It was only 359 days ago, but it seems like a lifetime. Barack Obama was president, and Hillary Clinton was leading the polls after that night’s presidential debate.
The date was Oct. 20, 2016. That night, the Dodgers lost Game 5 of the NLCS to the Cubs, who would clinch the series in Game 6 and of course go on to win the World Series. It was only a year ago, but the teams that met that night were markedly different from the Dodgers and Cubs who met Saturday night in Game 1 of the 2017 National League Championship Series.
The Cubs of 2016, you’ll recall, had the best record in baseball, while the Dodgers seemed to be punching above their weight class. L.A’s starting pitcher in last year’s Game 5, righthander Kenta Maeda, is now operating as the team’s middle relief stopper, and their lineup that night included Adrian Gonzalez, Joc Pederson and Corey Seager—three players who for various reasons were absent from Saturday’s Game 1 (the most pressing reason being Seager’s tweaked back). Chicago’s batting order a year ago included Ben Zobrist, David Ross, and Dexter Fowler.
If modern baseball is the art of shuffling men on and off the field, Game 1 of the 2017 NLCS offered a glimpse into which team had arranged its roster more effectively during the intervening 12 months.
Forget for a moment the four days’ rest the Dodgers had earned by sweeping last week’s NLDS, and disregard the 277-minute fistfight the Cubs won on Thursday night to take Game 5 of their divisional series against the Nationals. Once the next series begins, those factors fade in importance.
In the early going on Saturday night, the Cubs appeared to be the team who had upgraded since their historic World Series run. In the third inning, Fowler’s replacement in centerfield, Albert Amora, Jr., crushed a Clayton Kershaw fastball over the leftfield wall, driving in Willson Contreras (Ross’ replacement at catcher) for an early 2-0 lead.
Then in the fifth, the Dodgers’ six and seven hitters, Logan Forsythe and Austin Barnes, who weren’t on their roster last October, scored on a Yasiel Puig double and a sac fly from Seager’s replacement at short, Charlie Culberson, respectively.
Chris Taylor, the former infielder who had taken Pederson’s spot in centerfield, homered to lead off the seventh. After a Puig solo shot (who would have guessed the Wild Horse would become L.A.’s Iron Horse), Culberson doubled and scored on a hotly disputed play at the plate.
A year ago, the idea of removing Seager from the lineup and replacing him with the 27-year-old Culberson—lifetime average .231—would have gutted the Dodgers’ chances against the eventual world champs. This year, revamped, renewed, and built to survive when Kershaw isn’t at his best (the Dodgers ace allowed two earned runs over five innings on Saturday), the Dodgers continue to submit a strong argument that theirs is the best 1-to-25 roster in baseball.
“They’re missing Seager,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said afterward. “That is really pertinent for them. From our perspective, [the biggest difference] is that we have to get our bullpen in order.”
If the Washington series left Chicago’s relief pitching in disarray, the Dodgers’ situation there is “pretty firm,” to quote Maddon. Maeda and two others were nearly perfect in setting up All Star closer Kenley Jansen Saturday night, and that was pretty much that.
A year ago, the NLCS saw Aroldis Chapman mowing down the Dodgers to close out Game 5.
Have the tables turned?
“The season we had this year and the season they had last year,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said, “I think you can parallel those. The confidence we have in our group [versus] what they had in their group last year, I think there are some similarities."
“We are very focused and very confident,” Roberts added, words that Maddon had employed, verbatim, 359 days earlier.