Marquee matchup set for Game 2 of NLCS at Wrigley Field
By Jack Baer
It was clear the National League Championship Series between the Dodgers and Cubs would carry plenty of top pitching matchups, and Game 2 tonight (8 p.m. ET on FS1) might be the apex of that.
After the Cubs took a 1-0 series lead with an 8-4 win on Saturday, facing off on the mound Sunday will be the Major League's ERA champion in Kyle Hendricks, and Clayton Kershaw, the man who might have taken that title had he not missed more than two months with a herniated disk.
The two pitchers are coming off vastly different usages in the NLDS. Hendricks' sole start against the Giants was cut short when a liner from Angel Pagan hit him in the arm, while Kershaw made two starts and earned his first career save to close out Game 5. Kershaw put up a 5.84 ERA in 12 1/3 innings, while Hendricks allowed two earned runs in 3 2/3 innings.
Why he'll win: Kershaw is the greatest pitcher of his generation. He was on pace to have one of the best pitching seasons in big league history before he went on the disabled list on July 1 and found his form again when he returned in September, finishing with a regular-season statline of 172 strikeouts against just 11 walks.
Pitcher beware: While Kershaw's talent is indisputable, his appearances in the NLDS were somewhat discouraging. Neither of his starts was great, although his second start's earned-run total was inflated by a Dodgers bullpen meltdown after he left the bases loaded in the seventh inning. He's also starting on two days' rest after his dramatic Game 5 save on Thursday, but he said Saturday that appearance basically took the place of his standard between-starts bullpen session and he would be under no restrictions come Sunday.
Pitch repertoire: A fastball that sits 92-94 mph, a high-80s slider and a large, looping curveball. Kershaw will also pepper in a changeup, but there's a new development worth watching. A few starts into his September return, Kershaw began dropping his release point and throwing a sidearm fastball. He decided to try it after watching Trade Deadline acquisition Rich Hill and it could be another weapon in his arsenal.
Bottom line: Kershaw's questionable postseason legacy got a reprieve after his Game 5 save, but it will be on the line again as he faces one of the top offenses in baseball on their home field.
Why he'll win: Hendricks generates as much soft contact as anyone and has the undisputed best defense in baseball behind him. Balls hit in play off Hendricks had an average exit velocity of just 87.2 mph, according to Statcast™ and was ranked fifth among qualified pitchers in home runs allowed per inning. He keeps the ball in the park for a Cubs defense that led the Majors in defensive efficiency, the rate at which balls in play are turned into outs against a team's defense.
Pitcher beware: Hendricks has thrown fewer than four innings in the two weeks since the end of the regular season, when he allowed four runs over five innings to the Reds in his final start. That was the first time he had allowed more than three runs in a start since May 17. A lack of recent usage and a possible lingering effect from Pagan's liner might have Hendricks off the track that won him the ERA title.
Pitch repertoire: Hendricks boasts one of the elite changeups in baseball, an offering against which batters are slugging .232 against while whiffing 24.3 percent of the time. He has a fastball that usually tops out around 90 mph and also utilizes a sinker and a slider.
Bottom line: Hendricks lost a chance to prove himself to a national audience in the NLDS, but he'll get another opportunity to show how underrated he's been on Sunday. He also gets to do it at Wrigley Field, where he holds a 1.32 ERA this season. The Cubs already have the 2015 NL Cy Young Award winner in Jake Arrieta and a proven postseason ace in Jon Lester, but it's hard to pick a pitcher and venue more reliable this season than Hendricks in Chicago.
Jack Baer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.