- Already on to the NLCS after finishing off the Giants in the Division Series, the Cubs must now wait for Los Angeles and Washington to finish their series. But which team is a better matchup for Chicago?
With their ninth-inning comeback in Game 4 of the Division Series against the Giants, the Cubs bought themselves a couple of extra of days to rest before squaring off against the winner of Thursday night's Division Series Game 5 between the Dodgers and Nationals. Game 1 will be at Wrigley Field on Saturday at 8 p.m. ET. Which team should the Cubs want to face? Here are a few quick thoughts as to the matchup that's most favorable to them.
The Case for the Nationals
The Nationals started the season 19–8 before being swept by the Cubs in a four-game series at Wrigley Field from May 5 to 8—one in which Chicago walked Bryce Harper 13 times, including a record-tying six in a 13-inning win on May 8. The trouncing briefly cost the Nationals first place in the NL East, though they soon regained it. It did, however, appear to send the already-struggling Harper into a deeper funk: He went just 12-for-59 the rest of the month as other teams began to pitch around him more often. He wasn't much of a factor when the Nationals took two out of three against the Cubs in Washington from June 13 to 15 in the balance of the season series between the two teams.
Harper's relatively subpar season was part of the reason why the Nationals weren't as strong against righties as they might otherwise have been; their .742 OPS ranked fifth in the league, 17 points behind the Cubs and 30 points behind the Dodgers. Chicago will likely lead with lefty Jon Lester in Game 1, and while the Nats were third in OPS against lefties (.783), the balance of their postseason rotation—Kyle Hendricks, Jake Arrieta and John Lackey—is righty. Even then, Chicago doesn't lack for lefthanded bullpen arms to counter Harper and Daniel Murphy in the late innings via Travis Wood, Mike Montgomery and Aroldis Chapman. Harper is 2-for-11 against lefties during the NLDS, albeit with two walks, including the big eight-pitch free pass that chased Clayton Kershaw in Game 4. Murphy is 6-for-10 against lefties with a pair of walks so far, continuing a season-long feast against southpaws (.329/.376/.548), so that might not be such a big deal.
Still, one reason to favor a matchup with Washington is that its lineup isn't so deep. With catcher Wilson Ramos done for the year due to a torn ACL, Harper, Murphy and Trea Turner are the only remaining regulars who hit for an OPS+ of at least 100 during the regular season. Backup catcher Jose Lobaton did have the big blow off the Dodgers' Rich Hill in Game 2, and both Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman have been much more productive during the Division Series than the regular season.
The other big reason for Chicago to favor a matchup with Washington is that ace Max Scherzer, who is starting Game 5, wouldn't be available until Game 3 of the NLCS and then either Game 6 on three days' rest (something he has never done) or Game 7 on regular rest. That said, the Dodgers got to Scherzer for four runs in six innings in Game 1, and the Cubs aren't as lefty-heavy as the Dodgers are, which is good for Scherzer, who yielded a .757 OPS to lefties this year compared to a .477 OPS to righties and has a 132-point split for his career (.733 against lefties, .601 against righties). Still, even with likely Game 1 starter Tanner Roark posting a lower ERA than Scherzer in both the regular season (2.83 to 2.96) and the Division Series (4.15 to 6.00), he isn't nearly as intimidating, as he doesn't miss nearly as many bats and isn't as imposing against righties.
The Nationals' hopes of having Stephen Strasburg return from the tendon strain that sidelined him on Sept. 7, meanwhile, took a hit on Monday when he cut short his bullpen session due to discomfort. As a result, Washington's rotation would likely be rounded out by Gio Gonzalez, the lone lefty starter, and Joe Ross—a pair that combined to allow seven runs in seven innings against the Dodgers. The Cubs ranked second in OPS against lefties (.807), and it's not too difficult to envision them preying upon Gonzalez, who's not of the caliber of Kershaw or even Hill; he managed just a 4.57 ERA this year and was lit up for a .756 OPS by righties. Ross has been limited to just 12 1/3 big league innings since the All-Star break due to shoulder inflammation, and the rust certainly showed in Game 4, as he was roughed up for four runs in 2 2/3 innings.
The Case for the Dodgers
For as great as Kershaw is, it's clear that he isn't at full strength. The Nationals have pushed him hard in both Division Series starts, and there's no reason to think that the Cubs, who led the NL in walks (656), wouldn't be able to run up his pitch count and exploit manager Dave Roberts's overcommitment to his ace in the face of a shaky bullpen bridge to Kenley Jansen. Kershaw would be on normal rest to start Game 2 of the NLCS, and it's more difficult to envision him coming back on three days' rest again for Game 5 in the case of a three-games-to-one deficit than it was to justify him for Game 4 of the NLDS down 2–1; a Game 6 start would be more likely. Given Hill's likely usage on Thursday, the earliest he would be available is Game 3. Lefty Julio Urias, who might also figure into Thursday's plan, could figure into the NLCS somewhere, but again, probably not until Game 3 unless it's out of the bullpen.
Kenta Maeda, who lasted just three innings in his Division Series turn in Game 3, would be rested enough to start the NLCS opener, but the Dodgers appear willing to turn to rookie Brock Stewart, who was left off the Division Series roster. The righthander pitched just 28 big league innings this season and was cuffed for a 5.79 ERA in his five starts and two relief appearances. He did shut out the Cubs for five innings of two-hit, two-walk ball on Aug. 28, striking out eight, but even that solid performance makes him less of an October surprise than he might otherwise be.
So there's plenty of rotation disarray to be had in facing the Dodgers. On paper, their bullpen is supposed to be stronger than in years past, but their meltdown behind Kershaw in Game 4, involving Pedro Baez and Luis Avilan, arguably said more about Roberts growing as tentative as the October edition of Don Mattingly as it did about the involved pitchers' talent level. Prior to Jansen's poor outing in a non-save situation in Game 3, the unit had done well, allowing just one run in its first 13 1/3 innings and stranding eight of nine inherited base runners. Including Jansen's bad outing and the Game 4 near-disaster, the bullpen has a 2.81 ERA and 12.4 strikeouts per nine in the postseason, allowing four out of 17 inherited runners to score.
During the regular season, the Dodgers had the league’s third-highest OPS against righties (.772). Their big weakness was against lefties; they had the league's lowest mark against southpaws by 41 points (.627) and went 22–24 in games started by them. Corey Seager has held his own against lefties, but Adrian Gonzalez, Chase Utley and Jock Pederson have not, and while all of them collected hits off southpaws (including relievers Sammy Solis and Oliver Perez) in Game 3 of the Division Series, Chicago's lefties are a cut above. Lester would be available for Games 1 and 5 (assuming there's no sweep), and with Wood and Montgomery both able to pitch multiple innings out of the bullpen, the Cubs' southpaws might have a bigger footprint in this series than they would against Washington.
The bottom line is both potential opponents have more visible weaknesses than the Cubs, who were the best team in baseball during the regular season for a reason. Ultimately, the Dodgers' heavy lefthanded presence on both sides of the ball plays to the Cubs' favor, given L.A.’s lineup's struggles and the limitations of Kershaw and Hill. The Cubs appear prepared to seat all comers, but at this point, the Dodgers may be the easier prey.