The Dodgers made it past their first playoff test, and now must face an even tougher test in the juggernaut Chicago Cubs in the National League Championship Series, beginning with Game 1 on Saturday night at Wrigley Field in Chicago.
After averaging just 3.8 runs per game against the Nationals in the NLDS while hitting .226/.324/.372, it would behoove the Dodgers to score some runs if they are to beat the 103-win Cubs. The only problem is there was no better team in the majors at preventing runs than Chicago, who allowed 56 fewer runs than the second-best team in the majors (Washington).
The Dodgers were one of the best defensive teams in baseball in 2016, fifth in the majors in defensive efficiency, per Baseball Prospectus, turning a batted ball into an out 71.2% of the time. The teams second through 12th were bunched up between 70.7% and 71.7% — the worst teams came in at 68.0% — but the Cubs were in a class of their own, with a 74.5% defensive efficiency.
Los Angeles will further have their work cut out for them facing Jon Lester, who is coming off eight scoreless innings in his last start, in Game 1 of the NLDS against the Giants. Lester shut the Dodgers down in two starts against them this season, allowing one total run in 15 innings, with 16 walks and two strikeouts.
Since the All-Star break, Lester is 11-1 with a 1.62 ERA in 15 starts, counting his first NLDS start, with 94 strikeouts and 24 walks in 100 innings.
At Wrigley Field in 2016, Lester is 11-2 with a 1.62 ERA counting the playoffs, and the Cubs won 14 of those 16 starts.
Saturday is Lester’s ninth career Game 1 start. He has a 2.06 ERA in those games, but is 4-4.
“For me it's a great honor, especially with the staff that we have. To get picked again to go number one, that's really a cool honor,” Lester said on Friday. “Our staff has been really, really good this year, and I think that, really, if you put all of our names in a hat and pulled one out, I don't think you could go wrong.”
Five & fly
The Dodgers of 2016 have done a good job at showing you don’t necessarily need to have starting pitchers go deep do win. But it doesn’t hurt.
The Cubs led the majors in innings pitched by their starters, averaging 6.11 per start, while the Dodgers ranked 29th at 5.32. The Nationals, it should be noted, were second in the majors at 5.93 innings per start, and they are watching the NLCS on TV like the rest of us.
But even with the extra pitcher on the Dodgers roster for the NLCS, the club could sure use some quality innings out of Kenta Maeda in Game 1, especially after the mad scramble on Thursday in Washington D.C.
His last two starts of the regular season were 4 innings, then 2... innings, followed by a 3-inning performance in Game 3 of the NLDS.
It continued a trend in the second half for Maeda, who from July 1 on posted a 4.23 ERA and 3.62 FIP while averaging just 5.19 innings per start. He lasted six or more innings just five times in his final 16 regular season starts
That was after starting the season with five straight starts of six or more innings, doing so 10 times in his 16 starts through June 30, posting a 2.82 ERA and 3.36 FIP while averaging 5.79 innings in the first half.
“We've been relying a lot on our relief pitchers to take the load, so I want to be able to -- I'm really just focused on throwing quality innings as long as I can,” Maeda said during his press conference on Friday, through interpreter Will Ireton. “As long as I keep throwing quality innings, then I would be able to throw longer and deeper into the game. So that's what I'm really focused on.”
Given the aggressive bullpen usage in the postseason — the Dodgers averaged five pitching changes per game in the NLDS — let’s call five innings a solid start for Maeda on Saturday.
The Dodgers are 19-8 this year when Maeda lasts at least five innings, and 0-6 when he doesn’t, including the postseason.
NLCS Game 1 info
Dodgers (91-71) at Cubs (103-58)
Time: 5:08 p.m. PT
TV: Fox Sports 1 (Joe Buck, John Smoltz, Ken Rosenthal)
Local radio: 570 AM (Charley Steiner and Rick Monday)
National radio: ESPN Radio (Dan Shulman, Aaron Boone)