With one significant exception, everything has gone according to plan for the Cubs and Mets in their respective division series. Both split the first two games on the road and then won behind a favorable pitching matchup in Game 3, and each team is now one win away from advancing to the National League Championship Series.
Hoping to force the series back to their respective ballparks, the Cardinals and Dodgers are each turning to their Game 1 starter on three days' rest in Tuesday’s Games 4. Thus far in this year’s Division Series round, teams facing elimination are 3–0. However, in the history of best-of-five series dating back to the start of divisional play in 1969, teams that have lost a tie-breaking Game 3 have won just 10 of 45 series, or 22%.
• Not counting wild-card playoffs, the Cubs have appeared in 14 postseason series since winning their last championship in 1908 and have gone 1–13. Their only playoff series win in the last 107 years was a five-game NLDS victory over the Braves in 2003, itself a dozen years ago. Since then, 21 of the other 29 major league teams have won a postseason series.
• The Cardinals, who are in their fifth consecutive postseason, have won seven postseason series in the last five years alone and have gone 7–3 in playoff games in which they have faced elimination since 2011. The latter record is admittedly inflated by their 4–0 record in such games in their championship season of 2011. Still, in the last three years, they have skirted elimination three times, with their only losses in those situations coming in the NLCS against the Giants (in 2012 and '14) and in the 2013 World Series against the Red Sox.
• Lackey needed just 86 pitches to hold the Cubs scoreless on a pair of singles and a walk over 7 1/3 innings in Game 1, which puts him in good shape for a start on short rest. Lackey made two postseason starts on three days' rest early in his career and pitched well in both of them, allowing just two runs in 10 2/3 innings (1.69 ERA). The first of those was Game 7 of the 2002 World Series, which he started and won as a rookie. The second, and most recent, was Game 4 of the 2005 ALCS against the Yankees, which the Angels’ bullpen lost in the seventh inning after a strong 5 2/3 innings from Lackey. The only time Lackey has started on less than full rest since then was his first start of the 2009 season, which came two days after a one-batter relief appearance in which he threw just two pitches.
• Lackey posted a 3.82 ERA on the road this season, compared to what is now a 1.82 mark at home (including Game 1 of this series). That figure is a bit misleading, however. Most of Lackey’s road struggles came early in the season, and that ERA is additionally inflated by a disaster start in Colorado on June 8 in which he allowed ten runs, eight earned, in just four innings. In ten road starts since then, Lackey has compiled a 2.83 ERA, and one of those starts saw him toss seven scoreless innings at Wrigley Field on July 1. Counting Game 1, this will be Lackey’s fifth start against the Cubs this year; in each of the first four, he completed at least seven innings and only once allowed as many as two runs. As a result, he has posted a tidy 0.93 ERA against Chicago on the season.
• Chris Coghlan has excellent career numbers against Lackey, but he seems unlikely to start Game 4 given how hot corner outfielders Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber have been. Schwarber reached base twice against Lackey in Game 1, the first time the two had faced each other, and is 5-for-10 with two home runs and two walks in the Cubs’ four games this postseason. Soler, meanwhile, has come to the plate nine times in this series and has yet to make an out, hitting two home runs and a double and drawing five walks. Soler did not face Lackey in Game 1, but is 4-for-8 in his career against him with three doubles and a walk.
• There’s far less reason for optimism on the Cubs’ part when it comes to Hammel, who will start on 11 days' rest. Hammel posted a 5.10 ERA in the second half, managing just two quality starts in 14 turns. His last quality start did come against the Cardinals (6 IP, 3 R in St. Louis on Sept. 8), but on the season, he posted a 5.72 ERA against the Redbirds across 11 innings of work (one start was cut short by a hamstring injury, the other was just bad). Hammel did have a .337 batting average on balls in play in the second half, suggesting he was pitching in some bad luck, but St. Louis’ lineup is loaded with hitters who have strong career numbers against him, including Matt Holliday, Jason Heyward and Jhonny Peralta.
• Yadier Molina also has great career numbers against Hammel, but after leaving Game 3 in the sixth inning after aggravating the torn ligament in his left thumb on a swing, it’s not clear that he’ll be able to play in Game 4. Also questionable for Game 4 is Cubs shortstop Addison Russell, who left Game 3 with a tight left hamstring after legging out a fourth-inning triple. Javier Baez, who replaced Russell, singled in two at-bats and stole a base, but he also made a pair of misplays in the field. Russell did not have an MRI on his hamstring, and both he and Molina will be re-evaluated on Tuesday.
UPDATE: Molina was initially in the starting lineup, batting eighth, but has now been removed due to weakness in his thumb; Tony Cruz will replace him behind the plate and in the lineup. Russell, meanwhile, will not start for the Cubs, with Baez taking his place at shortstop and batting ninth.
• If Kershaw starting Game 4 on three days' rest with his team facing elimination seems familiar, that’s because this is how the Dodgers went out last year. After losing Game 1 of the 2014 Division Series against the Cardinals at home, Kershaw started Game 4 on three days' rest on the road and had what has become a typical Kershaw postseason start: He was great for six innings, ran into trouble in the seventh and lost due in part to a lack of run support. That’s what happened to Kershaw in Game 1 of this series, and, given that he threw 113 pitches in that game, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly can’t expect more than six innings out of his ace in this game.
• Kershaw, who has had more starts of seven-plus innings than anyone else in the major leagues over the last five years and went at least seven innings in 22 of 33 regular-season starts this year, has now made nine postseason starts and completed the seventh inning in just one of them. As for his previous two postseason starts on three days' rest, both of which came off starts in which he threw at least 110 pitches, Kershaw pitched well in both of them, allowing just ten base runners in 12 innings, striking out 15 and posting a 2.25 ERA. He didn’t get an out in the seventh inning in either game, however, and he has never pitched on anything less than full rest during the regular season.
• The young flamethrower who will attempt to take care of the “lack of run support” portion of Kershaw’s evening is 24-year-old lefthander Matz, who will be making just his seventh major league start. One of those starts, however, saw Matz hold the Dodgers scoreless for six innings on just a pair of singles (one by Kershaw’s personal catcher A.J. Ellis), a pair of walks (both to Scott Van Slyke, who is not on the Dodgers' NLDS roster) and a hit by pitch with eight strikeouts.
• Matz has yet to allow more than three runs in a start in the major leagues, though he also hasn’t pitched past the sixth inning since his major league debut in late June. After that strong outing against the Dodgers on July 5, Matz spent two months on the disabled list due to a torn latissimus dorsi muscle behind his pitching shoulder. After returning in September, he made four starts, but then missed his final regular-season turn due to more back pain. He threw 80 pitches in a simulated game last Thursday, however, giving the Mets enough confidence to include him on their NLDS roster with an eye toward giving him this start. Matz features a mid- to upper-90s four-seamer, a curveball and a changeup, all three of which miss a fair number of bats.
• With the lefty Matz on the mound, Mattingly might opt to put an entirely righthanded outfield on the field for Game 4. Certainly, Kiké Hernandez should expect to make his third straight start in centerfield, and Carl Crawford, who is 1-for-11 on the series, should sit in favor of either Justin Ruggiano or Yasiel Puig. It seems less likely, however, that Mattingly will opt to sit Andre Ethier (3-for-10 with a double and two walks on the series) for the other of those two righties.
Another tough decision will be who to start at shortstop. Mattingly went with switch-hitting veteran Jimmy Rollins over lefthanded-hitting rookie Corey Seager in Game 3 based on Rollins’s impressive history against Matt Harvey, only to watch Rollins go 1-for-5. Seager then singled as a pinch-hitter to improve to a still-underwhelming 2-for-9 on the series. There’s also the lingering fear that a Mets player may attempt retribution for Chase Utley’s slide in Game 2 with a similarly aggressive attempt to break up a double play in this game. Given Seager’s importance to the Dodgers' future, that could influence Mattingly’s decision.
• With neither starter likely to go deep into this game, the bullpens will be of utmost importance. However, the Dodgers burned longman Alex Wood in Game 3 (he threw 54 pitches), and Pedro Baez gave up three runs without recording an out; so did Erik Goeddel for the Mets, so neither seems likely to draw anything other than garbage-time duty in this game. That leaves both teams with six-man bullpens.
The Mets have the advantage in length, with Jonathon Niese fresh and Bartolo Colon having thrown just 26 pitches on Monday. However, the Dodgers have the advantage in terms of matchups, as lefties J.P. Howell and Luis Avilan both pitched well in Game 3 without exceeding 16 pitches, while Niese is the only lefty in the Mets’ 'pen. That doesn’t even factor in New York setup man Tyler Clippard’s recent struggles: Clippard failed to get through the eighth inning in Game 1 and has now allowed 11 runs in his last 13 1/3 innings. Don’t be surprised to see closer Jeurys Familia in the eighth if the Mets have a late lead in this game.