LAS VEGAS — It may be a rematch starting this weekend when the Cubs play the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series. But their roles have been completely reversed since they met last year.
This time it is the favored Dodgers who bring in the best regular-season record in baseball (104-58) – not to mention their own championship drought. It may not over a century, but 29 years are long enough for L.A.
More to the point, the Cubs were the ones this year who got stuck in a long, first-round series with the Nationals. So their pitching staff is exhausted as they move in to L.A. against a well-rested Clayton Kershaw. He and the Dodgers opened a minus-180 favorite in Game 1 and a 3-2 favorite to win the World Series. Chicago is a 9-2 underdog.
When the Cubs won last year’s NLCS in six games, Kershaw could not pitch until Game 2. Even then he was working for the third time in six days. By the time the Dodgers called on him again to pitch Game 6, Kershaw’s left arm had been worked over, and he took the season-ending loss.
This time, thanks to a sweep of the Diamondbacks, Kershaw comes into Saturday’s opener off a full week’s rest. Theoretically, he could go in three games and still be more rested than he was at this time last year – and more rested than the Chicago staff is right now. The Cubs also cannot count on a repeat of last year, when they jumped all over Kenta Maeda, Julio Urías and Joe Blanton.
The other big differences this year are that the Dodgers have the home field, and they have soon-to-be Rookie of the Year Cody Bellinger. He is a huge upgrade at first base over Adrián González, who hit only .190 in last year’s NLCS.
But you can’t totally ignore the Cubs' resilience. They were down 4-1 in Game 5 on the road and managed to put together a four-run fifth inning when the Nationals unraveled with two outs.
By the way, that rally reminded us that Major League Baseball still has not gotten replay right. How is it that the follow-through contact by Javier Báez’s bat into Matt Wieters’s mask could not be reviewed? The home-plate umpire is certainly not going to see that, and it took more than one replay to reveal that the inning should have ended right then and there.
Even if that call had been made correctly, though, that does not necessarily mean that the Nationals would have won. They still would have trailed by one run, and no one knows what would have happened after that. And who knows what would have happened if Max Scherzer’s hamstring had been healthy from the start? He would have started Games 1 and 5 against the Cubs, and we can only guess what would have come after that.
We are certain that it is always interesting watching Joe Maddon. We never see him carrying on a conversation with any coach in the Cubs dugout. He has that one lineup card in his back pocket, he reviews it, and when he makes up his mind, nobody is going to talk him out of it. He always signals the bullpen before he crosses the foul line. That eliminates the possibility of a pitcher talking him into facing another hitter. We have also seen over the past couple years that Maddon is not afraid to ride a closer for more than just one inning as he did Thursday night with Wade Davis – and last year with Aroldis Chapman.
Yes, Corey Seager’s elbow and back are a bit of a worry, and we have to wonder if Kershaw will be the lights-out pitcher he was before his back flared up on him this summer. But because of a rested Kershaw, a rising star in Bellinger and impenetrable closer Kenley Jansen, I clearly favor the Dodgers in this series. After that? Well, let’s just see how the Astros and Yankees go.
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One thing is certain about Week 6 in the NFL. The five underdogs that are getting at least nine points are not going 0-5 ATS.
On first glance the Jets look like a tempting play getting 9½ points at home against New England, but I know better than to go against Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in their first division game of the season, even with a Super Bowl rematch coming next week against Atlanta.
Instead, I think it is the Falcons who could be caught looking ahead. They will be home Sunday, laying 12 points against a Miami team that is coming off a victory last week against Tennessee.
While all the attention in Miami seems focused on whether Jay Cutler has anything left, it is easy to overlook a very good Dolphins defense. Their rotating linemen Ndamukong Suh, Andre Branch, Cameron Wake, William Hayes and Charles Harris have 8½ sacks between them, and Nate Allen and Reshad Jones are very good safeties.
Meanwhile, the offense may be motivated by a battle with Dolphins fans. They were chanting for Matt Moore to replace Cutler last week, and that got Jarvis Landry so ticked off that he had a tantrum on the sideline. After Cutler had a word with him, Landry responded by catching the winning touchdown pass against the Titans.
I remember Landry from his days in the SEC as the “other” wide receiver at LSU. He was Odell Beckham Jr.’s teammate in Baton Rouge, and even though Les Miles’s running game left both of them in the shadows, they were drafted early – a round apart three years ago. Landry and Cutler have quickly built a rapport. It is not only a sign that Landry is emerging as a pass-catching threat but also that Cutler is quietly growing as a leader in the Miami locker room.
While Chicago and a lot of Miami fans have given up on Cutler, I am giving him another chance. This is not to say that the Dolphins will win Sunday, but I believe they can stick with the Falcons and cover the 12 points.
One other quarterback worth another look is Kevin Hogan. He mopped up for the Browns last week and didn’t look half-bad doing it. Now Hogan and the Browns are getting 9½ points visiting the battered Houston Texans. The injuries to J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus could be crippling to the Texans defense, and they put a ton of pressure on Jadeveon Clowney to fill the void.
Hogan is a very intelligent young man out of Stanford who will be the Browns’ 28th starting quarterback since they came back into the league in 1999. He threw for three touchdowns and two interceptions in relief of DeShone Kizer, and he is averaging 9.9 yards per attempt.
So far the Texans’ Deshaun Watson has been the best of the rookie quarterbacks who have been thrown into the deep end of the pool, throwing for 12 touchdowns and four interceptions. But he has also been sacked 13 times, and with Myles Garrett back on the field, the Browns defense will be that much better. That could be enough to keep them in the game – and to beat the spread.
If there is one lesson in all this for bettors, it is to avoid focusing too much on offenses. Cincinnati, Cleveland, Chicago and Miami may not be anyone’s first choice to win the Super Bowl, but they all have top-10 defenses, and that could be enough to get a few wins ATS.