LOS ANGELES – In a Cubs season that has already gone off script – or at least not followed the dynasty-in-waiting narrative – it made perfect sense that a Jon Lester vs. Clayton Kershaw matchup at Dodger Stadium would devolve into a slugfest and a bullpen battle.
Randy Newman’s voice – “I Love L.A.” – echoed from the sound system late Sunday afternoon as the Dodgers put the finishing touches on a three-game sweep of the defending World Series champs. The Cubs led for one half-inning during this entire weekend and a Hollywood team will wake up in San Diego on Memorial Day with a 25-24 record.
This 9-4 blowout again showed that the Dodgers should be a force in October. Forget about the way forward-thinking manager Dave Roberts basically tried to MacGyver his way through last year’s National League Championship Series with three pitchers: Kershaw, lefty curveball specialist Rich Hill and star closer Kenley Jansen.
“That’s the big separator between what I saw last year and right now,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said, “how they’re pitching.”
This time it didn’t matter that the Cubs knocked Kershaw out in the middle of the fifth inning. Willson Contreras, Javier Baez and Anthony Rizzo launched home runs off Kershaw and the Cubs generated all of their 11 hits against the three-time Cy Young Award winner. This game still never really got tense or felt like the Dodgers were out of control.
“It sounds like fiction to me, but it happened,” Maddon said.
Kershaw still outlasted Lester, who dropped his head, stared at the grass and walked off the mound with one out and two runners on in the fourth inning. Lester (3-3, 3.86 ERA) – the sturdiest piece to a shaky rotation – put the Cubs in a 6-1 hole after giving up three-run homers to Cody Bellinger and Kike Hernandez.
In back-to-back shutouts, the Dodgers (31-20) had already beaten a Cy Young Award winner dealing with questions about his velocity and looming free agency (Jake Arrieta) and a three-time World Series champion who is 38 years old and now has a 5.18 ERA (John Lackey).
“It seems like they’re firing on all cylinders,” Lester said. “They played better than us all the way around this weekend.”
Standing in the middle of a cramped visiting clubhouse, Lester sounded annoyed – “Put what together?” – after being asked when or how the Cubs will go on a run and start playing up to expectations.
“We have to play for today,” Lester said. “You can’t worry about a run. You can’t worry about showing up and trying to go nine (innings) before you throw a first pitch. You can’t worry about trying to go 3-for-4 before your first at-bat. Worry about today. Worry about the task at hand.
“You can’t worry about a run. You can’t make runs happen. Sometimes, it’s better to kind of sit back and let things come to you. You’re not pressing. You’re not grinding. You’re not doing things that you don’t need to be doing.
“We got a good team. It’s just a matter of showing up, day in and day out, and putting the work in and it will come. It will click.”
Take Kershaw out of the equation and the Cubs generated zero runs, five singles and no extra-base hits in 22.2 innings against Los Angeles pitching. The Dodgers only used Jansen in one non-save situation.
“You got to tip your cap to them,” reigning NL MVP Kris Bryant said. “That was a pretty impressive pitching performance on all days. I felt like we got to Kershaw a little bit. But their bullpen – it just felt like every pitch was right there at the top of the strike zone. Every single one. To all of us. It was unbelievable.
“It felt like every guy they ran out there was throwing it right where they want.”
Three games against a last-place Padres team tanking for the future should change the subject before the Cubs head home to Wrigley Field. But the Dodgers sure looked like the talented, balanced, hungry team that wants to take down the Cubs.
“It’s always tougher the second time, because everybody’s gunning for you,” said Ben Zobrist, who should stabilize the lineup on Monday after missing two games with a sore left wrist. “Your expectations are even higher than they were before.
“But this team is definitely equal to the task. That’s not the problem as much as we just got to get back to the fundamentals and execution of the little details in the game. And everything else kind of takes care of itself.”