Series business: Who has the edge?
Breaking down the key matchups in the Fall Classic
Jon Lester is 4-0 lifetime with a 3.72 ERA in eight career games at Progressive Field, and he never has looked sharper in a Cubs uniform than he has recently. Kyle Hendricks is lined up to pitch at Wrigley Field, where he has done his best work. No surprise that Jake Arrieta and John Lackey must be sharper than they were in the National League Championship Series. For all the talk of the Cubs’ depth, the Indians had the second lowest ERA in the American League (3.84) and they have survived the loss of Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar to late-season injuries. Corey Kluber’s curveball ranks as one of the best, as he displayed in a March 9 start in which he struck out four in three innings against a veteran Cubs lineup. Josh Tomlin likes to induce early contact, so the patience of Cubs hitters could test him. Edge: Cubs.
It wasn’t necessarily smooth sailing for a Cubs bullpen that didn’t work often in normal roles in the NLCS. But closer Aroldis Chapman could match up well against the Indians. Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon haven’t returned to normal levels since returning from the disabled list. Manager Joe Maddon is leaning more on left-hander Mike Montgomery. Carl Edwards Jr. could play a bigger role. Thanks to the trade-deadline arrival of Andrew Miller, the Indians tied with the Royals for the second-lowest ERA in the AL (3.45). From shoring up the left side to pitching multiple innings, Miller creates pressure for opponents to score early. Ground ball specialist Dan Otero has been one of the most underrated acquisitions of the offseason. The extended break may help Bryan Shaw, who appeared in 75 games. Closer Cody Allen looked dominant in the ALCS. Control can be an issue for Zach McAllister, who has gotten more comfortable after starting during most of his career. Edge: Indians.
Dexter Fowler was one of the more unheralded players during the NLCS with his defense and timely hitting, but Kluber and Tomlin will test the Cubs’ plate discipline. Ben Zobrist is a lifetime .246 at Progressive Field. Javier Baez continues to show better plate discipline, especially on breaking pitches on the outside corner. After struggling at times against left-handers Rich Hill and Julio Urias, the Cubs should feel more comfortable against a predominantly right-handed Indians staff. The Indians led the AL with 134 stolen bases and will try to exploit the slow deliveries of Arrieta and John Lackey. There’s plenty of length in the Indians’ lineup, starting with leadoff batter Carlos Santana (34 home runs, .366 on-base percentage). Jose Ramirez struck out only 62 times in 618 plate appearances, a remarkable feat for a 23-year-old. Mike Napoli struck out 194 times during the regular season but has stabilized the middle of the lineup. Rajai Davis’ speed is the equivalent of a migraine headache for pitchers and catchers. Edge: Indians.
The only major area of concern for the Cubs will be at catcher — the Indians’ running game will test David Ross, Miguel Montero and rookie Willson Contreras. Look for Contreras to be part of more late-inning double-switches in games he doesn’t start. Ben Zobrist has looked OK in left field since Baez took over at second base. One longtime scout liked shortstop Francisco Lindor over the Cubs’ Addison Russell. Tyler Naquin is an above-average center fielder. Right fielder Lonnie Chisenhall has set- tled in nicely after looking uptight at third, according to a scout. Second baseman Jason Kipnis and third baseman Jose Ramirez continue to get better. Catcher Roberto Perez doesn’t have big-time tools but does a smart job with the pitchers.
One of the more memorable showdowns occurred in the 2008 ALCS when Maddon’s Rays edged Terry Francona’s Red Sox in seven games. Francona nearly guided the Red Sox all the way back from a 3-1 deficit, starting in the seventh inning of Game 5 when he used Jonathan Papelbon down 7-0 in a game the Red Sox ultimately won 8-7. Although Maddon likes managing under NL rules, he should feel comfortable with as many as four games under AL rules that employ the designated hitter. Francona isn’t afraid to do things in an atypical (and successful) manner such as using a slugger like Santana at leadoff to employing radical shifts to using Miller in the middle innings for extended periods. Edge: Indians.
Jon Lester, left, who will start Game 1 for the Cubs, is 3-0 with a 0.43 ERA in three World Series appearances. The Indians’ Francisco Lindor, one of the better defensive shortstops in the majors, is hitting .323 with two home runs this postseason.