Cubs

Predicting the NLCS: Why Cubs will win Game 1 and take the series

cubs_nlcs_prediction_slide.jpg
AP

Predicting the NLCS: Why Cubs will win Game 1 and take the series

Get ready for another sighting of the Cubs in the World Series.

After more than seven decades without one of baseball's most iconic franchises, the Fall Classic will once again feature Joe Maddon's team in 2017.

(Either that, or this column will look pretty funny 8 days from now, but hey, that's the nature - and fun - of predictions.)

What it boils down to simply is this: Would you want to bet against the Cubs? I mean, seriously.

The baseball gods clearly seem on their side lately, as the Cubs have caught several breaks from that fifth inning against Max Scherzer to Jose Lobaton's foot coming off the bag to Anthony Rizzo's bloop hit dropping, leading to his epic "RESPECT ME!" montage

And that's just this week.

The breaks keep coming for the Cubs, as they'll face the Los Angeles in an NLCS rematch without the Dodgers' best everyday player. 

Corey Seager's absence (back injury) is a huge loss for the Dodgers offense. The reigning NL Rookie of the Year and two-time All-Star hit .295 with an .854 OPS, 22 homers, 77 RBI and 85 runs. He did not record an extra-base hit in last year's NLCS against the Cubs, but did hit .286 with a .375 on-base percentage.

[RELATED - Cubs NLCS roster]

The whole idea of experience and "been there before" is overblown, but the Cubs keep proving it does count for something, rising above adversity and continuing to drive forward no matter how many punches they take.

"It's never easy, but experience is the best teacher in that," Jason Heyward said during the Cubs' celebration in the visiting locker room at Nationals Park early Friday morning. "You have to do it. You don't have a choice. Either you get over it, or you dwell on it and it sinks your ship.

"We know we can't do that. If you're gonna go down, go down turning the page. Go down competing, go down in that moment. Can't dwell on what happened before."

Heyward has been a steadying force in helping this Cubs team "turn the page" over the last two seasons. One of the lasting images of that epic Game 5 will be his reaction on the final out - taking a few steps, clutching his jersey and letting out a primal scream after four hours and 37 minutes of tortured nerves. 

And once again, the Cubs found a way to win a ridiculous, intense game. Because that's what they do.

"Two hundred 40 baseball games a year or whatever - our players grind through all year and our front office guys pull the all-nighters," president Theo Epstein said. "This is what it's all about.

"Now our guys are establishing that identity of finding a way to win this time of year. There's no better thing to be known for and they've earned it. I'm proud of them."

The 2017 Dodgers are essentially the 2016 Cubs: a team with World Series expectations from the outset, got out to an insane start, added an impact pitcher before the trade deadline (Yu Darvish - LA; Aroldis Chapman - 2016 Cubs) and won more than 100 games as the best team in baseball (104 - LA; 103 - 2016 Cubs).

But like the Cubs say, to be the best, they gotta beat the best. And the Dodgers are currently the best. 

Here's how the Cubs will line up against Kershaw in Game 1:

1. Jon Jay - RF
2. Kris Bryant - 3B
3. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
4. Willson Contreras - C
5. Albert Almora Jr. - CF
6. Addison Russell - SS
7. Kyle Schwarber - LF
8. Javy Baez - 2B
9. Jose Quintana - P

The lineup looks exactly like how the Cubs lined up against lefty Gio Gonzalez in Game 5 of the NLDS...save for one major difference: Kyle Schwarber.

Schwarber has never faced Kershaw, but there's reason to be optimistic. Schwarber made great contact (114 mph exit velocity) off a lefty in his long pinch-hit appearance in Game 5, just missing a home run by a matter of a few feet.

Kershaw is also actually tougher on righties than lefties, which is surprising for a southpaw. Lefties are hitting .248 with a .734 OPS against him, homering once every 19 at-bats. Righties are hitting only .203 with a .570 OPS and homering once every 42.42 at-bats.

Maddon is hoping Schwarber can give the Cubs a run or two with his bat early, and then look for Heyward to come into the game for defense with Jay switching over to left field.

As for Ben Zobrist's absence in the lineup, beyond Kershaw's reverse splits, Maddon also pointed to Zobrist's ineffectiveness from the right side this season - he's slashing just .179/.261/.292 (.553 OPS) and hit just one homer all year. Zobrist hasn't looked right from that side since an awkward swing hurt his wrist in the middle of the season.

Prediction

Cubs win Game 1 and take the series in six games again. 

Let's start with Game 1: The Cubs already had the tough task of trying to beat the best pitcher in the game (Kershaw) and now will have to do that after a whirlwind week that included a detour on the way from D.C. to L.A. They're exhausted - physically and mentally - while the Dodgers have had almost the entire last week off.

So of course the Cubs are going to win Saturday night. Why? Because it's baseball and it's impossible to predict, so narratives are thrown out the window all the time.

Watch the Cubs follow the 2016 script - ride high off an epic win in the NLDS, take the first game from the Dodgers and then feature a lull in the middle few games before roaring back and taking the series.

But this Dodgers team is quite a bit different than last year's NLCS runner-up. 

Cody Bellinger is a legit star in the middle of that order and the clear NL Rookie of the Year. And the Dodgers rotation is healthier than it was at this time a year ago, plus the addition of Darvish.

Albert Almora Jr. should be in for a big opportunity in this series, likely starting three of the first four games against the southpaws. Almora has elevated his play and given the Cubs a big boost in the latter part of the season, including a big hit in Game 3 of the NLDS and a pair of quality plate appearances in Game 5 off Gio Gonzalez.

But Almora isn't my pick for NLCS MVP. Instead, I'm betting on one of the Cubs' middle infielders, with Addison Russell continuing his clutch ways while Javy Baez (the co-NLCS MVP last fall) is due for an offensive breakout after going 0-for-14 in the NLDS.

In fact, the entire Cubs offense is due for a breakout after the NLDS, so even though the Dodgers pitching is elite, look for the bats to wake up after pushing across runs in so many different ways Thursday night.

"We gotta play a really clean game," Epstein said. "But we always hit eventually. We got through the series and we didn't always get the big hit. I think that bodes well. We're gonna hit. We got too many talented hitters. 

"I think we'll raise our game. This time of year, it's about finding a way to win. That's what it's all about."

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

2-21_jim_hickey_usat.jpg
USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

Spring training baseball games are up around the bend, but before the boys of summer get into organized action, two of the team’s new coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey sit down with Kelly Crull.

Plus, Vinnie Duber joins Kelly to discuss these baseball conversations including the memorable first words of Kyle Schwarber to Chili Davis, “I don’t suck!"

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here:

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

MESA, Ariz. — We know Willson Contreras doesn’t like baseball’s new pace-of-play rules.

He isn’t the only one.

“I think it’s a terrible idea. I think it’s all terrible,” Jon Lester said last week at spring training, before the specifics of the new rules were even announced. “The beautiful thing about our sport is there’s no time.”

Big surprise coming from the Cubs’ resident old-schooler.

The new rules limit teams to six mound visits per every nine-inning game, with exceptions for pitching changes, between batters, injuries and after the announcement of a pinch hitter. Teams get an extra mound visit for every extra inning in extra-inning games. Also, commercial breaks between innings have been cut by 20 seconds.

That’s it. But it’s caused a bit of an uproar.

Contreras made headlines Tuesday when he told reporters that he’ll willingly break those rules if he needs to in order to put his team in a better position to win.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If I have to pay the price for my team, I will,” Contreras said. “There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? … You have to go out there. They cannot say anything about that. It’s my team, and we just care about winning. And if they’re going to fine me about the No. 7 mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”

Talking about pace-of-play rule changes last week, Cubs manager Joe Maddon said his team would adapt to any new rules. In Chicago baseball’s other Arizona camp, a similar tune of adaptation was being sung.

“Obviously as players we’ve got to make adjustments to whatever rules they want to implement,” White Sox pitcher James Shields said. “This is a game of adjustments, we’re going to have to make adjustments as we go. We’re going to have to figure out logistics of the thing, and I would imagine in spring training we’re going to be talking about it more and more as we go so we don’t mess it up.”

There was general consensus that mound visits are a valuable thing. So what happens if a pitcher and catcher need to communicate but are forced to do it from 60 feet, six inches away?

“Sign language,” White Sox catching prospect Zack Collins joked. “I guess you have to just get on the same page in the dugout and hope that nothing goes wrong if you’re out of visits.”

In the end, here’s the question that needs answering: Are baseball games really too long?

On one hand, as Lester argued, you know what you’re signing up for when you watch a baseball game, be it in the stands at a ballpark or on TV. No one should be shocked when a game rolls on for more than three hours.

But shock and fans' levels of commitment or just pure apathy are two different things. And sometimes it’s a tough ask for fans to dedicate four hours of their day 162 times a year. So there’s a very good reason baseball is trying to make the game go faster, to keep people from leaving the stands or flipping the TV to another channel.

Unsurprisingly, Lester would rather keep things the way they are.

“To be honest with you, the fans know what they’re getting themselves into when they go to a game,” Lester said. “It’s going to be a three-hour game. You may have a game that’s two hours, two hours and 15 minutes. Great, awesome. You may have a game that’s four hours. That’s the beautiful part of it.

“I get the mound visit thing. But what people that aren’t in the game don’t understand is that there’s so much technology in the game, there’s so many cameras on the field, that every stadium now has a camera on the catcher’s crotch. So they know signs before you even get there. Now we’ve got Apple Watches, now we’ve got people being accused of sitting in a tunnel (stealing signs). So there’s reasons behind the mound visit. He’s not just coming out there asking what time I’m going to dinner or, ‘Hey, how you feeling?’ There’s reasons behind everything, and I think if you take those away, it takes away the beauty of the baseball game.

“Every game has a flow, and I feel like that’s what makes it special. If you want to go to a timed event, go to a timed event. I’m sorry I’m old-school about it, but baseball’s been played the same way for a long time. And now we’re trying to add time to it. We’re missing something somewhere.”

Whether limiting the number of mound visits creates a significant dent in this problem remains to be seen. But excuse the players if they’re skeptical.

“We’ve got instant replay, we’ve got all kinds of different stuff going on. I don’t think (limiting) the mound visits are going to be the key factor to speeding this game up,” Shields said. “Some pitchers take too long, and some hitters take too long. It’s combination of a bunch of stuff.

“I know they’re trying to speed the game up a little bit. I think overall, the game’s going as fast as it possibly could. You’ve got commercials and things like that. TV has a lot to do with it. There’s a bunch of different combinations of things. But as a player, we’ve got to make an adjustment.”