Three Strikes: Hill, Dodgers shut out Cubs in Game 3 to take 2–1 NLCS lead

The Dodgers are two wins away from their first pennant in nearly 30 years. Fresh off a tense Game 2 in which Clayton Kershaw continued to spit on the postseason narrative that has unfairly been placed on him, Los Angeles cruised through a drama-free Game 3 win, 6–0, to take a 2–1 NLCS lead on the Cubs. In front of a packed crowd at Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles once again blanked Chicago’s stagnant offense, with Rich Hill tossing his best start of the postseason to earn the win.

Rich In Spirit

Aesthetically, Rich Hill is far from pleasing to watch. He is a mess of herky-jerky movements, all bizarre arm angles and crow hops off the mound while he makes a face like a meter maid just ticketed his car. In some respects, to watch him pitch is to see his convoluted career story—promising young prospect to perennially injured reliever to indy-league pitcher to All-Star starter—play out in all his deception, guile, false starts and unexpected angles.

So far in this postseason, Hill’s backstory has been the only appealing thing about him. His two turns against the Nationals in the Division Series started with promise but dissolved into slogs, as a laboring Hill flung curveball after curveball in innings that never seemed to end. Coming into Game 3, Hill had managed to record just 21 outs across two outings, and his short start (on short rest, admittedly) in NLDS Game 5 didn’t inspire much hope that the NLCS would suddenly flip his script.

Thankfully for Hill, that narrative quickly went up in smoke, as the veteran lefty soft-tossed his way through six scoreless innings against his old club, giving the Dodgers the kind of start they’d hoped for him to make in October when they traded for him in July. As has been the case all season, the curve was his go-to—he threw 51 amid his 93 pitches—and he threw it anywhere from 72 to 79 mph and at angles ranging from over the top to nearly sidearm. His start had its share of hiccups, like a 30-pitch second inning in which he put runners on second and third with one out but wriggled out of trouble. But after that frame, he couldn’t be touched: He needed just 52 pitches to get the next 12 outs and allowed just two hits over his final four innings—both singles by Kris Bryant.

The back-to-back solid starts by Hill and Clayton Kershaw have restored a sense of normalcy to the series after manager Dave Roberts’s bullpen shenanigans in Game 1. More importantly, those two outings have given Roberts an opportunity to rest a bullpen that was dragged to the breaking point in the Division Series. A fresh relief corps will be a must for Game 4 on Wednesday with 20-year-old rookie Julio Urias making the start. Hill’s avant-garde turn in Game 3 helped make that possible.

Cubs Continue To Hibernate

Chicago came into Tuesday’s Game 3 mired in a profound slump: The Cubs had hit just .193 as a team over their previous six postseason games and, in Game 2, had been shut down completely by the duo of Kershaw and Jansen. As such, it wasn’t surprising to see manager Joe Maddon make some cosmetic changes to his lineup for Game 3—notably, benching Jason Heyward and moving the struggling Addison Russell and Anthony Rizzo down the lineup. 

There’s only so much Maddon can do with a slumping lineup, however, and Game 3 showed that for all the tinkering available to a manager, his moves can still be all for naught. Starting in place of Heyward, Jorge Soler showed why Maddon hasn’t gone to his Cuban backup more often, as he went hitless in two trips to the plate and played awful defense in rightfield. Russell remains helpless at the plate—in a huge early at-bat, he struck out with two runners in scoring position and one out in the second—and, in what must feel like a huge indignity, was pinch-hit for in the seventh by Heyward, who promptly struck out on three pitches. As for Rizzo, his October from hell only gets darker, as he went 1 for 3 with a broken-bat infield single and a walk; he now has just two hits, both singles, in 26 at-bats.

Aside from one big (and hugely important) inning in Game 1, the Cubs’ offense has slumbered through three games. Chicago’s scoreless innings streak is now at 18 innings—the first time the franchise has ever been shut out twice in the same postseason—and the Cubs have just six hits in their last 60 at-bats. Worse, a second and potentially series-ending start from Kershaw still looms. About this, there is little if anything Maddon can do, aside from hope that an offense that drummed opposing pitchers to the tune of 808 runs in the regular season can remember how to do that before it’s too late.

Turner Up

Three years ago, it was hard to imagine Justin Turner being key to the Dodgers’ World Series hopes. A utility infielder of minor note on the Mets, Turner came to Los Angeles in 2014 and emerged first as a valuable bat off the bench, then as the regular third baseman down the stretch for last year’s NL West champions. Betting that his 2015 was no fluke, the Dodgers handed Turner the full-time third base gig this spring, and the 31-year-old responded with an outburst of power, cranking 27 home runs as the unexpected fulcrum of Los Angeles’s lineup.

Now, he anchors the Dodgers at a time when the team has struggled to push across runs. Coming into Tuesday night’s action, Los Angeles was hitting a mere .218 as a team with only 24 runs in seven games. Turner, by contrast, hasn’t felt the pressure of the playoffs, hitting .333 and posting a gaudy .533 on-base percentage. He has been one of the few dependable spots in Los Angeles’ order—rookie Corey Seager has struck out 10 times in 35 at-bats; veterans Chase Utley and Yasmani Grandal are both below .200—and he proved that again in Game 3, when his solo homer in the sixth chased Jake Arrieta and pushed the Dodgers’ lead to 4–0.

Turner wasn’t alone in leading the Dodgers’ charge. Despite all the swings and misses, Seager opened the scoring with an RBI single in the third as part of a three-hit night, and the slumping Grandal clubbed a two-run homer in the fourth to give Los Angeles some breathing room. But the steady Turner put the capper on the evening, and it’s hard to argue that he isn’t the pivotal player in the Dodgers’ lineup at the moment. Fittingly for a man who resembles a squat version of Game of Thrones hero Tormund Giantsbane, he’s the strongest wildling leading the Free Folk beyond the wall and into the World Series.

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