With Clayton Kershaw looming, Cubs retake control of NLCS

With Clayton Kershaw looming, Cubs retake control of NLCS

LOS ANGELES – The best pitcher on the planet is still looming over this National League Championship Series. Do you really believe the Los Angeles Dodgers won’t unleash Clayton Kershaw for Game 5? Can they afford not to after that jarring momentum shift on Wednesday night at Dodger Stadium? 

“No, no, it’s going to be Kenta,” manager Dave Roberts said after the Cubs erupted during a 10-2 win that tied up the NLCS at 2-2 and forced the Dodgers to book a return trip to Chicago.

That would be Kenta Maeda, the finesse right-hander who gave up three runs in four innings and got the no-decision in a Game 1 loss at Wrigley Field. Going up against lefty Jon Lester, the two-time World Series champion the Cubs handed a $155 million contract with these playoff games specifically in mind, a Cy Young Award contender with the arsenal to neutralize Los Angeles’ left-handed-heavy lineup.

By all accounts, Roberts is a great communicator, creative strategist and Manager of the Year material. The Fox Sports 1 crew also captured Kershaw throwing a bullpen session that would have seemingly ruled him out for Thursday night anyway. But the Dodgers didn’t automatically get the benefit of the doubt.

“It’s not an elimination game,” Roberts said. “The accumulation of his usage over the last 10 days plays a factor in our decision, so I think those are kind of the reasons why we’re not going with Clayton tomorrow.

“He’s done what he’s always done in saying that he’ll do whatever we ask of him. (But) thinking through it, the best thing for us is to have him pitch Game 6 and have Kenta to go tomorrow. And with the guys that we have at the back end of the ‘pen, I feel really good about the position we’re in.”

Remember what Roberts said during his press conference before last week’s elimination Game 5 against the Washington Nationals in the NL Division Series.

Question: Would Kershaw be available for an out?

Answer: “No. Absolutely not.”

[SHOP: Buy a "Try Not to Suck" shirt with proceeds benefiting Joe Maddon's Respect 90 Foundation & other Cubs Charities]

Kershaw, of course, nailed down the final two outs at Nationals Park, getting Mr. October Daniel Murphy to pop out with two runners on in the ninth inning, saving a 4-3 win and pushing his team into the NLCS. 

Three days later, Kershaw absolutely shut down the Cubs in Game 2, allowing only two singles across seven innings in a 1-0 win that showed the three-time Cy Young Award winner might own this October, too.

But that seems like a long time ago in an NLCS filled with so much drama and emotion. Either way, a Cubs team feeling this shot of adrenaline will be looking forward to getting another chance to solve Kershaw.

“We try to stay true to who we are,” catcher David Ross said. “I think stories get made up. That’s what you guys (in the media) have to do. You have to write stories about guys not hitting and us not scoring runs. But we understand that we’re facing really good pitching and tough matchups and guys aren’t locked in yet. It’s a cat-and-mouse game. That’s why it’s a seven-game series. We’re glad to be back to even.” 

Willson Contreras, Jon Lester carry Cubs to eventful win in the first game of the series with Atlanta

Willson Contreras, Jon Lester carry Cubs to eventful win in the first game of the series with Atlanta

The Cubs and Braves got through roughly one inning of Stranger Things Night at Wrigley Field before Willson Contreras made the evening his own. 

The catcher went 2-4 with three RBI, and provided the most notable moment from the game: a 2nd inning solo homer that caused both benches to clear. Contreras had taken issue with a few of the called strikes earlier in the at-bat, and said something to home plate umpire John Tumpane about it. Contreras continued to make his feelings known as he left the box, drawing the ire of Braves catcher Tyler Flowers.

“To be honest, those pitches weren’t even close to the strike zone,” he said. “[Flowers] got mad because I was talking to the umpire about that, and he jumped into the conversation. 

Contreras then proceeded to shout in the direction of Atlanta’s dugout while rounding first base, and the two catchers exchanged more words as he crossed home plate. The benches quickly emptied, and after a few moments of posturing, returned to their dugouts. 

“It was a lot of emotions together,” he said after the game. “I was having a conversation with the umpire, and it ended up with [Flowers], so that’s all I can say. I just basically told him to do his job and I’ll do mine. I don’t know why he got pissed off because that’s all I said - you do your job and i’ll do mine.”

“I was kind of amused by the whole thing,” Joe Maddon added. “I don’t really know Mr. Flowers - we had a nice conversation, walked away, and it was over. It really wasn’t worth more than what happened.

The confrontation was just one of a few testy moments between these two teams. In the top of the 2nd inning, Braves third baseman Josh Donaldson was caught on cameras shushing the Cubs dugout: 

Two innings later, it was Javy Baez who returned serve by blowing the Braves a kiss after stealing second on Flowers: 

“It’s fun because they’re good,” Maddon said. “And we’re good - that’s the fun part. Monday night, at 7:05, to have that kind of attitude and atmosphere is outstanding. That’s what baseball needs.” 

On the mound, Jon Lester bounced back from a run of three straight underwhelming performances. June hasn’t been kind to Lester, as the lefty had allowed 14 runs over the last 23 IPs prior to Monday’s start, good for a 5.93 FIP. He threw 94 pitches against the Braves, lasting six innings while allowing two runs -- both unearned, though -- and striking out seven. He only threw 94 pitches, but his control (0 BB) was excellent. Lester spotted his strikeout pitch well all night, getting four of his six right-handed K’s on the low outside corner:

“I just tried to stay down there, and had the backdoor cutter to those guys,” Lester said. “We were able to kind of exploit that, and then when we felt that guys were reaching out there a little bit, I ran the cutter in on some guys too. I was just able to command both sides of the plate tonight, which is huge against an offense like that.” 

“Great job by Jon,” Maddon added, “Jon had great stuff. Coming off of [throwing 114 pitches], he’s been throwing a lot of pitches on regular rest, so I wanted to limit that tonight. He was lobbying to go back out, but I didn’t feel good about it based on the longevity of the season and we had a rested Kintzler.

“But Jon was really good, and really good against a tough lineup.”

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Live from Wrigley it's Cubs Authentic Fan Night


Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Live from Wrigley it's Cubs Authentic Fan Night

Ozzie Guillen and Doug Glanville join Leila Rahimi to talk all things Chicago baseball as the Cubs take on the Braves and the White Sox look to get a win in Boston.

Listen to the full episode in the embedded player below: