Tale of the Tape: National League Championship Series

Willson Contreras and the Chicago Cubs have a tough battle ahead to get back to the World Series in 2017. Win McNamee/Getty Images

The tables have turned in the upcoming edition of the National League Championship Series. In a rematch of last year’s NLCS pairing, the parallels are stunningly consistent. A year ago, the Cubs stood supreme as baseball’s best team, and held the home front down for the series. Now it is the Dodgers who are the beneficiaries of pole position in the NL, and are preparing to take on a Cubs team had to put everything they had into enduring on to carry on with their championship defense.

As much as the Cubs are scratching, clawing and Texas League-singling their way along throughout October, they are propelled by the ambition and experience of knowing that no moment is too big, nor too late for them to live on. Yet despite their brilliant record and dominant NLDS showing, the Dodgers are still striving to finally break through the roof that has capped their postseason experience twice in the past five years.

At the end of this series, the 105-win seasons won’t matter anymore. Nor will the late-inning heroics of the battling champs rally throughout the latter half of the year. All that will matter is that either the Cubs’ run to become the first team to repeat as World Series champs in nearly 20 years lives on, or that the Dodgers’ misery as National League bridesmaids meets a new level of misery.

The Dodgers took the season series four games to two, with three shutouts mixed in. But the stakes are higher than ever before as the grudge match for National League bragging rights prepares to take place. Let’s see who has an edge in the face-off between the senior circuit’s torch bearers.

IN THIS CORNER: The National League Champion, Chicago Cubs

Relief pitcher Wade Davis and catcher Willson Contreras celebrate after defeating the Washington Nationals in Game 5 of the 2017 NLDS. Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Where they’ve been

The Cubs reach their third NLCS in as many years after enduring a back-and-forth NLDS pairing against the Nationals which they escaped by the narrowest of margins. The two clubs alternated wins over the five-game set, in which the Cubs won both the first and final games of on the road. A flare for the big moment helped to make up for some bouts with inconsistency, weather delays and the fate of the buzzsaw that was Stephen Strasburg. In the end however, Joe Maddon’s boys did just enough to get by and have a chance to do it all over again as they head west to open the series.

In their favor: They’ve been here before… and got over the hump

Both first baseman Anthony Rizzo and second baseman Ben Zobrist will be looking to retain their World Series title.  Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Over the last two years, the NLCS has been a tale of two different stories for the Cubbies. In 2015, after a breakout showing in against the Cardinals in the NLDS, they posed little opposition while being swept by the Mets. However, they were a up to the challenge a year ago, rallying from a 2-1 deficit to take the final three games of the series in route to their historic World Series conquest. A year later they are largely the same club, but showing up in a different fashion. Although they do not possess home field advantage for the NLCS rematch, they come in with as much collective composure as any team in the game. While it has not always been pretty, they have found a way to keep trudging along. And that gusto and experience could be their biggest ally in taking on a Dodger team that is roughly the equivalent of who they were a year ago.

Where they are most at risk: If their bats – all of them – don’t snap back to life

While the Cubs have struggled at the plate, Jon Jay has been one bright spot in the lineup – at .273.  Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The Cub resurgence was fueled largely by their offense coming back to life in the second half, in which the team topped the NL in runs scored by a large margin. Yet along the way, their bats still battled inconsistency while posting their improving numbers, and the same inconsistency reared its head again in the NLDS. Of Cub regulars, Jon Jay’s .273 average led the team in their NLDS win, while no other Cub hit north of .240. And while some credit must go to the superb pitching of the Nationals' starters, the overall Dodger staff is vastly superior. Simply outlasting Dodger starters and then prevailing against their bullpen is nowhere near as profitable of an approach.

When it comes to hurting Dodger pitching when it counts, someone besides Anthony Rizzo has to show up when runners in scoring position as well. While Rizzo went 4-for-7 (.571) with runners in scoring position against the Nationals, the rest of the Cubs combined for only three hits – in 26 at-bats. Add in the fact they connected for only two home runs in five games, and it is clear to see why Chicago barely endured the NLCS.

Wade Davis, Carl Edwards, Mike Montgomery and Pedro Strop combined to allow 11 hits, three home runs and worked to a 9.81 ERA in the NLDS. For the core of the Cub bullpen to be in such haggard shape is a major red flag against the type of diverse lineup the Dodgers possess. There is nowhere to hide; they simply must get better. Davis must recapture his form, as one of baseball’s most unhittable arms has become concerningly vulnerable this postseason.

Some of these concerns could be alleviated if Justin Wilson could regain the seemingly lost faith of Joe Maddon. The lefty who was acquired at the trade deadline made only a single appearance against the Nationals, working two-thirds of an inning. Although troubles with his control plagued him late in the year, if he is going to be present on the roster, the talented lefty cannot be hidden away, especially considering the struggles of his bullpen mates and the caliber of lefty bats in the Dodger dugout.

What must go right: Get better while staying the same

Pitcher Jon Lester has been solid for the Cubs both starting and in relief so far this postseason.  Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

If the Cubs are to continue to defy the odds, it will fall on the shoulders of their starting pitching – and how it lines up after being leaned upon heavily in Game 5 against the Nationals in lieu of the leaky bullpen. Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Jake Arrieta were masterful in their first outings of the postseason, while Jon Lester was predictably brilliant both as a starter and in relief. It is hard to pitch much better than the Cubs rotation has so far, and with a repeat performance, even a modest uptick at the plate will combined with the foursome brilliance will return the Cubbies to the Series. But an uptick in the offense will require a vastly better Kris Bryant must show himself in the second round. Bryant hit .200 in the NLDS, with a pair of doubles and two RBI. He is the engine that the Cubs offense orbits; equally capable of setting the table for Rizzo and Willson Contreras, as he is at doing the damage himself.

While Kyle Schwarber has no business carrying a glove, let alone inhabiting the dangerous terrain of the Wrigley Field outfield, when his bat plays, he stays. However, due to being a defensive liability, his bat has had little chance to make an impact, as he only had five at-bats in the series and made a defensive gaffe in game three that nearly cost the Cubs the series in retrospect. Schwarber will get another shot to prove he can at the very least start the game in left field, and he needs to make the most of it because the Cubs' lineup needs him.

In conclusion, if the Chicago staff can round off its performance and get a more all-inclusive effort from their lineup, this could be a very interesting series. However, if they continue their cardiac ways of surviving to win, this could be a short series if no other reason than a far less forgiving Dodger club opposing them.

AND IN THIS CORNER, the National League West Champion, #1 seed Los Angeles Dodgers

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Where they’ve been

They have been on the couch, waiting for things to get underway.

LA made short work of the Arizona Diamondbacks, completing the only LDS sweep in either league. So thorough was the Dodger outing that when Clayton Kershaw takes the ball on Saturday night, it will have been a full eight days since his last outing. And while rest can sometimes be the enemy of momentum for a team amid a playoff run, the Dodgers will be picking right back up within the comfortable confines of Dodger Stadium, where they have won eight more home games on the year than any other team in baseball.

In their favor: They got their swagger back

Yu Darvish's presence will be welcome against a deep Cubs bullpen.  Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

After bulldozing their way through the heart of the summer, a skydive back towards Earth in early September left many unsure about what the club had left in the tank entering the postseason. However, after a dominant showing against a Diamondbacks team who won seven of their nine pairings in the second half, any concerns about their postseason readiness are out the window.

Whether it was via big nights at the plate or leaning on their imposingly deep pitching staff, they are again performing in the same irresistible fashion that made them baseball’s best for much of the regular season slate.

The addition of Yu Darvish to provide a second bonafide top flight starter to the Dodger arsenal of arms paid out in spades in the clinching Game 3. His presence will be even more valuable against a deep and experienced Cub staff, as he will likely be facing off against Arrieta or Quintana at Wrigley Field, if he holds his same slot in the rotation.

Where they are most at risk: History repeating itself

If Clayton Kershaw struggles, manager Dave Roberts needs to be quick to pull the starter.   Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The postseason is no strange territory for LA, who owns the longest consecutive streak of reaching the playoffs currently in the Majors. However, the glass ceiling that hovers over the franchise is due in large part to running out of steam at the most inopportune time. After jumping out to a 2-1 lead in last year’s NLCS, the club again fell flat on its face, dropping three consecutive games in route to another disappointing exit.

To avoid repeating that fate, Dave Roberts will need to be quick with the hook when needed. While the Dodger bullpen upheld its end of the bargain in round one (10 K’s in 11.2 innings, holding opponents to a .195 average against), aside from Yu Darvish, Dodger starters were vulnerable. Clayton Kershaw allowed four home runs in 6.1 innings, while Rich Hill struggled through four in game 2. Delivering has many games within controllable range to his bullpen should be the number one objective.

And speaking of Kershaw, it would behoove Roberts to get the message that Dusty Baker, A.J. Hinch and Joe Maddon have deployed so successfully with their top guns this October: get the best from him and get him out of dodge. While Kershaw has laid some eggs in the postseason in his career, he has also been left out on a limb for far too long as well. Game 1 against Arizona was nearly another case of that. At best, get a strong six from Kersh and then get him out of there.

Considering the way that they hit during the NLDS, run production is not something that should be too high on the list of their concerns. However, the team’s two breakout performers, Chris Taylor and Cody Bellinger, combined to hit only 6-for-27 (.222) thus far this postseason. They’ll need them both to pick it up a pace against a dormant, but potentially potent Cub lineup.

What must go right: Get better and stay the same

Los Angeles Dodgers right fielder Yasiel Puig has been impressive so far, but the Dodgers will need him to reach even higher in the NLCS.  Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

It is hard to tell the Dodgers to play any better than they have so far. If they continue to stay ahead on the scoreboard and deliver leads to their lights out bullpen, they have what it takes to go all the way. A huge plus against Arizona was having a vintage effort from Yaisel Puig. The unpredictable outfielder put his best foot forward, hitting .455 at the dish and tearing it up around the bases. For all of the depth the Dodgers possess, they still have an even higher roof to strive for when Puig is dialed in.

All things considered, the buck is on the Dodgers to get over the hump. They have a perfect storm of favor leaning their way: home-field advantage, a fully rested roster and facing a Cubs team that is moving forward at max effort. But if they are to finally break through to the World Series, it must take advantage of every bit of high ground they have, and put their foot on the neck of this resilient Cubs team as early and often as possible. Or else.

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Matt Whitener is St. Louis-based writer, radio host and 12-6 curveball enthusiast. He has been covering Major League Baseball since 2010, and dabbles in WWE, NBA and other odd jobs as well. Follow Matt on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan.

Every player on the 2017 NLCS rosters
QUIZ: Name every player on the Chicago Cubs 2016 World Series winning roster

In 2016, the most famous championship drought in professional sports history came to an end when the Chicago Cubs won the World Series in an epic Game 7 over the Cleveland Indians. Can you name all 25 active members of that Cubs roster?

* - please note that last names are acceptable as answers

Dexter Fowler
Kyle Schwarber
Albert Almora
Kris Bryant
Anthony Rizzo
Ben Zobrist
Addison Russell
Willson Contreras
David Ross
Chris Coghlan
Miguel Montero
Jason Heyward
Javier Baez
Kyle Hendricks
Jon Lester
Aroldis Chapman
Carl Edwards
Mike Montgomery
Pedro Strop
Jake Arrieta
Travis Wood
Hector Rondon
John Lackey
Justin Grimm
Jorge Soler

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