Cubs

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

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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."

What Chicago sports fans should be thankful for

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USA TODAY

What Chicago sports fans should be thankful for

Families gather and people talk about things they are thankful for on Thanksgiving, but what are Chicago sports fans happy for now?

Raised expectations on the North Side

Got to be thankful that a “disappointing” season is winning the division and losing in the NLCS. The expectations have skyrocketed, and that’s thanks to a ridiculous nucleus of bats and a steady front office. Not many clubs can say that. Also, though, it’s important to be appreciative of the Wrigley bar stretch. They may charge $8 for a Miller Lite, but it’s always a damn good party.

Javy tags, too. Don't forget Javy tags.

Rebuild sparking hope in White Sox fans

Where to begin? Obviously, be thankful for the plethora of young talent that will soon take over the South Side. Be thankful for Avi Time (while you still can). Be thankful that taking your friends or family to a game won’t cause you to take out a second mortgage. Be thankful for the 2020 World Series and, of course, 2020 MVP Eloy Jimenez. But most importantly, be thankful that Rick Hahn’s phone stays buzzing.

Eddie O back in the booth for the Blackhawks

The Blackhawks are having a rough start to the season, but at least Eddie Olczyk is back in the booth. The longtime Blackhawks broadcaster returned to the booth on Oct. 18 after missing time while undergoing chemotherapy treatments for colon cancer.

With some of the key names from the Blackhawks’ title runs either leaving or being unable to play this season (in the case of Marian Hossa), Blackhawks fans are probably thankful to see a familiar face and hear a familiar voice during games.

Lauri Markkanen leading the Bulls rebuild

OK, there’s not much to be thankful for about the current Bulls team. At 3-13, the Bulls are tied for the fewest wins in the NBA (maybe in the long-term that’s something to be thankful for as well). However, Zach LaVine’s pending debut after his eventual return from injury should help create some excitement.

The thing Bulls fans really should be thankful for this year is the play of rookie Lauri Markkanen. The 20-year-old leads the team in scoring (14.6 points per game) and rebounds (8.3 per game) while shooting at a high percentage (34.2 percent on threes and 50.6 percent on twos). It’s only the beginning of the Bulls’ rebuild, but Markkanen is a good start.

Mitchapalooza

If a few things broke the Bears’ way, Chicagoans could have been grateful that the team was finally out of the cellar. Instead, we’ll settle for the fact that there seems to be some building blocks already in place. Mitchell Trubisky, Tarik Cohen, Leonard Floyd and Akiem Hicks seem to fit that category. Also, some may be thankful that this is likely John Fox’s last season at the helm.

Fire ending a playoff drought

After finishing dead last in MLS in 2015 and 2016, the Fire were one of the most improved teams in the league in 2017. After posting the third best record in the league, the Fire made a first playoff appearance since 2012.

The playoff run didn’t last long with the Fire losing a play-in game at home, but the arrival of Bastian Schweinsteiger and the league’s leading goal-scorer, Nemanja Nikolic, helped fill the stadium with six sellouts and gave Fire fans something to cheer for.

Cubs Talk Podcast: Where do Cubs go from here with Jake Arrieta, Wade Davis?

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Where do Cubs go from here with Jake Arrieta, Wade Davis?

In the latest CubsTalk Podcast, Kelly Crull and David Kaplan look ahead to Thanksgiving and discuss the official coaching hires for the Cubs.

They also talk about where the Cubs go from here with Jake Arrieta and Wade Davis, whether Alex Cobb could factor into the rotation plans and Kap goes off on the 11:30 a.m. Opening Day start time.

Check out the entire podcast here: