NLCS takes on new complexion with Dodgers' 2-1 lead
By Mike Bauman
LOS ANGELES -- In the space of two nights -- one in northeastern Illinois, one in Southern California -- the postseason outlook of the Los Angeles Dodgers has been changed, altered, improved and perhaps even utterly transformed.
This was, up until the last two nights of baseball in the National League Championship Series, The Year of the Cub.
The Dodgers? Nice season, a fourth straight division title and they hung in there when Clayton Kershaw was out with a herniated disk; thrilling victory over the Nationals in the NL Division; terrific job in Game 5 by closer Kenley Jansen and the closer of the day, Kershaw himself.
But against the Cubs? Particularly after an 8-4 Chicago victory in the NLCS opener, it appeared that the Dodgers were going to be mere supporting actors in the drama of the Cubs' journey toward their first World Series championship in 108 years.
But the perspective has shifted; especially after Kershaw gave the Dodgers seven brilliant innings and Jansen gave them two spotless innings in a 1-0 Game 2 victory. And particularly after what happened Tuesday night at Dodger Stadium in a 6-0 Los Angeles victory in Game 3.
In the rich history of the Dodgers franchise, it is now time to carve out a little space for the saga of Rich Hill.
This is what the Dodgers needed in the NLCS against the heavily favored Cubs -- a starter other than Kershaw to give them a competitive, effective, reasonably long start.
And this is exactly what they received from Hill, 36, who originally came up with the Cubs and was once a highly regarded young arm. In fact, Baseball America ranked him as the No. 5 prospect in Chicago's system in 2006 after he fanned 13.4 batters per nine innings across the Minors the previous season. Issues with command and a series of injuries derailed his promising career, and he was pitching in Independent ball in the middle of the 2015 season. He resurrected his career late last season with the Red Sox, but he really found the higher ground Tuesday night.
"The biggest game of my life," was how Hill described the assignment. He pitched six shutout innings, giving up two walks and two hits -- both singles to Kris Bryant -- and struck out six. He threw even more of his trademark curveballs than usual, but he also used the fastball inside effectively, and occasionally dropped his arm angle to further confound the hitters.
"Richie, it's interesting that the starts that I've seen him this year, it wasn't his best stuff," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. "I think that curveball command wasn't as I know he would like it, but that just shows that he goes out there and competes. He still has a very good chance to get guys out, but I think that his preparedness, his guts, you know, really kept those guys at bay. But changing speeds, pitching off the breaking ball, mixing in the fastball, yeah, he kept them off balance all night. I know that it meant a lot for him to give us six innings and throw six scoreless."
So for the second straight game, the powerful Cubs offense was derailed.
"I think you've got to give their pitching credit," said Cubs manager Joe Maddon. "We did well the first night and then Kershaw pitched, Kershaw happened. And that happens to a lot of folks. So tonight we were expecting and hoping to do a little bit better than we did, so you've got to give them credit. And of course their closer has been outstanding."
Now the Dodgers go from distant underdogs to a team that, measured by historical trends, is in a very good position. Teams that have won Game 3 in a League Championship Series that had been tied, 1-1, have gone 24-9. Teams that have won Game 3 at home in an LSC that had been tied, 1-1, have gone 12-7.
The Dodgers are going with young lefty Julio Urias in Game 4, but the question of what comes next is now more intriguing than troublesome for them. Kershaw has proved that he can pitch effectively on short rest, which is what he would have if he started Game 5.
However, Roberts said the Dodgers would remain in turn in their rotation. Kenta Maeda will start Game 5 and Kershaw will go in Game 6, if necessary.
"I just think kind of where we're at in the series," Roberts said. "But I like Julio tomorrow, and I like Kenta as well. And I think Kenta, the line score didn't show how well he pitched in Chicago. So right now we're not worried about deviating from our plan."
Roberts' plans in the postseason have worked. But a manager's plans will work well when a team gets the kind of pitching that Kershaw, Hill and Jansen gave the Dodgers the last two nights.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.