CHICAGO — For the fourth time in their seven games this postseason, Clayton Kershaw takes the ball for the Dodgers, while Chicago Cubs' right-hander Kyle Hendricks is merely glad to be back on the mound.
Kershaw won Game 1 of the National League Division Series, then started Game 4 on short rest and came in to close Game 5, earning one win and a save against the Washington Nationals.
Three nights after the seven-pitch, series-clinching save at Washington, Kershaw gets the call Sunday night after the Cubs' rode a Miguel Montero grand slam to a 8-4 win in Game 1 of the NLCS the night before.
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“I feel good,” Kershaw said, “I'm excited. It's been a little bit since we got to do this, and Wrigley Field, it's going to be pretty exciting.”
Hendricks, 26, has shown no ill effects since a comeback line drive clocked off the bat of Giants outfielder Angel Pagan at 94 mph drilled the lanky 180-pounder in the right forearm in Game 2 of the NLDS, forcing him to exit in the fourth inning. He led the NL with a 2.13 ERA and was second in walks plus hits per inning pitched (WHIP) to Max Scherzer of the Nationals.
“Anytime something happens to your arm, your throwing arm, it's not ideal,” Hendricks said. “Once X-rays were negative, I felt a lot better about it. I knew it was going to be a bad bruise type of thing, get through a couple days and it wouldn't be a problem.”
While the recent use sounds taxing, Kershaw argues he's relatively fresh. He pitched 149 innings in the regular season and didn't start a game between June 26 and September 9, when he returned from a layoff prompted by a herniated disk in his back to face the Miami Marlins. Kershaw was 12-4 with a 1.69 ERA in the regular season and gave up more than three runs just twice in 21 starts.
However, he allowed 15 hits and eight earned runs as Washington hit .294 against him in the NLDS. In his last seven playoff games, which omits a four-inning, seven-run outing in Game 6 of the 2013 NLCS at St. Louis, Kershaw is 2-3 with a 5.35 ERA (23 runs allowed in 38 2/3 innings).
In Washington last week, the Dodgers felt Kershaw's fastball velocity was good enough but his slider “wasn't where it has been” and the “curveball wasn't as good as I've seen it,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. Kershaw himself said he “wasn't awesome.”
Against Chicago's offense, Kershaw will need to be closer to it. The Cubs were 89-17 this season when scoring at least four runs, and even with a lineup loaded with lefties, Hendricks has not been easily chased. He modified his release point and consistently generates soft contact from opposing hitters with a heavy sinker.
Hendricks said he would fall back on routine Sunday afternoon when he arrives before Game 2. The Southern California native said he grew up a fan of the Angels — not the Dodgers — because his favorite player was first baseman J.T. Snow. Cubs manager Joe Maddon described Hendricks, who is expected to be in the running for the National League Cy Young Award, as California cool, carrying an identical even demeanor no matter the circumstances.
He got the nod for Game 2 over Jake Arrieta, who starts Game 3 on Tuesday in California and spun a no-hitter at Dodger Stadium in August 2015.
Twenty of Hendricks' 31 regular-season starts were quality starts and he posted a 16-8 record. The Dodgers haven't seen Hendricks since June 2, his only outing against the team this season. Hendricks cruised eight innings, allowing two runs on three hits with six strikeouts.
“There's one really obvious factor to me, and it's the word confidence,” Maddon said of Hendricks' development this season. “He's much more confident. … I think he's added a couple new wrinkles to what he's doing out there, successfully, and with that he's pitched some complete games, too. And we all do better when we're confident regardless of what we're doing. He has just earned it.”
The Dodgers went to Kershaw before setting their NLCS rotation and, after a very brief conversation, knew he was good to go Sunday.
“It's not complicated in the sense of, if he feels good, then it's a no-brainer,” Roberts said. “It's just more of just getting assurance that he feels good physically, which he does, and so it's one of those things. When you get chance for Clayton to pitch games 2 and potentially 6, that's a good thing for us.”
Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez have home runs against Hendricks in previous seasons.
Cubs centerfielder Dexter Fowler, who led off Game 1 with a single, has a .409 career average (18-for-44, two doubles) against Kershaw, but the middle of the Chicago order has not done much damage in their career facing L.A.'s ace. First baseman Anthony Rizzo is 3-for-11 with a home run and Kris Bryant is 1-for-5 with four strikeouts.
“The Cubs' lineup is pretty solid, obviously,” Kershaw said. “They got some guys in there that had some pretty amazing seasons, and they're the best team in baseball for a reason.”