Top 10 storylines for Cubs-Dodgers NLCS

By Michael Dixon

After closing out the Washington Nationals in a Wild Game 5, the Chicago Cubs now turn their attention to the Los Angeles Dodgers and the NLCS.

If this sounds familiar to you, it should. The same two teams met in the NLCS a season ago. This will mark the fourth time in NLCS history that we’ll get treated to a rematch.

These two teams are giving us a lot to think about before this series gets underway.

Of course, it’s hard to not focus on Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers trying to shake off a bad playoff past. As is always the case, Jon Lester’s ability to control the running game will be huge for the Cubs. Cody Bellinger and Kris Bryant are studs. But both need to get it going.

To win, the Dodgers will have to figure out how to get the game to Kenley Jansen. The Cubs will have to figure out how to win at least one game in a place that wasn’t too kind to them in 2017.

The storylines are plentiful. These are the main ones to think about as the Cubs and Dodgers prepare for the NLCS.

Clayton Kershaw’s bid to reverse shaky NLCS past

Kershaw’s postseason struggles have been particularly magnified in the NLCS. In eight NLCS outings, he has a 1-4 record with a 5.58 ERA. Each of the Dodgers’ two most recent NLCS trips (2013 and 2016) have ended with Kershaw pitching poorly and taking a loss in the final game.

Kershaw had only one start against the Cubs this year, and it did not go well. He lasted only 4.2 innings, allowed four runs on 11 hits with two walks and struck out six in a no decision.

October baseball is nothing new to Los Angeles. This is the team’s fifth straight playoff appearance. But each of the previous four visits ended before the World Series. Frankly, Kershaw’s poor pitching was a chief cause in at least three of those four exits.

Both the Dodgers and Kershaw can go a long way towards turning the choker label on its head with a good NLCS. Similarly, that narrative will only grow with a poor NLCS from both Los Angeles and its ace.

Jon Lester against the running game

Against most opponents, the Dodgers’ running game would hardly be worth mentioning. They stole 77 bases during the season, good enough for only a tie for 18th in the league. But when Lester is pitching, it’s always an issue.

Despite the pick-off heard around the world in Game 4, Lester struggles to hold runners on base. It’s the product of essentially having the yips when it comes to throwing over to first.

Los Angeles has speed. The Dodgers don’t run a lot because they also have a lot of power. It’s just not good baseball to be running into outs on the bases when essentially everyone in the lineup can put a ball in the 40th row.

But Lester dominated this team in the 2016 NLCS. In two starts, he put up a 1.38 ERA and a 0.85 WHIP on his way to a shared MVP. Sometimes power isn’t a realistic option against a pitcher like that.

Los Angeles could well find itself in a situation where it has to manufacture runs against Lester. If that happens, his ability to control the running game despite his issues will go a long way in determining how his starts go.

Can the Dodgers reverse history?

As previously mentioned, this will be the fourth time that two senior circuit teams are squaring off for the right to play in the World Series in consecutive years. It previously happened in 1977 and 1978 with Los Angeles and Philadelphia Phillies. Three decades later, the same two teams met again in both 2008 and 2009. In between, the Atlanta Braves and Pittsburgh Pirates met in both 1991 and 1992.

If history is your thing, the Cubs are in the driver’s seat. In each of the previous three NLCS rematches, the team that won the first series also won the second.

Objectively, though, history shouldn’t mean much. Just because the 1978 Phillies, 1992 Pirates, and 2009 Dodgers couldn’t reverse the trend doesn’t mean that the 2017 Dodgers can’t.

Still, from a historical perspective, a Dodgers win would be something that we haven’t seen before. It’s certainly something for the trivia fans.

Jake Arrieta’s control

For the most part, Arrieta had a strong second half of the 2017 season. And while he had to pitch through traffic, he allowed only one run in his Game 4 start in the NLDS.

But one part of Arrieta’s game has unquestionably been lacking recently — his control. Over his last eight starts, Arrieta has walked 4.2 hitters per nine innings. In his Game 4 start, he walked five guys in only four innings.

Arrieta is something of an X-factor in this series. If Kershaw does pitch well, Los Angeles is stronger at the top of the rotation. But if Arrieta is on his game, the depth favors Chicago.

It’s just going to be very hard for Arrieta to be on his game if he’s walking that many hitters. If you put that many men on base for free, the best teams will eventually make you pay.

Cody Bellinger looking for a consistent stroke

MLB youth movement, Cody Bellinger

After a season that will unquestionably end in the National League Rookie of the Year Award, Bellinger had an up-and-down NLDS against the Arizona Diamondbacks. He offered a glimpse of just how talented he is in Game 3. But the fact remains that Bellinger didn’t have a terribly productive overall series, even if his team did sweep.

Bellinger had only three hits and slashed at .214/.267/.429 against Arizona. Perhaps more troubling is that he struck out six times in 14 at-bats. So, there are holes in the zone that can be exploited.

We’re not expecting a .350/.470/.625 line in a postseason series. It’s possible, but not realistic, especially for a rookie.  But we would like to see Bellinger produce at a more consistent level.

If that happens, the Dodgers will become a near impossible team to beat in this series and the one after it. If the inconsistency remains, though, Los Angeles will be fighting an uphill battle.

Kris Bryant’s slump

Even with Washington’s checkered postseason history, did anyone think that Chicago would win the series with Bryant slashing at .200/.238/.300 while striking out 10 times in 20 at-bats? We’re still not sure it’s possible, and we just saw it happen!

The Cubs might be able to beat the Dodgers if Bryant continues to struggle. But we’re pretty sure they don’t want to find out, either.

While Bryant didn’t homer, he had a good NLCS a year ago, going .304/.407/.435 with three doubles against Los Angeles. That’s much closer to the kind of series that Chicago needs from Bryant to have a realistic chance of winning.

The bridge to Kenley Jansen

For the most part, the Dodgers’ bullpen has held up pretty well during the playoffs. Still, it’s been an issue in the past. Los Angeles has had to rely heavily on Clayton Kershaw deep in games, which has contributed to his struggles.

Starting pitchers are not going deep into these playoffs. That’s happening across the league. Even the best efforts are being stopped at seven innings. In its first round series sweep, Los Angeles had only one starter go beyond five innings (Kershaw, 6.1 in Game 1).

Outside of Jansen, the Dodgers’ bullpen has a 3.38 ERA in this postseason. That’s not bad by any means. But it does leave us with a little bit of doubt. If Los Angeles is trying to provide a close lead, tie, or close deficit, how well will the men leading up to Jansen do?

The Cubs vs. Dodger Stadium

If the Cubs are going to reach their second straight World Series, they’ll need to do something they didn’t do even once in the regular season — win a game in Los Angeles. Actually, the state of California was pretty brutal to the defending champs, who went 1-8 in the Golden State during the regular season.

Of course, the Cubs were far from the only team to struggle at Chavez Ravine in 2017.

The Dodgers had a home record of 57-24 during the regular season. That was the best home mark in baseball by a comfortable margin. The NLDS against the Diamondbacks certainly didn’t indicate that the Los Angeles was ready to slow down at home. They won both games against Arizona, scoring 13 runs in the process.

Early status of the Cubs’ pitching

From the number one starter to the closer and everyone in between, this pitching staff is a mess.

In the each final two NLDS games, Chicago’s starting pitcher lasted four innings. In Game 4 on Wednesday, five different Cubs handled the final five innings. During Thursday’s Game 4, six different Cubs were called on after Kyle Hendricks was pulled.

The results were mixed. On its own, that’s problematic. A lineup with guys like Bellinger, Corey Seager, Justin Turner, and a hot Yasiel Puig, will be tough on any bullpen. But against one that’s had some rough days recently, those guys will be licking their chops in anticipation.

We also just don’t know who’s going to be available. Wade Davis pitched in Game 4 and went 2.1 stress-filled innings in Game 5. Is he available to close on Saturday? If not, which of the other oft-used relievers gets the call?

As the series get going, we’ll get anther off day on Monday. Also, we have to figure that the Dodgers will use their bullpen a lot as well. So those relievers will get tired. But it’s going to be a battle for the Cubs to get through the early games of this series.

Is Los Angeles rested, or rusted?

It’s a frequent talking point ahead of most postseason series, and it’s never more relevant than in this one.

In contrast to the battle-tested Cubs, the Dodgers could not be more well rested. They wrapped their NLDS up on Monday. As soon as that happened, they knew that they’d be playing in Los Angeles for Game 1 on Saturday night.

That, along with the previously documented struggles of Chicago’s pitching staff (and that the Cubs have to fly across country for Game 1), would seem to be a huge advantage for Los Angeles.

Well, it doesn’t always work that way in baseball. Frequently, in fact, it works the other way.

Baseball players get used to routines. While it may be nice in terms of healing up, four days off is not exactly a typical routine for a baseball player. It’s probably not a coincidence that each of the last eight World Series have been won by the team that clinched its pennant second. The same idea applies in the NLCS.

So, while the Cubs will have to figure out a way to maneuver their pitching staff in the first games of this series, the Dodgers will have to shake off whatever rust exists. Often, that’s easier said than done.

How these teams work through the tired bodies vs. rusty bodies issues will have a lot of say in who represents the National League in the Fall Classic.