Game 4 NLCS pitching matchup: Experienced John Lackey vs. naive Julio Urias

Game 4 NLCS pitching matchup: Experienced John Lackey vs. naive Julio Urias

LOS ANGELES — The Game 4 starters for the National League Championship Series couldn't be more different.

It's not so much of young vs. old, though it is that.

Dodgers southpaw Julio Urias just turned 20 and will be the youngest pitcher ever to start an NLCS game.

Cubs right-hander John Lackey turns 38 on Sunday (what would be Game 7 if the series goes that far) and is at the tail end of his 14th year in the big leagues.

Lackey has almost twice as many postseason innings on his resume (131 1/3) than Urias has in his entire MLB career (77 innings, all coming in 2016).

But that doesn't mean the Cubs have the clear advantage in what has become essentially a must-win game with the Dodgers up in the series and the possibility of Clayton Kershaw looming in Game 5.

"Sometimes it can be good to be young," Lackey said. "You don't know what you're getting into. You can just go out there and let your talent take over. And, obviously, he has a lot of that.

"It's a new situation for him. Back then, I was just worried about, you know, not messing it up for the older guys more than anything."

Now Lackey is one of the "older guys," a grizzled veteran who helped nurture some of the Cubs' young players and brought an edge to the clubhouse in a season where the goal from Day 1 has been World Series or bust.

Lackey has cut his teeth on the "Big Boy Games" he has been talking about all season and will get another chance to show off his cowboy style Wednesday night at Dodger Stadium.

They're going to need his edge to get back on track. A Game 4 win would turn the NLCS into a best-of-three series and give the Cubs homefield advantage with Games 6 and 7 set to be played at Wrigley Field.

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Lackey views this start as a new challenge and said he doesn't spend much time looking back at the two championship runs he's been through (in 2002 and 2013).

"I had a long break in between World Series, so you realize how special they are and how hard it is to get there and how meaningful those games are," Lackey said. "They're tough to get to and tough to win.

"At this point in my career, you've got to put in the work, you've got to put in the time. I don't got time to think that far back. I'm thinking ahead, and those are things maybe I'll check out on video when I retire in a few years."

Lackey isn't exactly in the twilight of his career. Joe Maddon said he still sees the same guy he saw start Game 7 of the 2002 World Series for the Anaheim Angels (where Maddon was on the coaching staff) and actually believes the veteran is in even better shape now.

Lackey struck out 8.6 batters per nine innings in 2016, tied for the best mark of his career. And he has won 24 games with a 3.03 ERA over the last two seasons (he spent 2015 with the St. Louis Cardinals).

"He's a cowboy when he pitches," Maddon said. "He goes right after hitters. There's not a whole lot hidden when John pitches."

As for a big start, Lackey believes his experience really only comes into play with the smaller stuff — press conference the day before a start, longer TV timeouts, flyovers and other pregame festivities.

Urias admitted the pressure is always there and that he felt it during his NLDS appearance against the Nationals in Washington — his only postseason action — in which he walked two and allowed a hit in two innings of scoreless work.

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said he didn't have to talk to Urias after the outing and has confidence in the 20-year-old to deliver in a high-pressure situation.

"He's just so calm and cool," Roberts said. "Some of it plays to the youthfulness, the naïveté, and just not really understanding the gravity of the moment, which is great.

"It's just these guys, the world around them, the noise, they just completely eliminated it. And it's just fun to watch these young guys go. Julio — I have no concerns about him taking the ball."

'Season-defining win'? Cubs are here for it

'Season-defining win'? Cubs are here for it

Smiling came easy for Anthony Rizzo as stood at his locker and fielded questions in a robin-egg blue T-shirt that read: "positive vibes."

This was roughly a half-hour after he went through the high-five line telling all his teammates the 12-11 victory was a "season-defining win" for the Cubs.

Who knows if it will really be that big of a "W" for this ballclub in the midst of what has been an up-and-down season to this point, but there has certainly been no shortage of positive vibes around the clubhouse lately.

One thing's for certain: The Cubs will wake up Thursday morning in sole possession of first place again as the Cardinals lost to the Brewers in a rain-shortened game in St. Louis.

Yu Darvish and the Cubs bullpen squandered a 6-2 lead and then a 10-9 lead. Yet the offense picked up the slack, smacking 14 hits, including Kris Bryant's game-winning two-run blast in the bottom of the eighth inning.

"We haven't won a game like that really all year, I don't think," Rizzo said. "They scored 9 runs in the fifth to seventh innings. Teams don't really win when that happens. Just a good, hard-fought, never-quit win."

Rizzo is right: The Cubs haven't won a game in which they allowed at least 11 runs since Sept. 2, 2017 when they beat the Braves 14-12.

The Cubs have claimed 14 of 17 games at home since the All-Star Break and are now 43-19 at Wrigley Field this season - a winning percentage approaching .700 to combat the .390 winning percentage on the road.

So is it a season-defining victory?

"That's what Rizz told me," Bryant said. "We were high-fiving there and Rizz told me this is a season-defining win. I mean, I can't disagree with him. It's one of those games where you don't feel like you're gonna win just because you take a lead and then you're giving it back, but we came out on top. 

"Definitely some good momentum. We're playing good at home here, obviously and just gotta roll with the records at home and on the road."

Early on, it looked to be a night where the Cubs would cruise to victory behind Darvish, who came into the game red-hot and had settled into a rhythm after serving up a two-run shot to the third hitter of the game.

But that wasn't the case, as Darvish served up four homers overall and Derek Holland and Tyler Chatwood combined to allow 4 runs while notching just two outs as the first arms out of the bullpen.

Before the game, Joe Maddon talked again about how he felt like the only way the Cubs would be able to pull away in a tight NL Central race would be if the offense got into a groove and for one day at least, they were certainly firing on all cylinders.

The only starter who didn't reach base safely at least twice was Kyle Schwarber, and he drove in 3 runs on a homer and a groundout in which he hustled down the line to avoid a double play. Darvish even chipped in with an RBI single in the second inning.

Yes, it was a good win. Yes, the Cubs can go to sleep feeling content and wake up feeling hopeful.

But the only way this becomes a "season-defining win" is if the next five weeks play out like they hope. There have been several wins before Wednesday that seemed like they could propel the Cubs - including the finale in Cincinnati on the last road trip where Bryant once again came through with a clutch late homer. And every time, the team failed to keep the good times rolling for an extended period.

This is all a moot point if the Cubs come out and look flat this weekend or fail to carry any momentum onto the road.

"We'll find out," said Maddon, who has been in this game for nearly four decades. "I mean, I've been involved in those seminal moments and all of a sudden, things switch. 

"I'll tell you one thing though - I liked the method at the plate. Nobody was grinding sawdust; everybody was up there nice and chill and were getting good hacks on good pitches. ... I liked that. That's what we need to get to that point."

Willson Contreras progressing, but still no timeline for return to Cubs

Willson Contreras progressing, but still no timeline for return to Cubs

Before the Cubs hosted the San Francisco Giants on Day 2 of American Legion Week, Willson Contreras was out in left field running and working out his injured right hamstring.

The All-Star catcher hit the injured list earlier this month after hitting a line drive to the gap against the Milwaukee Brewers. 

That was two-and-a-half weeks ago and the Cubs initially tabbed the Grade-2 hamstring strain as a roughly four-week timeline. But team president Theo Epstein said Wednesday Contreras is not nearing a rehab stint.

"He's in what our trainers are calling the aggressive strengthening phase of his rehab, which is building up the hamstring strength now that he's gotten through the initial injury," Epstein said. "Always what comes with that is the strength deficit that you have to really be mindful of building back up so that you don't risk reinjuring it when you get back to full baseball activities. 

"You're gonna see him on the field a lot more over the next few days and hopefully soon he'll be progressing to baseball activities. He's not on the cusp of starting a rehab assignment or anything like that. He hasn't really progressed to baseball activities yet, so that will be the next step."

The minor-league season wraps up in the first couple days of September, so Contreras won't have much of an opportunity to get game at-bats and innings at catcher if he isn't able to head on a rehab stint soon.

But the Cubs won't rush it with one of their most important players. Contreras was hitting .275 with 19 homers, 57 RBI and an .890 OPS in 87 games before the injury.

In his absence, the Cubs have been pretty well covered with Victor Caratini and Jonathan Lucroy splitting duties behind the dish.

Lucroy - acquired Aug. 8 after being released by the Los Angeles Angels - is hitting .333 with a .798 OPS in 7 games and has impressed with his work as a game-caller and veteran presence. Caratini continues to put up quality at-bats while building on his breakout campaign.