The rematch between last year’s National League Championship Series participants, this time with the Dodgers as the 104-win juggernaut that had at one point elicited comparisons to history’s greatest squads, opened at Dodger Stadium with a duel between southpaws. Neither a well-rested Clayton Kershaw nor a barely-rested Jose Quintana figured in the final outcome, however, as the Dodgers’ ace showed more rust than rest, and the Cubs’ crosstown import ran out of gas after four brilliant innings.
Via five unanswered runs, the Dodgers dug their way out of an early hole, as the flamboyant Yasiel Puig had two huge hits and centerfielder Chris Taylor greeted reliever Hector Rondon with a go-ahead solo homer to start the sixth. WIth their 5-2 victory, the Dodgers won an NLCS opener for the first time since 1985. They had lost five straight, in 1988 (the year they last won the World Series), 2008, ‘09, ‘13 and ‘16.
Here are four thoughts on the game.
1. A rough adventure
It had been an adventurous 72 hours for Quintana. After throwing a sharp 5 ⅔ innings in Game 3 of the Division Series against the Nationals, he came out of the bullpen during the seventh inning of the wild Game 5, throwing 12 pitches in ⅔ of an inning before yielding to Wade Davis, who got the final seven outs. After winning the grueling four-hour-and-37-minute game on Thursday night, the Cubs’ chartered flight to Los Angeles required a detour to Albuquerque, New Mexico because Quintana’s wife, Michel, suffered an irregular heartbeat. The plane was delayed over five hours due to a crew change, while the Quintanas spent Friday in New Mexico. Not until Saturday did manager Joe Maddon officially announce him as the starter instead of John Lackey.
The 28-year-old lefty, whose acquisition during the All-Star break gave the defending world champions a welcome shot in the arm, was brilliant on Saturday. Through four innings, he faced the minimum 12 hitters, yielding a second-inning single to second baseman Logan Forsythe that was immediately erased by an around-the-horn double play. He burned through 22 pitches in a 1-2-3 first inning, needing nine pitches to strike out Justin Turner and seven to do away with Cody Bellinger, but just 33 pitches in the next three frames. Meanwhile, Albert Almora Jr. staked him to a 2-0 lead with a fourth-inning homer off Kershaw.
The Dodgers didn’t put another runner on until Forsythe and catcher Austin Barnes drew back-to-back walks with one out in the fifth. Quintana fell behind Puig 2-0, and then two pitches later mashed a 92 mph fastball into the left-center gap for a double — punctuated with a bat flip and a crotch chop (historians will forever debate whether he called his shot), bringing home the Dodgers’ first run. Shortstop Charlie Culberson, filling in for the injured Corey Seager, who was left off the NLCS roster due to a back strain, followed with a game-tying sacrifice fly to score Barnes.
2. Breaking it open
Though Quintana retired Kyle Farmer, pinch-hitting for Kershaw, that was the end of his night as well. On came Rondon, the team’s former closer, to start the sixth. Left off the Division Series roster after finishing the season with a 4.24 ERA and career worsts of 1.6 homers and 3.1 walks per nine, he had been activated at the expense of lefty Justin Wilson, whose control problems since being acquired at the deadline had relegated him to garbage-time work. Both pitchers epitomize the relative weakness of this year’s Cubs bullpen, a unit where manager Joe Maddon’s circle of trust seems to be shrinking by the day.
Rondon failed his first big test. He left his second pitch, a 97 mph fastball to Taylor, in the middle of the plate. Taylor, who hit 21 homers during the regular season to go with a .288/.354/.496 line, drilled it 401 feet to right-centerfield for a 3-2 lead.
The Dodgers added two more runs in the seventh. Facing lefty Michael Montgomery, Puig led off the inning with a towering, wall-scraping homer 378 feet to left centerfield and took a curtain call.
It was Puig’s fourth extra-base hit in as many games, and his third two-RBI game. The mercurial rightfielder is hitting .467/.529/.933 in 17 plate appearances so far in the postseason.
Culberson followed Puig’s homer with a double but failed to advance on either an intended sacrifice bunt or an infield single by Taylor. The latter chased Montgomery in favor of John Lackey, who allowed a single to Justin Turner. Leftfielder Kyle Schwarber threw home, where catcher Willson Contreras got the tag down. Culberson was called out, but upon review, the umpires ruled that he had blocked the plate before having the ball. That gave the Dodgers a 5-2 lead, and Maddon was ejected in the ensuing argument.
3. No seventh-inning stretch
After being eliminated by the Cubs in six games last year, the Dodgers hoped to flip the NLCS script thanks in part to a well-rested Kershaw. In each of the previous four years, he’d made his second start of the Division Series on three days of rest, and while he had pitched well in his follow-up NLCS starts—including last year’s seven shutout innings in Game 2—he had collapsed in his next start. This time around, Kershaw came in on seven days of rest, having last pitched in the Division Series opener on October 6, but he did not have his best command. He muddled his way through a 23-pitch first inning, working around a one-out single to Kris Bryant and a seven-pitch walk to Anthony Rizzo. While he got his pitch count under control by using only 25 pitches over the next two frames, he began the fourth by yielding a sharp single to Contreras and then a two-run homer to lefty-mashing centerfielder Albert Almora Jr., who drilled a hanging 3-2 slider 412 feet to left-centerfield. He needed 25 pitches in that inning, pushing him to 73.
Instead of worrying about nursing Kershaw through the sixth and into the seventh, where he has a 24.00 ERA over the past four postseasons, manager Dave Roberts pulled him for a pinch-hitter in the fifth, after he’d thrown just 87 pitches.
It was the right call, and the Dodgers bullpen made the move look brilliant by retiring all 12 Cubs they faced. The Two Tonys, Cingrani and Watson, accounted for three outs, as did righty Kenta Maeda, whose stuff out of the bullpen has been a revelation; the latter needed just five pitches to do his job. Righty Brandon Morrow got two outs, and closer Kenley Jansen four, all via strikeouts: Bryant, Rizzo, Contreras and Ian Happ. In 15 ⅔ postseason innings, the Dodgers bullpen has allowed just three earned runs while posting a 15-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
4. Seager out
Even before the first pitch was thrown, the Dodgers found themselves at a deficit, as Seager was left off the roster due to a back injury. The 23-year-old All-Star shortstop strained his back during a first-inning slide in Game 3 of the Division Series against the Diamondbacks. The Dodgers completed the sweep that night, and he received an epidural injection the next day. While it had been suggested on Friday that he might not be ready to play the NLCS opener, his complete omission came as something of a shock.
Though he battled a right elbow injury late in the year and scuffled in September while missing time due to a right elbow injury, Seager turned in an excellent follow-up to his 2016 NL Rookie of the Year-winning campaign, hitting .295/.375/.479 with 22 homers, a 125 OPS+ and 5.6 WAR, 0.1 behind Justin Turner for the team lead among position players. He was replaced on the roster and, for Saturday night at least, in the lineup by Culberson, best known for hitting a walk-off home run that clinched the NL West in 2016. The 28-year-old Culberson spent most of his year at Triple-A Oklahoma City, where he hit a meager .250/.299/.336 with four homers and seven steals in 108 games; at the major league level, he went just 2-for-13 in 15 major league games, with one start at shortstop. Taylor and/or Kiké Hernandez could see time at the spot during the series as well, with the roster addition of centerfielder Joc Pederson helping to offset that. Pederson has been buried by a late-season slump, however.
Because he was left off the roster between rounds rather than removed mid-round, Seager will be eligible to return if he’s healthy and the Dodgers reach the World Series. He cannot be added to the NLCS roster unless a position player is injured; that player would be lost for the remainder of the season. Given that the Dodgers have already announced that Seager won’t travel with the team when the series moves to Chicago, that seems like a longshot, and Seager himself said on Saturday, “I think next week is going to be kind of a big week to see if I can get back into baseball activities and stuff. But right now I’m really not sure.” Of his condition, he said, “Walking has been pretty good so far. Just a lot of tightness. Not really mobile in the hips. It’s not really moving very well.”
For at least one night, the Dodgers didn’t miss him.