Here are facts as I see them (so, really, opinions rooted in fact) about the National League Championship Series, which has the Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Dodgers knotted up at one game apiece:
- Clayton Kershaw does not need his curveball to be the best pitcher on the planet. Kershaw does a great deal many things well, but what I saw in Game Two was a guy who is able to out-smart opponents even when they know he is going to throw strikes. Kershaw has the precision of Bob Tewksbury in a frame that is capable of throwing 95-96 mph heat. This is very close to being unique in the history of baseball for a left-handed pitcher, and his mastery of these talents is one reason why I think we’re going to see history correct itself as he goes forward in his postseason career. Kershaw is known as someone who has struggled in the postseason, and this year was really no different before his bullpen appearance on Thursday night. In seven NLCS games, Kershaw still has a 5.26 ERA even after his immaculate performance against Chicago. Look for that to go much lower as he continues to pitch in this series and in the years to come.
- Anthony Rizzo’s struggles are real, but they are not going to last. Rizzo is now a career .127 hitter in the playoffs, to say nothing of the monumental issues he’s had in this year’s games. His .236 career postseason slugging percentage is also not going to get the job done. But one thing Rizzo has been able to do this year is bounce back after slumps; from April 8th-19th this very season, Anthony was 3-for-38 (.079) with 8 strikeouts and just 6 total bases. Over his next 12 games, Rizzo batted .383 with a 1.406 OPS while striking out only 6 times. So Rizzo has experienced a dry spell like this before, and has come out of such slumps in a BIG way.
- Los Angeles’ bullpen does not scare the Cubs. Joe “Replacement Level” Blanton was outstanding for L.A. in the regular season, posting a 2.48 ERA in 75 appearances. It remains to be seen whether or not Miguel Montero’s grand slam (and the Dexter Fowler home run that immediately followed) will ultimately break Blanton, but it was a clear sign that the Cubs are not intimidated by the relief arms Manager Dave Roberts is able to bring into the game. Even Kenley Jansen has the potential to be brought back down to Earth if he is used too often, allowing him to be exposed both by over-use and through Cubs’ hitters’ familiarity with his stuff.
- Javier Baez is going to get another game-winning hit before the NLCS is done. I’ve watched almost every game this guy has ever played in, and he is more locked-in now than he has ever been in a Major League uniform. I say that because Baez was a man among boys when he played for Triple-A Iowa back in 2015; that level of talent doesn’t compare to what he is seeing now, but you could tell back then that if and when he got back to the Majors, he was gonna rake. Baez is making the most of his opportunity here in 2016, dazzling fans nationwide with both his skill level and baseball IQ in addition to his developed command of the batter’s box. Baez is not done being an impact player in these playoffs.
- Dave Roberts is a good, but not great, manager. It’s easy to look brilliant when your pitching staff gives up two hits, and I doubt he gave Adrian Gonzalez some sort of secret signal to hit that opposite-field home run Sunday night. Roberts made moves that were probably the right ones on Saturday Night in Game One of the series and they just didn’t work out. This does not mean he is a poor field general, but he has not shown off any skill that makes me think he is going to out-think or out-strategy Joe Maddon as the series wears on and the games go from “Nice to Win” to “Must Win At All Costs.” That win urgency territory is coming soon.
- Kyle Hendricks got shafted by Clayton Kershaw’s greatness. Hendricks almost matched the best pitcher in 15 years pitch-for-pitch, with one solitary exception. Hendricks should absolutely feel good about his performance in Game Two, and there is no reason to believe he will be anything less than mesmerizing to Los Angeles hitters when Game Six rolls around (if necessary).
- I stand by my “Cubs in Six” prophecy. The Dodgers won a game in which Clayton Kershaw started. This is not terribly newsworthy. Now, this team has also been tremendous when he doesn’t take the mound, and they played the Cubs tough all year (Chicago won four of seven during the Regular Season matchup between these two teams… foreshadowing, perhaps?). Rich Hill has thrown seven innings in the postseason, and if you include those innings, he has thrown just 151 innings in THE PAST THREE YEARS COMBINED. He has all the makings of someone whose magic has run out this year. Tomorrow night’s game could very well be a continuation of his struggles in these playoffs… because as good as the Washington Nationals’ hitters were, they are not the Chicago Cubs.