General thoughts on the series
As I have mentioned in previous posts, I am happy that it’s worked out that the Cubs will be playing the Cardinals in this 5 game NLDS. Even after Wednesday night’s one game playoff, I still think that beating the Pirates in a best of 5 series would have been more difficult. In any case, we have the fluke and possibly unlucky reality that the best three teams in baseball were all stacked in the same division, so while each team probably deserved to avoid the wild card, that just wasn’t the case.
It doesn’t need to be said that the rivalry here is historic and among the best and longest running sports rivalries in history and that these two teams have never faced each other in the playoffs before. Those are the kinds of things that fans and commentators worry about more than the players and the managers. Perhaps it’s somewhere in the back of their minds, but I have doubts that these players care much about things like that.
What is more important is paying attention to the pitching matchups, when the games are being played, and where. The Cardinals will, of course, have home field advantage in this case, so games 1-2 and game 5 (if it’s necessary) will be in St. Louis. When I look at a series like this, and especially one that opens on the road, I typically hope for my team to plan on winning at least one of the first two road games. Obviously, taking both would be ideal, but naturally less likely. Then, when you return home for two games, you work to prevent the same thing from happening to you. Win both games 3 and 4 and call it a series. Because, if the series returns to St. Louis for game 5, that’s where I get nervous. At that point, you have probably already had Jake Arrieta pitch game 3 at home on Monday, and it is now Thursday on the road. Do you pitch him again on such short rest? Or do you trust another starter (probably Jon Lester here) to take this game? It’s a question I don’t want Joe Maddon to have to answer.
Really, I think the best sense we’ll get from this series will come from how the first two games turn out. If the Cubs win one of these (or both, of course), then I have every bit of confidence that we’ll be seeing them in the NLCS. They have shown that they can win in St. Louis and that they are not prone to being fazed by big game situations – a one game playoff has to be intense for them, heck, I didn’t sit down until the 7th inning – so I will confidently predict that the Cubs will advance after 4 games with Saturday’s game being the only loss.
Game 1 – Friday, October 9 @ 5:30 (Central) – St. Louis
11-12, 3.34 in the regular season. Lester has extensive playoff pitching experience, the majority of which coming with the Red Sox between 2007 and 2013. He pitched in the AL wild card game for what ended up being a loss last year while with Oakland, but as a member of the Red Sox, Lester has gone 6-4 with an ERA of 2.57. What I find most encouraging is that he has typically done well with going pretty deep into games and keeping runners off of the basepaths. His best effort actually came in the 2013 World Series against the Cardinals, when he went 2-0 with an ERA of 0.59 and a WHIP of 0.652 in 15.1 innings.
Don’t let the fact that he looks a little bit like a drifter/murder distract you, he’s actually had a pretty solid season, going 13-10, 2.77 in the regular season. Lackey, too, has vast postseason experience. He’s 7-5 overall with a 3.08 ERA in 117 total postseason innings going back to 2002 with the Angels.
Game 2 – Saturday, October 10 @ 4:30 – St. Louis
This might be code for “Bullpen Start,” but we’ll see. Hendricks ultimately put together a pretty respectable season, going 8-7, 3.95 in 2015. This will be his first postseason appearance, but for what it’s worth, his last two starts of the season (against the Royals and Brewers) both looked pretty solid. These came after a pretty rough stretch from the middle of July until the last two starts that saw his ERA go from 3.44 to 4.23. Hendricks may surprise us, but I wouldn’t be shocked to see Maddon turn to Travis Wood fairly early in this one. If we can get 5 innings from Hendricks, 2 or 3 from Wood, and then (hopefully) hand over a lead to Hector Rondon, then I can live with that.
10-6, 2.43 in the regular season. He only made 20 starts this season, so his arm has seen less use than some of the other starters in this series (he threw just 129.2 innings in the regular season). As for the playoffs, he is 0-2, 4.23 with appearances in 2011 and 2012. His playoff numbers are not terribly impressive when you look over them, but keep in mind that he has not pitched in that environment in 3 years, so I don’t know how much can be drawn from that. As I said earlier, our hardest matchup in this series is probably this one.
Game 3 – Monday, October 12 @ TBD – Chicago
22-6, 1.77. A definite NL CY Young candidate this year and he has, as we all have had the blessing of watching firsthand, been on a historic run since about the All Star break. I won’t rehash all of those numbers here, because I think we saw on Wednesday night just what kind of performance we can expect from him in the playoffs. Against a very tough Pirates lineup, he held them to 4 hits, 0 walks, and had 11 strikeouts in a complete game shutout. I have full confidence that Monday will be at least the second win of this series, if not the completion of a sweep.
17-7, 3.38. Wacha is in just his third season in the majors, but he has already shown that he has the talent to be an impact pitcher, especially in the 2013 NLCS, when he was awarded the MVP for going 2-0 with a 0.659 WHIP in just over 13 innings against the Dodgers. This matchup will be reminiscent of the wild card game, although Gerrit Cole was probably a slightly tougher challenge for the Cubs offense.
Game 4 (if necessary) – Tuesday, October 13 @ 3:30 – Chicago
Right now, Hammel is listed as the starter for this game, but this could always change. Like the Hendricks start, Hammel could very well only be out there for 4 or 5 innings, so this one may fall on our bullpen again. Hammel went 10-7, 3.74 in the regular season and he has pretty sporadic and sparse postseason experience. He has pitched just 15 total innings, in which he has a 4.80 ERA and a 1.467 WHIP.
12-11, 3.03. Lynn has pitched in the postseason in each of the past 4 seasons. In 51 total innings, he has a 5-4 record and a 4.41 ERA. He has pitched at each stage of the playoffs, including two different World Series appearances, in 2011 and 2013. If this series is going to go to 5 games, I expect that it could come because the Cubs offense does not provide ample run support for Hammel in this game.
Game 5 (if necessary) – Thursday, October 15 @ 3:30 – St. Louis
No pitchers are yet announced for this game, but I would suspect that your game 1 starters are probably the most likely candidates here. That said, though I think the Cubs can win this series in 4 games, I am still confident that they can win it in 5 because of the pitching matchup in this game.
In all, I expect to see the Cubs moving on to the NLCS for the first time since 2003. Let’s hope it turns out much, much better this time.