Three Strikes: Cubs top Dodgers in Game 6, reach first World Series since 1945

The Cubs finally exorcized their NLCS demons, defeating Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers in Game 6 to reach their first Fall Classic in 71 years.
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For the first time since 1945, the Cubs are going to the World Series. Chicago beat the Dodgers 5-0 in Game 6 of the NLCS at Wrigley Field on Saturday night, getting to Los Angeles ace Clayton Kershaw for two runs in the first inning and then adding to their lead. The Dodgers' listless offense, meanwhile, could do no damage against Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks, who allowed just one hit through the first seven innings. Chicago will now face the Indians in the World Series, which starts on Tuesday in Cleveland, in a battle of teams with the longest championship droughts in the American League (68 years) and the National League (108 years).

Though the Cubs won an MLB-high 103 games during the regular season, there was nothing automatic about them getting even this far. As I noted in my Division Series preview, from 1995—the first postseason with a wild-card team—to 2015, 22 teams won 100 games, but only two of them won the World Series (the 1998 and 2009 Yankees), while just six won pennants (the 1995 Indians, '99 Braves, 2003 Yankees and '04 Cardinals were the others). In that span, the teams with the best record in baseball have won just four World Series, two by those Yankees plus the 2007 and '13 Red Sox.

• Cub Hub: All of SI's content from Chicago's magical season

Here are three quick thoughts on the clincher:

Striking early

In L.A.'s 1–0 victory in Game 2, Kershaw pitched seven innings and held Chicago to just two hits, the latter a total that the Cubs equaled before he retired a single batter on Saturday night. On his third pitch of the game, Dexter Fowler sliced a liner into rightfield that bounced into the stands for a ground-rule double. According to Statcast, the combination of exit velocity and launch angle (79 mph and 33 degrees) yielded a hit just 7% of the time in 2016, but in this case, Chicago had caught the break it needed.

Four pitches later, Kris Bryant slapped a 95 mph fastball into rightfield for an RBI single. He got to third base when leftfielder Andrew Toles dropped Anthony Rizzo’s routine fly ball and scored on Ben Zobrist’s sacrifice fly to center. While both Javier Baez and Willson Contreras subsequently made outs, they forced Kershaw to throw an additional 14 pitches, running his pitch count for the inning to 30—a disaster for the Dodgers given their need for Kershaw to go deep into the ballgame.

It’s worth appreciating the rarity of a team getting to Kershaw early. The 28-year-old southpaw yielded just three first-inning runs in his 21 regular season starts this year, and none in his three previous postseason starts. The last time he gave up two first-inning runs was on June 27, 2015 against the Marlins, while the last time he needed 30 pitches to get out of the first inning was more than five years ago, on Aug. 7, 2011 against the Diamondbacks, months before he won the first of his four ERA titles and three NL Cy Young awards.

Duo of Baez and Russell making beautiful music to get Cubs on brink of World Series

While Toles’ error was L.A.’s seventh of the series—and sixth in the team's last three games—en route to six unearned runs, the Dodgers' bigger problem for Game 6 was that Kershaw never found his groove. The Cubs continued to punish him with lengthy plate appearances and hard contact, as he left too many pitches in the middle of the plate and struggled to throw both of his breaking pitches for strikes. Addison Russell won a five-pitch battle with a leadoff double in the second, then came around to score on a Fowler single to increase the lead to 3–0. Even Hendricks ate up seven pitches before striking out in that frame.

Contreras added a solo homer to rightfield off a hanging slider in the fourth inning, the first homer Kershaw had allowed in this postseason. One inning later, Rizzo hit a solo shot to right-center via a 93 mph fastball, the first home run Kershaw had surrendered to a lefthanded batter since then-Met Daniel Murphy in last year’s NLCS, which made the score to 5–0.

It simply wasn’t Kershaw's night; he was done after five innings and 93 pitches and was charged with four earned runs. While he struck out four and didn’t walk a batter, he got just one strike from among the 15 curveballs he threw, and he gave up far too much hard contact—four balls with an exit velocity of at least 100 mph, plus one more at 99—to survive such a critical game.

Hendricks shuts the door

Los Angeles scored just one run off Hendricks in Game 2. It couldn’t manage even that in Game 6. Though Toles hit Hendricks’ first pitch of the game into rightfield for a sharp single, he was erased one pitch later, when Corey Seager grounded into a double play started by Baez at second base.

Hendricks needed just nine pitches to get through the first, fourth and fifth innings; his high was 16 pitches in the sixth. The only other baserunner the Dodgers got through the first seven innings was when Josh Reddick reached on a Baez error with one out in the second; he was picked off first to end the frame. 

• Baez and Russell made beautiful music for Cubs in the NLCS

Reddick’s one-out single in the eighth ended Kendrick’s night at 87 pitches. He struck out six without walking a batter, generating nine swings and misses, four apiece with his cutter and changeup. As he did during the regular season en route to an NL-best 2.13 ERA, he located his pitches well and largely avoided hard contact; only four balls hit off of him in Game 6 had an exit velocity of at least 100 mph: the two base hits and groundouts by Adrian Gonzalez (the second of two to shortstop Addison Russell, who was perfectly-positioned on the right side of second base) and Andre Ethier.

Aroldis Chapman came on in relief of Hendricks and needed just three pitches to get out of the eighth, inducing pinch-hitter Howie Kendrick to ground into a 4-6-3 double play. It was the third time Chapman has entered a game in the eighth inning in the postseason but the first time he got out without allowing either an inherited run or one of his own. 

Chapman then worked a scoreless ninth, striking out Kiké Hernandez and, after a walk to Carlos Ruiz, getting a 6-4-3 double play off the bat of Yasiel Puig to end the game.


Turning it around

Through the first three games of the NLCS, Los Angeles outscored Chicago 11-8 to take a 2-games-to-1 lead. But over the series’ final three games, the Cubs outscored the Dodgers 23–6 and won all three times.

The series shifted in part because L.A. couldn’t get effective performances from its starters after Rich Hill starred in Game 3. Julio Urias (Game 4), Kenta Maeda (Game 5) and Kershaw combined to allow 10 runs (nine earned) in 12 ⅓ innings over the final three games, and the Dodgers didn’t have enough quality relievers to bridge the gap; the bullpen allowed five runs in an inning in both Games 4 and 5, as they did in Game 1, with Joe Blanton and/or Pedro Baez at the center of all of them.

How the Cubs were built: Turning baseball's longest-running losers into winners

Meanwhile, Chicago's three starters in Games 4, 5 and 6—John Lackey, Jon Lester and Hendricks—allowed just three runs in 18 ⅓ innings. In addition, dormant bats like those of Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell came to life just in time. Rizzo was just 2-for-26 through the Division Series and the first three games of the NLCS but went 7-for-14 with two doubles and two homers the rest of the way. Russell was only 1-for-24 through NLCS Game 3 but was 6-for-13 with two homers and a double afterward. 

Though he went 0-for-3 in Game 6, Baez finished the series 7-for-22 with four doubles as well as a highlight reel worth of defensive and baserunning highlights. He shared series MVP honors with Lester, who yielded just two runs in 13 innings while winning Games 1 and 5 and strengthened his case as one of the elite postseason pitchers of his era.