Series Status: Cubs lead 1-0
W: Aroldis Chapman (1-0, 0.00)
L: Joe Blanton (0-1, 67.50)
MVP: Miguel Montero: 1-1, GS, 4 RBI, 1 R
Jon Lester took the mound against Japanese import Kenta Maeda as the Cubs and Dodgers opened the National League Championship Series Saturday night. For most of the game, it looked like pitching and defense would rule the day. Then in the 8th inning, all hell broke loose for both teams’ bullpens.
Dexter Fowler led off the 1st inning with a solid single to center. Kris Bryant followed with a double to the left field wall that scored Fowler to make it 1-0. Jason Heyward tripled to open the 2nd inning and scored on a Javy Baez bloop double. Baez advanced to third on a wild pitch while Lester was at the plate. The pitcher attempted a squeeze bunt but missed, leaving the runner caught between third and home. Javy went full Javy and charged for the plate to beat Justin Turner’s throw for a steal of home: 3-0 Chicago.
Big Jon didn’t have his best stuff Saturday night. The Cubs ace gave up plenty of hard contact and was saved a few times by his defense, most notable two incredible diving catches by Dexter Fowler. Cubs-killer Andre Ethier put the Dodgers on the board in the 5th with a wind-aided, pinch-hit solo shot to left field. Lester went one more inning and then a combination of Travis Wood, CJ Edwards, and Mike Montgomery handled the 7th inning.
The Cubs bullpen ran into big trouble in the 8th inning, which Andrew Toles opened with a single against Montgomery. Pedro Strop came on and promptly walked Chase Utley. Justin Turner hit a grounder to Kris Bryant, who scrambled for a force out but was beaten to the bag by Toles to load the bases. Once again, Joe Maddon went to Aroldis Chapman to get a six-out save. Chapman struck out the first two batters he faced before Adrian Gonzales smacked a single up the middle to tie the game at 3 runs apiece.
The Cubs did not fold after the Dodgers roared back to tie the game. Ben Zobrist doubled against LA setup man Joe Blanton to open the bottom of the 8th. After retiring Addison Russell, Dodger manager Dave Roberts called for an intentional walk of Heyward. Javy wouldn’t play hero this time, popping up for out number two. Then Roberts intentionally walked pinch-hitter Chris Coghlan to load the bases. The plan was to force Chapman from the game, which worked, except not really. Miguel Montero pounded an 0-2 Blanton slider for a grand slam and Wrigley was up for grabs.
Fowler made it back-to-back with a homer of his own to make it an 8-3 Cubs advantage. Hector Rondon gave up a run in the 9th before closing out the 8-4 Chicago win.
The Cubs again faced a spot that had broken many previous incarnations of this team. Joe Buck even mentioned the 2003 team after Anthony Rizzo couldn’t catch a foul pop-up in the 8th. Yet once again this 2016 team would not follow the media narratives. Like in game 4 in San Francisco, the Northsiders punched back and landed a knockout. It’s the kind of never-say-die attitude you need to win in the playoffs.
Some rumors Friday afternoon had it that Miguel Montero’s back would keep him off the NLCS roster. Instead, Miggy was at the plate with the bases loaded in a tie game with two outs in the 8th. When Blanton made his first mistake, the veteran backstop missed his chance. I know what you’re thinking: didn’t he hit that mistake? Actually, he barely missed an 0-1 hanging slider. Then Blanton hung the very next slider, and this time Montero didn’t miss it. That might have been the loudest Wrigley Field has ever been in 100-plus years.
If not for Montero’s heroics, the player of the game would have been Dexter Fowler. He was 2-5 with a single and home run, but really starred in the field, robbing Justin Turner of a single in the 4th inning on a diving catch. Then the long-legged center fielder made an unbelievable all-out dive to take a double from Carlos Ruiz. Javy Baez also had another strong game, creating a pair of runs in the bottom of the 2nd.
Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell are in deep slumps, perhaps their worst of the season. This has made the middle of the Cubs order very ineffective this postseason. With the next three LA starters being lefties, expect Maddon to make some adjustments. Jorge Soler, who has also been cold, and Willson Contreras, who has not, will likely see starts in game two. I also expect Baez to move ahead of Russell in the order. If Chicago wants to advance, they will need both AR’s to heat up.
Joe Blanton did not have a very good night Saturday. The wipeout slider that has made him a valuable cog in the LA bullpen was on the fritz. Montero and Fowler punished two flat sliders to bury the Californians in game one.
Kyle Hendricks (0-0, 4.91 ERA) is good to go after taking a liner off his pitching arm. Clayton Kershaw (1-0, 5.84 ERA) appeared three times in the Dodgers 5-game series with Washington and Dave Roberts says he’ll continue to be very aggressive with his number one starter. Game two becomes critically important for LA with the Cubs’ win. If Chicago can beat Kershaw and take a 2-0 lead, the Dodgers will need to win 4 of 5 with Kershaw only making one more start.