Hendricks, Cubs beat Dodgers in Game 6 to reach first World Series since 1945

For the first time since 1945, the Cubs are going to the World Series. In Game 6 of the NLCS at Wrigley Field on Saturday night, they got to Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw for two first-inning runs, forced him to throw 30 pitches in that frame, and just kept adding to their lead while the listless Dodgers offense could do no damage against Kyle Hendricks, who allowed just one hit through the first seven innings while facing the minimum number of hitters. With their 5–0 win, the Cubs will now face the Indians in the World Series, which starts on Tuesday in Cleveland.

Though they won an MLB-high 103 games during the regular season, there was nothing automatic about them getting even this far, apart from any notion of the Curse of the Billy Goat or callbacks for Steve Bartman. As I noted in my Division Series preview, from 1995—the first postseason with a wild-card team—to 2015, 22 teams won 100 games, but only two of them won the World Series (the 1998 and 2009 Yankees), while just six won pennants (the '95 Indians, '99 Braves, '03 Yankees and '04 Cardinals were the others). In that span, the teams with the best record in baseball have won just four World Series, two by those Yankees plus the 2007 and '13 Red Sox.

Beyond that, here are a few quick thoughts on the clincher (this post will be updated):

Striking early

In the Dodgers’ 1–0 victory in Game 2, Kershaw held the Cubs to just two hits, a total that they equaled before he retired a single batter on Saturday night. On his third pitch of the game, Dexter Fowler sliced a slider down the rightfield line; it bounced into the stands for a ground-rule double. Via Statcast, the combination of exit velocity and launch angle (79 mph and 33 degrees) yielded a hit just 7% of the time in 2016, but in this case, the Cubs caught the break they needed.

Four pitches later, Kris Bryant slapped a 95 mph fastball into rightfield for an RBI singled. He got to third base when leftfielder Andrew Toles dropped Anthony Rizzo’s routine fly ball, and scored on Ben Zobrist’s sacrifice to centerfield. While both Javier Baez and Wilson Contreras subsequently made outs, they forced Kershaw to throw an additional 14 pitches, running his pitch count to 30 — a disaster for the Dodgers given their need for Kershaw to go deep.

It’s worth appreciating the rarity of the Cubs getting to Kershaw early. The 28-year-old southpaw yielded just three first-inning runs in his 21 regular season starts this year, and none in his three previous postseason starts. The last time he gave up two first-inning runs was on June 27, 2015 against the Marlins, while the last time he needed 30 pitches to get out of the first inning was more than five years ago, on August 7, 2011 against the Diamondbacks, months before he won the first of his four ERA titles and three Cy Young awards.

While Toles’ error was the team’s seventh of the series — and sixth of their last three games — en route to six unearned runs, the bigger problem for Game 6 was that Kershaw never found his groove. The Cubs continued to punish him with lengthy plate appearances and hard contact, as he left too many pitches in the middle of the plate, and struggled to throw both of his breaking pitches for strikes. Addison Russell won a five-pitch battle with a leadoff double in the second, then came around to score on a Fowler single to run the lead to 3-0. Even Kyle Hendricks ate up seven pitches before striking out.

Contreras added a solo homer to rightfield off a hanging slider in the fourth inning, the first homer Kershaw allowed in this postseason. One inning later, Rizzo hit a solo shot to right-center via a 93 mph fastball in the fifth, the first Kershaw homer allowed to a left-handed batter since Daniel Murphy in last year’s NLCS, to run the score to 5-0.

It simply wasn’t the 28-year-old lefty’s night; he was done after five innings and 93 pitches when his spot came up in the top of the sixth, charged with four earned runs. While he struck out four and didn’t walk a batter, he got just one strike from among his 15 curves thrown, and gave up far too much hard contact—four balls with an exit velocity of at least 100 mph, plus one more at 99—to survive such a critical game.

Hendricks shuts the door

It was all the Dodgers could do to score one run off Hendricks in Game 2. They couldn’t manage even that in Game 6. Though Toles hit Hendricks’ first pitch of the game into rightfield for a sharp single, he was erased one pitch later, when Corey Seager grounded into a double play started by Baez.

Hendricks needed just nine pitches in the first, fourth and fifth innings, and maxed out at 16 pitches in the sixth. The only other baserunner the Dodgers put on through the first seven innings was when Josh Reddick reached on a Baez error with one out in the second inning; he was picked off first to end the frame. 

Reddick’s one-out single in the eighth ended Kendrick’s night at 87 pitches. He struck out six without walking a batter, generating nine swings and misses, four apiece with his cutter and changeup. As he did during the regular season en route to an NL-best 2.13 ERA, he located his pitches well and largely avoided hard contact; only four balls hit of of him by the Dodgers had an exit velocity of at least 100 mph, the two base hits and groundouts by Adrian Gonzalez’ (the second of two to a perfectly-positioned Addison Russell on the right side of second base) and Andre Ethier.

Aroldis Chapman came on in relief of Hendricks and needed just three pitches to get out of the frame, inducing pinch-hitter Howie Kendrick to ground into a 4-6-3 double play. It was the third time Chapman has entered a game in the eighth inning in the postseason but the first time he got out without allowing either an inherited run or one of his own. He worked a scoreless ninth. 

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