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NLCS Preview: Cubs vs. Dodgers

Two National League blue bloods battle for the right to take on the American League pennant winner in the World Series. A look at a couple of the things that will help put either team over the top.

MLB: NLDS-Chicago Cubs at San Francisco Giants Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Both series in the NLDS were absolutely incredible. Full stop. We were treated to nine games of great baseball by all four clubs involved. The twists, the turns, the jubilation, and the heartbreak all culminated in these two teams — the Dodgers and Cubs — meeting in the NLCS.

NLDS recap

The Cubs ended the Even Year Voodoo Magic that carried the Giants to three World Series Championships in the past six years. The Cubs defeated the Giants in game one on the back of a gem from Jon Lester and the only run of the game coming from a Javier Baez home run that may have entered the stratosphere.

Game two saw the Cubs take another game on the back of their pitching. But, this time, it was the pitchers’ bats that made the difference with three of the RBIs driven in that game being from pitchers — including a Travis Wood solo home run.

In game three, the Cubs got up early on Bumgarner behind a three-run home run from Jake Arrieta. However, after the lead dwindled to one run, the Cubs failed to hold on in the ninth and, eventually, fell to the Giants in the 13th.

Game four, the final game of the series, saw one of the best comebacks in the recent history of the division series. The Cubs entered the top of the ninth down five to two. The Cubs rallied. A single by Javier Baez plated Dexter Fowler and put the Cubs up six to five. Then Aroldis Chapman came in and did the whole thing where he throws really fast.

The Dodgers edged by the Nationals in a series that went down to the final possible pitch. The game one pitching matchup of Clayton Kershaw vs Max Scherzer is one of the best “on paper” pitching matchups in baseball. The game did not quite turn out that way. Kershaw, after giving up three runs, was out after the fifth inning. Scherzer, after giving up four, was out after six. Both bullpens shut down the opposing offense, and the Dodgers took the game four to three.

In game two, the Nationals got to Rich Hill early. They netted for runs off Hill and pushed him out after 4.1 innings, eventually winning five to two. In game three, the Nationals, once again, pushed the Dodger starter out early. After putting up four runs off Kenta Maeda, the Nationals offense did not stop. The Nationals went up two games to one in the series.

The Dodgers responded in kind in game four. After Clayton Kershaw gave up three runs in the seventh inning and five total for the game, the Dodgers and Nationals were tied. During an eighth inning rally, Chase Utley knocked in the eventual game-winning run on a single. The Dodgers forced a game five in Washington with Scherzer facing off against Rich Hill.

The Nationals took the lead early and, on the back of Scherzer, carried that lead into the seventh. After giving up a home run to Joc Pederson, Scherzer was pulled and the Nationals bullpen unraveled further. The Nationals exited the top of the seventh down three runs but responded in the bottom half of the inning and brought the game within one. The Dodgers, to stop the bleeding in that inning, brought in Kenley Jansen early. Jansen held the Nationals down for two innings and, after a bit of a shaky start to the ninth, was pulled in favor of none other than Clayton Kershaw. Kershaw quickly dispatched the last two Nationals batters for the Dodgers to move on.

NLCS Preview

For the Cubs, the coming out party to the world of Javier Baez must continue. Baez has been a staple for the Cubs this season as a utility infielder. He made strides with the bat this year by taming his strikeout rate, which is down more than 15 percentage points from his stint in 2014 and six percentage points from his time last season. That has helped Baez unleash his bat speed and massive power -- the same power that was on display in game one when Baez scraped the heavens with a 107 mph exit velocity and 36 degree launch angle. He knocked in the first and last runs of the series and slashed a fantastic .375/.412/.563 doing it.

But, his biggest contribution has been his defense. Baez entered the postseason ranked third among second basemen in DRS with 11, despite being more than 800 innings behind the leader who has 12. He has showcased that with play after play and tag after tag that have left people’s jaws on the floor.

Baez has been a catalyst for the Cubs. For a team that’s been offensively driven by pitchers, he has been the lone position player to make his presence felt continually on both offense and defense. He’s arguably been the Cubs’ biggest impact player, and they need him to keep playing like it going forward.

The Dodgers’ key lies in starting pitching. In the Nationals series, the constant barraging of Dodger starting pitching ended many outings early. The Dodger bullpen was fantastic throughout the season, but consistent four- and five-inning outings aren’t going to help it hold up through the course of the series. Kershaw, being the best pitcher of his generation, cannot continue to fall flat on his face in the postseason for the Dodgers to expect to win this series. The Dodgers cannot turn this series into one of attrition.

Despite having a deep bullpen, including a rejuvenated Joe Blanton and a 2.4 WARP closer in Kenley Jansen, the toll of a long series fraught with short starts is hard for any bullpen to handle, especially given that they just experienced a short series like that. It’s no doubt that their bullpen is a huge, huge strength for them. However, the Dodgers need to stop trying to turn that into a vulnerability by ending these starting outings quickly. If they can, they can be a real problem for the Cubs.

Both teams are facing a step up in challenge from their previous foe. Each poses unique challenges to the other that should be interesting to watch as the series unfolds. Hopefully this series is at least as good as the NLDS.

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Anthony Rescan is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score.