Both have room for improvement in second head-to-head battle
By Jack Baer
LOS ANGELES -- With the National League Championship Series tied at 2-2 after the Cubs' 10-2 win in Game 4, a pivotal Game 5 will feature a rematch of starting pitchers from Game 1, in Jon Lester and Kenta Maeda.
The Cubs got the win the last time these two faced off, pushing Maeda out after four innings, but Cubs manager Joe Maddon surprised Lester by pulling him after six innings of one-run ball. Maddon said after the game that "Jon really wasn't on top of his game," so both pitchers will have plenty to improve on in their second go-round.
Why he'll win: Lester threw six solid innings against the Dodgers in Game 1 despite not having his best stuff, per Maddon, so a night when he's on could see even better results. His track record in the postseason certainly suggests he can deliver another strong start, holding a 2.57 ERA in 112 career innings. He also remains left-handed and facing the team that had the worst OPS in MLB against southpaws in the regular season.
Pitcher beware: Even though the stat line doesn't really show it, the Dodgers' lineup squared up Lester several times in Game 1 and could do so again. Los Angeles put seven balls in play with an exit velocity of 95 mph or greater according to Statcast™, though only one of them went for extra bases. If batters can find a way to elevate Lester's pitches more consistently, it could be a rough night for the Cubs.
Pitch repertoire: Lester's fastball comes in at an average of 92.4 mph according to Statcast™ and his best secondary offerings are his cutter and curve, neither of which batters are slugging more than .300 against. He also mixes in a sinker and changeup against right-handed hitters.
Bottom line: Lester had one of the best second halves in baseball, putting up a 1.76 ERA after the All-Star break, and hasn't slowed down in the postseason, yielding a single earned run in 14 innings between two starts. No player in the Dodgers' lineup has given him significant trouble in his career, and there's no reason another good start isn't a reasonable expectation.
Maeda against the Cubs Game 1: 4 IP, 4 H, 3 ER, 2 K, 3 BB 2016: Did not face Chicago in the regular season
Why he'll win: Dodger Stadium has been much kinder to Maeda than the road this season, as he holds a 3.22 ERA at home against a 3.74 away mark. Worries about his fatigue late in the season might also be a little overblown. He has certainly not lived up to his regular-season standards over his last few starts, but his 175 2/3 innings in the regular season was his lowest total since 2008, his rookie year in Japan. However, he was pitching once a week over in Japan, so exhaustion could still be a worry given that he's pitching on four days' rest for a second start in a row.
Pitcher beware: Maeda has averaged 3.42 innings pitched and 3.75 earned runs in his last four starts, easily his worst span of the season. He hasn't broken four innings pitched since Sept. 21, nearly a month ago. As mentioned before, he's pitching on four days' rest, a situation where he holds a 3.97 ERA. He's facing a Cubs lineup he struggled against in Game 1.
Pitch repertoire: Maeda used his slider more than any other pitch in Game 1 and has never been shy about pitching backward, using his secondary stuff early in counts to set up a fastball that averaged 90.8 mph in Game 1, according to Statcast™. However, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said Wednesday that he expects Maeda to pitch off his fastball in Game 5, so we'll see if Maeda shifts to a more traditional strategy. Beyond the fastball and slider, he also has a curveball and changeup that get mixed in more against left-handed batters.
Bottom line: Given his recent starts and the day of rest issue, there's no denying Maeda is navigating some significant obstacles right now. He was the steadiest presence in the Dodgers' rotation this season, the only player in the Opening Day rotation to stay there for the entire season, but he may now be the weakest link.
Jack Baer is a reporter for MLB.com based in Los Angeles. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.