The Chicago Cubs and the Washington Nationals fought it out on Thursday night in a brutal Game 5 of the National League Division Series. It was a nine-inning battle of starting pitchers, relief pitchers and starting pitchers being used as relief pitchers. The Cubs emerged victorious and sent the Nationals packing, but the actual winner of that game didn’t even suit up. In fact, the winners of that game have been sitting at home, resting up for the next series.
Yes, the real winners of the Cubs-Nats Game 5 was actually the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers eliminated the Diamondbacks on Monday, which feels like a month ago now. And since then, the Dodgers have been at their homes, resting and practicing and watching (perhaps gleefully) as the Cubs and Nats bashed each other into oblivion.
The Cubs and Dodgers will meet on Saturday for Game 1 of the NLCS, and at that point the Dodgers will have spent about five days preparing. The Cubs, on the other hand, played a long game on Wednesday in Chicago (three hours and 57 minutes was the official time), and then flew to Washington, D.C. to play a four-hour-and-37-minute game on Thursday. Now the Cubs will play in Los Angeles, three time zones away, to start the series with the Dodgers on Saturday. Oh, and their plane made it to L.A. five hours behind schedule after having to stop in Albuquerque because of what was deemed a non-life threatening illness to a family member on board.
The long games, the travel and the time-zone skips are far from ideal. But that’s not the only issue in play for the Cubs. They threw everything they could at the Nationals in Game 4 and 5, and while they emerged victorious, their pitching staff is worse for the wear. Jon Lester threw 55 pitches in Wednesday’s loss. Jose Quintana threw 12 on Thursday, and in the same game closer Wade Davis threw 44 to lock down a seven-out save, which was by far the longest of his career. Reliever Brian Duensing has been heavily used, and so has Carl Edwards Jr. — and Edwards has been knocked around in two straight appearances.
None of that bodes well for the Cubs bullpen or rotation as they start the NLCS. The list of candidates to start Game 1 is already very short. Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein said after Thursday’s game that Jose Quintana is on that short list, having thrown just 12 pitches in his Game 5 relief appearance. The only other name on that list is John Lackey, who Joe Maddon said was “definitely in the mix” to start Game 1.
Lackey has yet to throw a pitch in the 2017 playoffs, but his regular season record doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence. He started 30 games this year and racked up a 4.59 ERA while serving up a career-high 36 homers. Out of Lackey and Quintana (who had a great half-season with the Cubs and has already thrown a scoreless postseason start), the choice is a no-brainer: if he’s available, it has to be Quintana. But that doesn’t make their choice for Game 2 any easier. They could go with Lackey, who will still be available (but also still John Lackey), or they could go to Jon Lester. Lester seems like the better option on the surface, but after his 55-pitch long relief outing on Wednesday, he’d be starting on just three days of rest in Game 2.
On the other side of this matchup, the Dodgers will be able to set up their pitching rotation exactly as they want to. They’ll start Clayton Kershaw in Game 1 on full rest, and then they can go with Yu Darvish, or Rich Hill, or Alex Wood. All will be on full rest, which already gives them a leg up on at least one of the Cubs’ potential Game 2 starters.
To recap: the Cubs rotation is a logistical mess with few ideal options, while the Dodgers can set up theirs perfectly. The Cubs bullpen is battered after several games of heavy usage, while Dodgers relievers Kenley Jansen, Brandon Morrow, Tony Watson, Josh Fields and others haven’t had to throw a single in-game pitch since at least Monday (or earlier). The Cubs have been skipping around the country and blasting through time zones for nearly a week, while the Dodgers have been resting comfortably in their homes since Tuesday.
The Cubs may have won Game 5 against the Nationals, but the Dodgers are the team that’s come out on top. But hey, no one said that trying to win a second straight World Series was going to be easy.
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