For the first time since 1988, the Dodgers are National League champions, having dethroned the defending world champion Cubs with a lopsided 11-1 victory in Game 5 of the NLCS at Wrigley Field on Thursday night. After losing Game 4—their first loss of the postseason, after six straight victories—the Dodgers had the luxury of calling upon ace Clayton Kershaw, shaky October resumé and all. Instead of needing him to eke out as many pitches and innings as possible in a tight, tense game, they put the contest out of reach early via Kiké Hernandez’s third-inning grand slam, his second of three home runs for the night. Hernandez’s seven RBIs set a single-game LCS record and tied the overall postseason record.
Here are three takeaways on the night.
1. Not the Bullpen Whisperer
Down 3-0 with the bases loaded and nobody out in the third inning of an elimination game, Cubs manager Joe Maddon had no choice but to pull starter Jose Quintana after just 51 pitches. Unfortunately, that also meant turning to a bullpen that had been raked over the coals for a 6.16 ERA thus far in the postseason, and had allowed four homers and 13 walks (against 12 strikeouts) in 13 ⅓ innings in the NLCS. Whether it was Hector Rondon serving up a go-ahead homer to Chris Taylor—the first batter he faced—in Game 1, John Lackey yielding a walk-off homer to Justin Turner in Game 2, or a wild Mike Montgomery putting the game out of reach by allowing two late runs in Game 3, Maddon simply couldn’t find a hot hand anywhere in his bullpen. Even in securing the Cubs’ lone victory in Game 4, he used closer Wade Davis for 48 pitches, rendering him unavailable for Thursday night.
With four straight right-handed hitters due up after Yasiel Puig’s single chased Quintana, Maddon obviously needed to call upon a righty, one who could warm up in a hurry; a long man could take over in the next inning, after the Cubs cleared the pitcher’s spot. With Davis not an option, that narrowed Maddon’s choices to Carl Edwards Jr., Pedro Strop and Rondon—his two top righty setup men and a pitcher who had been so deep in the doghouse at the end of the season that he’d been left off the Division Series roster.
He chose poorly. Particularly opposite Kershaw and the stifling Dodgers bullpen, Maddon needed to keep the game from getting out of hand right there, and worry about who could eat innings later. He needed to call upon the best of his options. Rondon, the owner of the highest ERA (4.24) and home run rate (1.6 per nine, more than double those of the other two), was less than that.
This time, Rondon got as far as the second batter before doing damage. After striking out Logan Forsythe, he hung a first-pitch slider to Hernandez, who pounced, sending it 390 feet to right centerfield for a grand slam that gave the Dodgers a 7-0 lead and effectively ended the Cubs’ chances.
Including the two runs Lackey allowed in the fourth inning on a Forsythe double, and the two allowed by Montgomery via Hernandez’s third homer in the ninth inning, the Cubs bullpen finished the series with a 5.75 ERA and six homers allowed in 20 ⅓ innings.
2. Pouncing on Quintana
The Dodgers had put Maddon and the Cubs on the ropes by scoring the game’s first run for the first time in the series. Facing Quintana, who held the Dodgers to two hits, two walks and two runs in five innings in Game 1, Taylor opened the game by working a nine-pitch walk. After Justin Turner struck out, Cody Bellinger mashed an RBI double into the rightfield corner, taking third on the late throw home.
While he was stranded there, Quintana used 26 pitches to escape the frame, the last thing the Cubs needed given their bullpen woes. What they needed even less was Hernandez homering on Quintana’s first pitch of the second inning, teeing off on a first-pitch sinker and driving it 399 feet to centerfield for a 2-0 lead.
Taylor won a seven-pitch battle with a leadoff double into the leftfield corner in the third inning, then came home two pitches later via a Turner single to right center, running the raking redhead’s line to 7-for-9 with runners in scoring position in this postseason. Bellinger and Puig both followed with singles, loading the bases with nobody out and chasing Quintana. You know the rest.
On the other side, Kershaw, who had been handed a 1-0 lead before throwing a single pitch, began his night by striking out Albert Almora Jr. on a curveball. The 29-year-old lefty then walked Kyle Schwarber, but otherwise breezed through the first three innings on 43 pitches, not allowing a hit.
With one out in the fourth and a 9-0 lead, Kershaw allowed his first hit, a solo homer to Kris Bryant on an inside fastball that the 25-year-old slugger pulled to leftfield. It was Bryant’s first home run of the postseason, and his first RBI of the series; he had come in 3-for-16 without an extra-base hit or a walk. Though hardly a threat to the Dodgers’ lead, it was Kershaw’s sixth home run allowed in this postseason, cause for concern.
Kershaw allowed just two more singles on the night, and aside from a couple of times when he appeared to be wincing—the TBS booth pointed it out, but neither the Dodgers staff nor the pitcher appeared concerned—he didn’t face another real threat. After six inning, he received a handshake and a hug from manager Dave Roberts, his night done after 89 pitches, and his quest to pitch the Dodgers into the World Series for the first time in his illustrious career apparently over. It wasn’t a vintage performance, but the three-time Cy Young winner struck out five and generated 11 swings and misses, five of them on the curveball.
3. Nothing but zeroes
While the Cubs bullpen was busy pouring gasoline on the series, the Dodgers’ pen was downright stifling. After Kershaw departed, Kenta Maeda pitched a 1-2-3 seventh inning, striking out two and continuing his streak of five perfect postseason innings, three in the NLCS. Brandon Morrow allowed a single to Ian Happ in a scoreless eighth, giving him 4 ⅔ scoreless innings for the series, and Kenley Jansen, not really needed to protect a 10-run lead but deservedly on the mound for ceremonial purposes, retired the heart of the Cubs order—Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras in order, with shortstop Charlie Culberson spearing Contreras’ line drive for the final out, giving him eight scoreless innings for the postseason and 4 ⅓ hitless innings for the NLCS.
Considered a major question mark coming into the postseason, the Dodgers bullpen has set a record with 23 consecutive scoreless innings dating back to Game 2 of the Division Series against the Diamondbacks. They held the Cubs scoreless for 17 innings, allowing four hits, one walk and one hit-by-pitch while striking out 22.
Between their starters and the relievers, the Dodgers held the Cubs’ biggest bats in check. Rizzo went 1-for-17 with one walk and a hit by pitch; he didn’t drive in a single run. Bryant went 4-for-20 with just the solo homer as his lone RBI; he didn’t even walk. The Cubs scored just eight runs in the series, all via their seven home runs, and they drew a mere five walks in five games, compared to 28 for the Dodgers, who as they did against a Diamondbacks team winded by the wild card game, wore down a Cubs staff that was disheveled by the grueling series against the Nationals.
Fittingly Taylor (6-for-19 with a double, a triple and two homers) and Turner (6-for-18 with two homers and seven RBIs)—two players whom the Dodgers turned from backup infielders to vital lineup cogs—shared LCS MVP honors for driving an offense that outscored the opposition 28-8. The Dodgers will await the winner of the Yankees-Astros ALCS, and open the World Series in Los Angeles next Tuesday.