Game one of the NLDS will begin Friday night as the San Francisco Giants make their way to Wrigley to take on the Chicago Cubs. With playoff baseball about to make its return to Chicago, what are the Keys to victory for the Cubs?
Last season the Chicago Cubs shocked the baseball world by winning 97 games and getting the best of the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS. This year they find themselves back in the divisional series, but this time, they will have a new opponent.
The San Francisco Giants had a miserable second half, and that’s putting it nicely. But playoff baseball is an entirely different animal. Here’s what the Cubs need to do to advance past the Giants.
Consistency in the starting rotation
Perhaps the Cubs’ greatest strength this season was the consistency of their starting rotation. With the exception of a couple bad starts early in the year, Jon Lester was lights-out all the way through. The Giants lineup is loaded with left-handed batters, which makes for a very favorable matchup for Lester and the Cubs in game one.
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Kyle Hendricks will take the mound in game two. I mean, what do you want me to tell you? The man recorded the lowest ERA (2.13) for a starter in both leagues this year. Hendricks’ game is to induce weak contact to record outs, and the Giants are not a power-hitting team. No one on their roster hit more than 20 home runs this season. If you need more reassuring than that, I can’t help you.
Jake Arrieta is a little trickier to get a read on. His overall numbers indicate that he had a good year, but he was probably the least consistent of the Cubs’ starters. From one start to the next, it was anyone’s guess which version of Jake Arrieta would show up. It could be the one that throws eight scoreless innings and strikes out 10, or it could be the one that gives up four runs while needing 100+ pitches just to get through five innings.
Game four will belong to John Lackey. The 14-year veteran had another solid year, posting a very respectable 3.35 ERA. Reliability is vitally important when it comes to starting pitchers, and for the most part, the Chicago Cubs know exactly what they’re going to get from Lackey. He’ll give you six or seven innings, and he’ll pound the strike zone without giving up a lot of runs. He’s not here for a haircut.
Reliability out of the bullpen
If there’s one aspect of the Cubs’ team that scares fans the most, it’s probably this. Chicago’s bullpen recorded a 3.56 ERA this season, eighth best in the majors. But bullpens, in general, can be unpredictable, and the Cubs had their fair share of relievers that struggled during certain points.
The Cubs’ postseason roster has not yet been announced, so we’ll have to wait and see what the makeup of the bullpen is. However, there are certain players who will be a lock to make it. After missing about six weeks with a left meniscus tear, Pedro Strop returned and quickly shook off the rust. He will play a large role in the later innings for the Cubs.
Hector Rondon is another reliever who missed some time with lingering injuries, but unlike Strop, Rondon had a harder time finding his groove. He is most likely to serve as the setup man for Aroldis Chapman, but the leash will be short. If things start to get bumpy for him late in a close ballgame, Joe Maddon will have no problem pulling him.
Aroldis Chapman is arguably the most lock-down closer in all of baseball right now, giving the Cubs some room to breath in the ninth inning. If all three are healthy and performing up to their abilities, Strop, Rondon and Chapman will serve as a deadly three-headed monster out of the pen.
Best defense in the league
It’s no secret that the Cubs have one of the best, if not the best defense in all of baseball. They’ve wowed everyone all year long. The addition of Jason Heyward gives the Cubs a solid and dependable outfield. Kris Bryant can play above average defense at either third base or left field, and Javier Baez is a defensive wizard at third, short and second.
With Jon Lester starting game one, veteran catcher David Ross will be behind the dish. His ability to pick runners off at first and his strong throws down to second should not be understated. It could prove to be an important factor in this series.
At shortstop, Addison Russell is as good as they come. How often did we see him make an incredible diving stop and strong throw to record an out? It seemed like he did it at least every other game. As stated before, the Giants don’t strike out a lot. When playing a team that makes contact regularly, sound defense is absolutely necessary to win.
Offensive power surge
Chicago’s offense blew most other teams out of the water in the regular season, leading the league with a whopping +252.0 run differential. To put that number into perspective, the Boston Red Sox finished second with a run differential of +184.0. An entire 78 runs ahead of the next best team.
The lineup will feature the NL frontrunner for MVP, Kris Bryant, who lead the team with 39 home runs. Behind him will be All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who lead the team in RBI with 109. Maybe the most surprising part of the Cubs’ offense has been Addison Russell. His batting average doesn’t jump off the page, but the 22-year-old shortstop knocked in 95 runs this year, proving to be one of the Cubs’ best hitters with runners in scoring position.
Manufacturing runs will be the biggest key to success for the Cubs in this NLDS series. We know that they can hit for great power, but in the playoffs, rotations are smaller, and bullpens will consist of only the team’s best pitchers. Putting the ball in play and keeping the strikeouts down will prove to be the ultimate difference-maker in this series.
Get your popcorn and goat’s milk ready, because this is going to be a fun series to watch. They Cubs are the odds-on favorites to win the World Series, but they have to make it out of the NLDS first. October is no time to underestimate your opponent, but this Cubs team can now say that they’ve been in this position before. If there’s one manager that can keep his team calm and level-headed going into the playoffs, it’s Joe Maddon. It’s time to embrace the target.