 times during the 2015 regular season and topped that pitch count just once, throwing 132 pitches in a 15-strikeout–complete-game win over the Giants on Sept. 2. The seventh inning was his downfall in both of his starts in last year’s Division Series against the Cardinals: Through the first six innings of those starts, he allowed a total of two runs and struck out 18, but he allowed a combined nine runs while recording just two outs in the seventh innings.
• Another source of Kershaw’s postseason misfortune has been a lack of run support due to him always matching up against a front-end starter from the other team. Among the four postseason losses he has suffered over the last two seasons, two came by scores of 1–0 and 3–2. In deGrom, he has a mound opponent who ranked fourth in the NL in ERA this season (Kershaw was third), posting a 0.98 WHIP and striking out 205 batters in 191 innings. In his only start against the Dodgers this season, deGrom held Los Angeles scoreless on two hits over 7 2/3 innings, striking out eight.
• The Dodgers will likely load up their lineup with lefties against the righthanded deGrom, who has a sizeable platoon split, with lefties compiling an OPS 188 points higher than that of righties against him this season. It’s entirely possible that Kershaw’s personal catcher, A.J. Ellis, could be the only righthanded hitter in the Dodgers’ order, which is just as well given that the team’s regular backstop, switch-hitting Yasmani Grandal, is 3-for-82 since developing soreness in his left shoulder in mid-August. One Dodgers lefty deGrom has never faced is hot-hitting rookie shortstop Corey Seager. Adrian Gonzalez, meanwhile, is 3-for-8 with two home runs in his career against deGrom, though all three of those hits came last year.
• The Mets are expected to go with Ruben Tejada at shortstop over fan favorite Wilmer Flores in this series, largely because of Tejada’s superior play in the field. As an added bonus, Tejada has the best career numbers against Kershaw of any hitter on New York's NLDS roster, going 5-for-14 (.357) with three walks (.471 OBP) against the Dodgers’ ace.
In addition, expect the Mets to find room for righty Michael Cuddyer in their lineup against the lefty Kershaw. Cuddyer has started New York’s last five games against an opposing lefthanded starter, primarily by pushing rightfielder Curtis Granderson (1-for-10 career against Kershaw and .183/.273/.286 against lefties this year) to the bench. Righty-hitting catcher Travis d’Arnaud and rookie lefty Michael Conforto have never faced Kershaw before.
• David Wright is the only Met remaining from the team's last postseason appearance in 2006. Kershaw was drafted that June; deGrom was just starting his senior year of high school; Seager was 12.