There are not many times in recent baseball history where the reigning World Series champion has entered a postseason series as an underdog, let alone actually making the playoffs as a whole, but the Chicago Cubs are making an exception this fall.
After defeating the Washington Nationals in a heated, sloppy, five-game National League Division Series, the Cubs are set to take on the heavily favored, 104-win Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series. In a rematch of last year’s NLCS, Kris Bryant and the Cubs hope to make their second consecutive World Series, the first time they’d accomplish such a feat since winning three straight NL pennants from 1906-1908.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon, as per usual for the future Hall of Fame manager, has done nothing but praise his players for the job they’ve done rather than focus on their mistakes in the NLDS.
“What our guys have been through the last several years, they’re young. They’re really young. I can’t say they’re inexperienced anymore. We’re young, but we’re not inexperienced. So the boys have responded properly and well. I’m really proud of it.”
As Game One starter Jose Quintana and the Cubs prepare for a potential second straight World Series appearance, let’s look at five potential ways Chicago can upset the heavily-favored Dodgers.
1. Determine a role for Kyle Schwarber
Returning from a torn ACL in April 2016 to play in the World Series, catcher-turned-outfielder Kyle Schwarber was, without a doubt, one of the more popular Cubs coming into this season. Now, Schwarber enters the NLCS without a role after a disappointing regular season that saw him sent down to the minor leagues, slash.211/.315/.467 and strike out 150 times across 422 at-bats, and make a crucial error in Game 3 after a dropped fly ball led to the Nationals scoring.
That play, in part, led to Schwarber being pinch-hit for in the seventh inning for outfielder Albert Almora Jr., who tied the game with a base hit. Schwarber finished the NLDS with one hit across five at-bats in three games, telling reporters after Game 3 how frustrating that night was.
“(Getting pinch-hit for) wasn’t disappointing. I was more pissed off because I just dropped the ball and I saw Scherzer trying to stay in there and I was more, ‘C’mon stay in, let me get this at-bat.”
Because of Schwarber’s defense, it’s hard to exactly keep him in the field, but the National League not having a designated hitter means Schwarber isn’t likely to even have a chance to start until right-hander Yu Darvish takes the mound for Game 3. Could the former fourth overall pick pinch-hit? Given Schwarber is only 2-for-23 in that department with 11 strikeouts, that’s not an ideal situation.
Schwarber may not have the direct impact Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, or the main starters are expected to have this series, but the Cubs need to figure out a plan for their young slugger.
2. The bullpen cannot make mistakes
Simply put, the Dodgers are a team that will take advantage of bad relief pitching, especially if they can force a team’s starter out by the fifth or sixth inning. Chicago’s bullpen was fairly inconsistent in the NLCS, with Carl Edwards posting a 23.14 ERA over 2.1 innings across all three games and Wade Davis, while his Game 5 heroics shouldn’t be undermined, walked three in 4.1 innings. There’s a reason why Nationals manager Dusty Baker has taken the brunt of the hate for Washington losing the NLDS — Bryce Harper and friends had every reason to move on after pummeling the Cubs’ bullpen.
With the Cubs now facing a Dodgers team that scored 20 runs and had nearly as many walks (16) as RBI (18) against the Diamondbacks, don’t be surprised to see them score early and often against Chicago’s bullpen if the reigning World Champions cannot execute their pitches.
3. Run on Austin Barnes
While there is an added risk in stealing bases during the postseason, the Cubs would highly benefit from running on infielder-turned-catcher Austin Barnes and gaining more of an advantage to score. Behind the plate this season, Barnes only caught 7-of-31 runners attempting to steal a base, four points lower than the average caught stealing percentage of 28 percent. Chicago isn’t a team that will often try stealing, with Anthony Rizzo and Javier Baez – who had one of the Cubs’ two stolen bases against the Nationals – each leading the team with 10. Why not take the risk if you’re the Cubs?
4. Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo have to play like MVPs
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Say what you want about Baker and the Nationals, but that Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo went a combined 8-for-40 in the NLDS and the Cubs still came out on top should say something about the South Siders’ improbable victory. Rizzo did have six RBI, five of those coming in the first three games, but the Cubs will need these two at their absolute best if there are any hopes of upsetting the Dodgers.
But, at least the two stars are staying optimistic. Even after hitting.200 against the Nationals with 10 strikeouts in 20 at-bats, Bryant tried to put things in perspective when talking with reporters.
“You live for this right here. You go through the grind of the year just to make this moment. This feels so good, and I’ve been fortunate to be a part of a bunch of these so far. I don’t ever want it to end.”
5. Joe Maddon can’t pull a Joe Girardi
Whether or not one blowing of the above four necessities will lead to Joe Maddon finding himself in hot water, a la New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi and Game Two in the ALDS remains to be seen. For all we know, Maddon could leave his starter in too long and see a 3-1 lead turn into a 9-1 loss, but Maddon has to manage like all of these games will determine his job status.
That’s not to say Maddon should be too extreme with his managing, but if the Cubs are serious about a repeat World Series appearance, avoiding any type of managerial decision which would result in fans saying “holy cow!” might be the best choice for the future Hall of Famer.
What do you think the Chicago Cubs need to do to defeat the Los Angeles Dodgers? Make sure to vote in our poll below!
[Featured Image by Alex Brandon/AP Images]