Cubs

5 takeaways from Game 1: Dodgers embrace the target, take aim at Cubs

5 takeaways from Game 1: Dodgers embrace the target, take aim at Cubs

LOS ANGELES – Embrace the Target: The Los Angeles Dodgers know this is a World Series-or-bust season after 104 wins, five straight division titles, a payroll soaring past $200 million and zero National League pennants since 1988.  

This looks close enough to the 2016 Cubs – adapted for Hollywood and without all the Wrigleyville quirks – that the 2017 Cubs will have to play a much sharper overall game in the NL Championship Series than they did against the Washington Nationals in the first round.

The Dodgers have so many counterpunches that knocking Clayton Kershaw out after five innings didn’t really matter in a 5-2 Game 1 loss on Saturday night at Dodger Stadium.

These Cubs also don’t seem to do anything easy or mind playing with their backs against the wall or in front of a sellout crowd of 54,289. With that in mind, here are four more takeaways from Chavez Ravine:

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This has been an emotional whirlwind for Jose Quintana, who wanted all the pressure and expectations that came with a contender after getting traded from the White Sox. Quintana got two outs as a reliever in Thursday night’s epic clincher in Washington, and enjoyed the celebration into Friday morning until his wife, Michel, experienced a panic attack, forcing the team’s charter flight to divert to Albuquerque, New Mexico.  

The Cubs waited until Saturday to officially announce their Game 1 starter (an otherwise obvious choice). Running on adrenaline, Quintana put up four scoreless innings but seemed to wear down in the fifth, giving up back-to-back walks to Logan Forsythe and Austin Barnes that set up two runs for Los Angeles in what would ultimately become a battle of the bullpens.  

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Wade Davis can’t get seven-out (or four-inning) saves every night. Second-guess manager Joe Maddon all you want, but there are not many good options here. Hector Rondon, who was snubbed from the last playoff roster and hadn’t pitched in a game since Sept. 29, gulped after watching Chris Taylor hammer his second pitch (a 97.3-mph fastball) into the right-center-field seats for the go-ahead home run in the sixth inning. Yasiel Puig homered off Mike Montgomery in the seventh inning, when the Cubs handed the ball to John Lackey, who has made two relief appearances in a big-league career that began in 2002. 

“We’re bullish on bullpens this time of the year,” Maddon said. “These guys are the reason we’re here in the first place. They had great seasons. So we all stub our toes on occasion. Nobody's perfect. Again, this is not a robotic game. This is not fantasy baseball. These are real people playing it. So for us (to) win eight more games, we have to utilize this entire group.”

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Albert Almora Jr. will never be intimidated by the big stage or a three-time Cy Young Award winner, launching Kershaw’s 3-2 slider into the left-field seats for a two-run homer in the fourth inning. Almora crushes left-handed pitching (.898 OPS this season) and that will matter with the Dodgers lining up Rich Hill and Alex Wood for Games 2 and 4 and Kershaw still looming.        

At the age of 23 and with several playoff moments already on his personal highlight reel, Almora is showing why the Cubs made him the first player drafted by the Theo Epstein regime, recognizing his fearlessness and baseball IQ after growing up in Miami, playing for Team USA and against elite competition year-round.  

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The Dodgers will not be quite the same team without Corey Seager, the All-Star shortstop they left off the NLCS roster while he recovers from a back injury. The Dodgers are built upon the depth and versatility that shows up more across a 162-game season, and Charlie Culberson is not a name to game-plan around during the playoffs. Seager also ranked third among all big-league shortstops with 10 defensive runs saved this season, the two-way excellence that made him last year’s unanimous NL Rookie of the Year.

Just ask Game 2 starter Jon Lester what Seager means to the Los Angeles lineup: “Probably like a ‘K.B.’ (Kris Bryant) or (Anthony) Rizzo.”

What if Jake Arrieta stays in the NL Central and repeatedly haunts the Cubs?

What if Jake Arrieta stays in the NL Central and repeatedly haunts the Cubs?

Jake Arrieta in a Brewers uniform?

That's not a sight Cubs fans would like to see, but the North Siders' I-94 rivals are apparently keen on trying to add Arrieta, the free-agent pitcher who's been one of the National League's top arms for the past several seasons.

The Cubs have their own decision to make on whether or not they're going to pursue re-signing Arrieta, a guy who over the past three seasons has posted a 2.71 ERA and struck out 589 batters, winning 54 games in 94 starts for a team that won the 2016 World Series and has advanced to three consecutive NL Championship Series.

The downside to losing Arrieta is obvious, as the Cubs would lose a huge part of their formidable starting rotation, but there would be an added downside if Arrieta were to remain in the NL Central and repeatedly haunt his former team.

Given Arrieta's track record, adding him would make sense for any team in the majors, but the Brewers in particular could use a front-of-the-line starting pitcher to boost their chances of besting the Cubs for the Central crown. The Brew Crew staged a surprising threat to do just that in 2017, perhaps proving that their rebuilding effort has yielded fruit ahead of schedule.

But there are questions in that rotation, with Jimmy Nelson expected to miss time next season after having shoulder surgery. Chase Anderson was great last season, and Zach Davies was solid, too. Brewers starters posted an ERA of 4.10 on the season, good for fifth in the NL. The four teams ahead of them, including the Cubs, all made the playoffs. Adding an arm as good as Arrieta's could make the difference in jumping past the Cubs in the Central and getting the Crew to the postseason for the first time since 2011.

And it'd be a plus for the Brewers to make it so Arrieta couldn't shut down their hitters anymore. In 15 career starts against the Crew, Arrieta is 8-4 with a 2.74 ERA. However, they'd surely love to have him call Miller Park home. He's never lost there in five starts, boasting a 2.03 ERA with 30 strikeouts.

There's an argument to be made that Arrieta would be able to seek revenge on the Cubs no matter what team he ends up pitching for, be it an NL team facing off against the Cubs in the playoffs or an American League squad meeting the Cubs in the World Series. After all, as Scott Boras put it, signing Arrieta is a ticket to "Playoffville."

But should Arrieta make the short drive to Wisconsin and set up shop in America's Dairyland, turning the Brewers into a legitimate playoff contender and challenger to the Cubs' grip on the NL Central crown? Well, consider the Cubs-Brewers rivalry cranked up to 11.

Kerry Wood and Carlos Zambrano are on this year's Hall of Fame ballot

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AP

Kerry Wood and Carlos Zambrano are on this year's Hall of Fame ballot

Two of the Cubs' greatest starting pitchers are among the 33 names on this year's Hall of Fame ballot.

Kerry Wood and Carlos Zambrano, both longtime fixtures in the North Side starting rotation, landed on the ballot for the first time. Legendary Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa is on the ballot for the sixth year.

Wood accomplished one of baseball's all-time most impressive feats, striking out 20 Houston Astros on May 6, 1998, in just his fifth start in the big leagues. He won the National League Rookie of the Year award in 1998 and was a two-time All Star in his 12 seasons with the Cubs.

Wood was a member of that stellar starting rotation in 2003, helping the Cubs to their first-ever NL Central title with a 3.20 ERA and a baseball-leading 266 strikeouts in 32 starts. Injuries, however, plagued Wood throughout his career with the Cubs, and after making those 32 starts in 2003 and 22 more in 2004, he started just 14 games for the remainder of his career.

Still, Wood is one of the most recognizable and celebrated pitchers in franchise history, No. 3 on the team's all-time strikeout list. Only 13 pitchers have appeared in more games with the Cubs than Wood.

Zambrano was also a part of that 2003 team in his third season in the majors. He spent all but one season of his 12-season big league career with the Cubs, making 282 starts and three All-Star teams. He finished in the top five in NL Cy Young voting three times: in 2004, 2006 and 2007. The 2004 campaign was Zambrano's finest, as he posted a 2.75 ERA in 31 starts for a Cubs team that nearly made a repeat trip to the postseason.

Zambrano had a famously hot temper and earned as many cheers for his on-field antics as he did for his pitching prowess. While some of those memorable blow-ups might resonate with fans a little more in the long run, he's one of the franchise's greatest pitchers ever, No. 2 on the team's all-time strikeout list, behind only Fergie Jenkins, and No. 15 on the wins list. Only seven pitchers have started more games in a Cubs uniform than Zambrano.

Statistically, Sosa seems like a no-brainer for the Hall of Fame, No. 9 on baseball's all-time home runs list with 609 dingers and the only player ever to have three 60-homer seasons. But it has been difficult for him to get votes from the writers. He received just 8.6 percent of votes last season. To be elected to the Hall of Fame, a player needs to appear on 75 percent of ballots.

Two other ex-Cubs, Fred McGriff and Jamie Moyer, are also on this year's ballot.