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:
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.
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.”
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.
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.”