Cubs Move On; Three Game 5s On Deck

Whoever heard of the Chicago Cubs losing a game they had to win?”
–Frank Chance, Cubs player/manager, 1908

The quote above from Frank Chance would become laughable in time, but in the early 20th century it rang true. Are we about to enter another new phase of Chicago Cubs history where they start taking care of business? They took a big step toward that goal in the early evening at Wrigley yesterday with a 6-4 win over the St. Louis Cardinals to dispatch their most hated rival and advance to the National League Championship Series.

As soon as it was announced that St. Louis was sending John Lackey to the mound, I was sending out a text message to friends in opposition. It was a panic move. Game 4 in most series’ is one that you have to try and win with the bats and the bullpen and this was a perfect example.

You’re putting out Lackey out there in a situation where he’s less than effective—giving up four runs in the second inning on a two-out rally triggered by a base hit from the pitcher and finished by a three-run blast off the bat of the immortal Javier Baez. This against a pitcher in Lackey who was basically unhittable in Game 1.

Furthermore, even if St. Louis had won, the Cardinals would have had no good choices to match up with Jon Lester in a Game 5 on Thursday night. Lester was brilliant himself in Game 1 and Lackey is the only one going right now that would have been likely to match up with him. The Cubs were playing with house money and when Anthony Rizzo broke a 4-4 tie with a home run in the sixth, they finally hit the jackpot at Wrigley.

The lack of a good Game 5 starter behind Lackey is what made the difference between the decision to pitch him on short rest and a similar decision made by the Los Angeles Dodgers to run Clayton Kershaw out on three days’ rest in the later game at Citi Field in New York. If the Dodgers get through Game 4—which of course they did—they can come back with Zack Greinke on full rest in Game 5 which they will.

The Cardinals and Dodgers are built different ways, and while I think Mike Matheny is an excellent manager, he didn’t play it that way yesterday. Perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered anyway—his team’s offensive problems, evident all year as they finished 11th in the NL in runs scored, lingered again yesterday as they could only come up with four runs against a #4 starter in Jason Hammel in a great park to hit.

As for Kershaw, he finally came up big in a clutch situation, giving Los Angeles seven brilliant innings of three-hit baseball. The Dodgers got three runs in the fourth off rookie Steven Matz and other than a brief rally in the eighth, the Mets never really seemed to be in the game, even with the score only 3-1. That’s where it ended.

I’m still not ready to proclaim Kershaw to have the October monkey off his back—that takes some great starts deeper in the playoffs than this round—but this outing in particular was clutch.

Speaking of clutch, we’re now set for three Game 5s over the next two days to determine the other three LCS participants. In order, here’s the agenda…

Wednesday, 4 PM ET: Rangers-Blue Jays (FoxSports1)—The acquisition of Cole Hamels is already a rousing success for Texas, having keyed their surge to the AL West title. The deal gets even better if Hamels saves them from blowing a 2-0 series lead this afternoon north of the border.

Wednesday, 8 PM ET: Astros-Royals (FoxSports1)—The acquisition of Johnny Cueto has been less than a rousing success for the Royals. If Johnny delivers in Game 5 and sends this team to its second straight ALCS, then it was all worth it.

Thursday, 8 PM ET—Mets-Dodgers (TBS)—From a pitching standpoint, it doesn’t get much better than Jacob de Grom against Greinke. Mets fans are hoping this game goes a little better than the last time they played a decisive playoff game in Dodger Stadium—that was Game 7 of the 1988 NLCS and New York starter Ron Darling—ironically in the broadcast booth with TBS for this series—had one of the worst nights of an otherwise stellar career in losing to Orel Hershiser.

TheSportsNotebook will post conclusions on all the Division Series, from the deciding games to choices for series MVPs in the early part of Friday. Later on Friday, previews of each LCS matchup will be up. Between now and then there will be some NFL commentary as well, with a new week of games beginning tomorrow. Check out the entire Octoberfest agenda here at TheSportsNotebook.