Division Series previews: Cubs, Indians look to clinch; can Gonzalez stifle Dodgers?

A busy Monday slate of playoff action finds Chicago and Cleveland on the brink of locking up trips to the League Championship Series, while in Los Angeles, the Dodgers must face down their biggest foe: a lefthanded pitcher.
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While the Blue Jays ousted the Rangers on Sunday night, the other three Division Series are still in progress, making Monday's slate a packed one. The Indians and Cubs can both clinch, but to do so, they'll have to win in hostile territory. Here are a few quick thoughts on the upcoming action.

Nationals at Dodgers (4 p.m. ET, MLB Network)

All along, the elephant in the room with regards to the Dodgers' postseason hopes has been their ongoing struggle against lefthanded pitching. They went 22–24 in games started by southpaws, and while they had the NL's third-highest OPS against righties (.772), they had the league's lowest mark against lefties by 41 points (.627). The Nationals packed their bullpen with a trio of lefties—Sammy Solis, Oliver Perez and Marc Rzepczynski—who have held Dodgers lefties hitless in seven at-bats (with a walk) through the first two games. For Game 3, they'll start Gio Gonzalez, the lone lefty in the rotation.

Gonzalez's 4.57 ERA and 92 ERA+ were nothing to write home about, but not all of that was his fault. His 3.76 FIP is within a hair of Game 2 starter Tanner Roark, but he was seared for a .321 batting average on balls in play, which doesn't help when you're walking 3.0 per nine (10th among qualified NL starters) or giving up a lot of hard contact (32.7% of batted balls, seventh). But while righties hit .267/.333/.423 against him, lefties hit just .241/.302/.331 with one homer in 159 plate appearances—his third year in a row of holding same-side hitters to a single home run.

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Among the Dodgers' lefties, Corey Seager hit like a league-average shortstop (.250/.308 /.413), but Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Reddick, Chase Utley and Joc Pederson were much worse. You can expect at least the last three to be on the bench in favor of righties, with Yasiel Puig (.261/.313/.471 in 131 PA against lefties) likely in there, and perhaps Howie Kendrick and Charlie Culberson as well. A gutsy move would be to play switch-hitting Yasmani Grandal at first base in place of Gonzalez (.244/.293/.310 in 181 PA against lefties) with Carlos Ruiz (.271/.407/.386 in 86 PA) behind the plate, as the latter was ostensibly acquired in exchange for the popular A.J. Ellis in order to help against southpaws.

For a team that got just 9 1/3 innings out of its top two starters in the first two games of this series, Kenta Maeda does not appear to be a threat to go deep. Though he led the team in starts (32) and innings (175 2/3), he averaged just 5.5 innings per start and made a quality start just 44% of the time. Maeda misses bats (9.2 strikeouts per nine) and his run prevention is solid (3.48 ERA, 3.58 FIP), but he turns into a pumpkin during the third time through the batting order (.338/.387/.500 in 142 PA) after holding hitters to a .200/.265/.323 line the first two times through. Expect the Dodgers' bullpen, which allowed one run and four hits in 7 2/3 innings through the series' first two games, to get involved early here.

Maeda has a fairly substantial platoon split, with lefties touching him up for a .730 OPS and righties a .580 OPS. This could be where Bryce Harper (2-for-9 with four strikeouts) becomes a factor after being largely kept at bay through the first two games.

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Indians at Red Sox (6 p.m. ET, TBS)

The Red Sox have their backs to the wall. As I noted after Game 2 of Blue Jays-Rangers, just nine out of 120 teams have come back from being down 2–0 in a five-game series—including the original League Championship Series format that ran from 1969 to '84—to win. Memorably enough, these two teams were involved in one of those nine exceptions, but don't expect Pedro Martinez or Bartolo Colon to walk through that door. (The three asterisked series are the ones where the prevailing team lost the first two games at home.)

1981 NLDS: Dodgers over Astros
1982 ALCS: Brewers over Angels
1984 NLCS: Padres over Cubs
1995 ALDS: Mariners over Yankees
1999 ALDS: Red Sox over Indians
2001 ALDS: Yankees over A's*
2003 ALDS: Red Sox over A's
2012 NLDS: Giants over Reds*
2015 ALDS: Blue Jays over Rangers*

If the Red Sox lose, it will mark the end of David Ortiz's great career. Ortiz is just 1-for-8 in this series so far, with a hustle double off Cody Allen in the eighth inning of Game 1. For what it's worth, he's 4-for-28 with one homer dating back to Sept. 27, but his overall September stats were virtually identical to his stellar full-season stats (.315/.401/.620), so it's not like this minor slump would catch notice if the circumstances were different.

As for the starting pitchers in this game, neither would likely be in this position if not for injuries to Boston's Steven Wright and Cleveland's Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco. The raw numbers of Clay Buchholz (4.78 ERA, 5.06 FIP) and Josh Tomlin (4.40 ERA, 4.88 FIP) don't suggest this will be any kind of low-scoring duel, and neither does the venue, but both pitchers are worth closer looks.

After getting lit up for a 6.35 ERA through his first 10 turns, Buchholz spent the remainder of the season bouncing in and out of the rotation, finishing with just 139 1/3 innings. But when he started in the second half, six of his eight turns were quality starts, and in those 45 1/3 innings, he posted a 2.97 ERA, allowing just three homers, with a 34/15 strikeout-to-walk ratio. By comparison, just two of his first 13 turns were quality starts.

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What changed? Repertoire, for one thing: Over the final month of the season—when he wasn't switching roles every few weeks—Buchholz pitched well (3.14 ERA, four quality starts out of five appearances) while relying more on his four-seamer (32%) and changeup (21%) and less on his sinker (10%) than in the first five months (23%, 15%, and 18%, respectively). And it paid off: Where batters tattooed his four-seamer for a .253 average and .552 slugging percentage prior to September, those numbers fell to .180 and .231, respectively, down the stretch. For his changeup, which he used primarily against lefties, the numbers went from .242/.333 to .222/.259, though the samples were much smaller.

Despite Buchholz's 1.7 homers per nine at Fenway Park, he may be the starter with the better chance of keeping the ball in the yard, as Tomlin was the league's second-most homer-prone starter on a per-nine basis (1.86, 0.01 behind Jered Weaver) and tops on a per-fly-ball basis (17.7%). Those ugly numbers can't exactly be waved away as a fluke: His career rate is 1.56 per nine. Oh, and there's more bad news: This year's 33.9% hard contact rate was the eighth highest among the 39 qualified AL starters.

Tomlin survived because he continued to pound the strike zone, walking a league-low 1.0 per nine, striking out 6.1 and allowing just a .278 batting average on balls in play. He's demonstrated an ability to suppress BABIP over the course of his seven-year career: His .277 mark is tied for 11th among the 131 pitchers with at least 600 innings since 2010. It's a tightrope act, for sure, and it's worth noting that righties pummeled Tomlin for a .299/.323/.522 line this year; lefties hit just .229/.247/.438. Aside from Ortiz and Jackie Bradley Jr., Boston's big bats are righty ones, namely Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Hanley Ramirez and Dustin Pedroia. Even with a 2–0 series lead, don't be surprised if Cleveland manager Terry Francona uses an early hook to get to his deep bullpen, as he did in Game 1.

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Cubs at Giants (9:30 p.m. ET, FS1)

The Giants find themselves behind the eight-ball, having lost the first two games of the series in Chicago, but on Monday night, they'll have the postseason's most unstoppable force on the mound. Madison Bumgarner has already added to his legend this month via his four-hit shutout of the Mets in the wild-card game. Over his last nine postseason appearances (eight starts plus his epic relief appearance in Game 7 of the 2014 World Series), he has a 0.79 ERA and a 59/10 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 68 2/3 innings. Batters have hit just three homers against him during that incredible run, with a .146/.191/.206 line.

Though he posted career bests in strikeouts (251), innings (226 2/3) and ERA and ERA+ (2.74 and 149, respectively), Bumgarner's 2016 season was somewhat uneven. Through the end of July, he had a sizzling 2.09 ERA and 2.98 FIP in 150 2/3 innings. The rest of the way, however, he was cuffed for a 4.03 ERA and 3.76 FIP. His strikeout rate dipped only slightly; the big difference between the two stretches was his home-run rate, which went from 0.9 per nine to 1.3. He looked like he had snapped out of that funk last Wednesday against the Mets, but the slide bears noting.

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Also noteworthy is the extent to which Bumgarner has dominated at home: Over his past two seasons (totaling 238 1/3 innings), he's posted a 2.04 ERA, 2.61 FIP and 10.0 strikeout-per-nine rate at AT&T Park. By comparison, he's got a 3.75 ERA, 3.58 FIP and 9.6 strikeout-per-nine rate in 206 2/3 innings on the road. Some of that is ballpark effects: AT&T is particularly notorious when it comes to suppressing righthanded power, and Bumgarner's home-run rate doubles from 0.64 per nine to 1.31 across that split. Some of it is undoubtedly the psychological advantage of pitching in front of the home crowd. In other words: It may not be the Cubs' day to clinch.

That isn't to say that opposite number Jake Arrieta is any kind of slouch, but he didn't have the kind of year in 2016 that he did in '15 en route to the NL Cy Young award. His ERA rose from 1.77 in 2015 to 3.10 this year, and his FIP went from 2.35 to 3.52, with his strikeout, homer and walk rates all moving in the wrong directions to the point of cleaving his strikeout-to-walk ratio almost in half, from 4.9 to 2.5.

Most problematic for Arrieta was his rising walk rate—3.5 per nine, the NL's fifth-highest among qualified starters. Batters chased substantially fewer of his pitches outside the strike zone, and instead of smothering lefties at an obscene .159/.221/.228 clip as he did in 2015, he merely held them to a .194/.308/.304 line; their walk rate against him more than doubled, from 6.6% to 13.6%. The Giants have no shortage of lefties, with Brandon Belt, Joe Panik, Brandon Crawford, Denard Span and Conor Gillaspie likely to start, though as a team, their lefty batters' .770 OPS against righties was merely tied for eighth in the league—still better than their righties' performance against righties (.683 OPS, ninth).