Craig Calcaterra

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 13: Julio Urias #7 of the Los Angeles Dodgers works against the Washington Nationals in the fifth inning during game five of the National League Division Series at Nationals Park on October 13, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Getty Images

Playoff Reset: Cubs vs. Dodgers NLCS Game 4


The Game: Chicago Cubs @ Los Angeles Dodgers NLCS Game 4
The Time: 8:00 PM EDT
The Place: Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles
The Channel: FS1
The Starters: John Lackey (Cubs) vs. Julio Urias (Dodgers)

The Upshot:

As I said earlier this morning, randomness and execution of baseball activities is how series are decided, not Fundamental Forces of the Universe. But it is weighted randomness, so it’s probably worth dropping our nihilism for a few minutes and actually talk about the pitchers here.

Julio Urias is going for the Dodgers. As soon as he tosses his first pitch Urias — who turned 20 in August — will become the youngest pitcher to ever start a playoff game. I was somewhat surprised by that, as clubs used to sign, like, grade schoolers during the World Wars. I was pretty sure an actual zygote started Game 3 for the New York Giants in the 1917 World Series, after which he was paid in Liberty Cabbage. Guess not!

Urias has grown up pretty fast this year. He faced the Cubs back on June 2 in only his second big league start. He didn’t do so hot that day, allowing six runs (five earned) on eight hits in five innings. He faced Chicago again, this time at home, on August 27. That day he won the game, allowing one run while striking out eight and scattering six hits over six innings.

The Cubs are going with someone a bit more venerable: the 37-year-old John Lackey. As we noted during the division series, Lackey has more playoff experience than any active pitcher. He’s 8-5 with a 3.22 ERA in 24 playoff appearances. He hasn’t faced the Dodgers this year.

The calculus for each team here is pretty simple. For the Dodgers it’s all about getting enough innings out of Urias so that the bullpen isn’t overworked both tonight and for the remainder of the series. For the Cubs: figure out how to hit the ball again, which they haven’t been doing all the past couple of games. Maybe that’s due to fate and destiny and some sort of magic. I’m inclined to believe, however, that it’s a function of Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill being really good pitchers. Tonight we’ll see what Urias has got.

Playoff Reset: Indians vs. Blue Jays ALCS Game 5

CLEVELAND, OH - AUGUST 04: Ryan Merritt #54 of the Cleveland Indians pitches against the Minnesota Twins in the ninth inning at Progressive Field on August 4, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Indians defeated the Twins 9-2.  (Photo by David Maxwell/Getty Images)
Getty Images

The Game: Cleveland Indians @ Toronto Blue Jays, ALCS Game 5
The Time: 4:00 PM EDT
The Place: Rogers Centre, Toronto
The Channel: TBS
The Starters: Ryan Merritt (Indians) vs. Marco Estrada (Blue Jays)

The Upshot:

We now come to the part of the playoffs where Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar‘s absence will be felt by the Cleveland Indians. Due to injures, rather than one of those two excellent, experienced pitchers, Terry Francona will call on rookie lefty Ryan Merritt. Merritt has pitched in four big league games in his life, starting only one of them.

Merritt is no fireballer. He barely breaks 90 with his fastball, which is all but unheard of these days for a young kid. He struck out six and didn’t walk any in his 11 innings of two-run ball in the bigs this year, but to say that Merritt is a blank major league slate at this point is an understatement. The saving grace here is that, due to the Indians loss yesterday in a game that wasn’t terribly close, Francona did not have to use ace relievers Cody Allen and Andrew Miller, so Merritt will likely not have the longest of leashes, nor will he have to have one.

Toronto felt pretty good with yesterday’s win but today they will once again play an elimination game. On the hill for them will be Marco Estrada, who took the loss in Game 1, even if he pitched a nice game, allowing two runs over eight innings of work.

The Jays bats looked a lot healthier yesterday than they had in the first three games of the series, but they’ll need to get an early lead in this one given that a rested Miller is likely to come out of the bullpen, perhaps as early as the sixth inning. The mission: get to the kid or the season ends today.

Reminder: The Cubs lost four out of seven games many, many times in 2016.

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 18:  Javier Baez #9 of the Chicago Cubs reacts after striking out against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the ninth inning of game three of the National League Championship Series at Dodger Stadium on October 18, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Getty Images

There is still a lot of baseball to be played in the NLCS, but the Dodgers 2-1 lead over the Cubs — with Clayton Kershaw guaranteed another appearance —  is causing some people to scratch their heads and wonder if it’s possible for the best team in baseball to actually lose this series.

If they do lose it, some people will claim it as the doing of a curse of some sort. Others will claim the Cubs choked or that the Dodgers had a greater Will to Win or that This Brand New Baseball Philosophy or Strategy Has Now Been Proven To Be Best. Go back and look at any number of stories at the end of a playoff series and you’ll see people attempting to tie it all together in some grand unifying theory, ranging from one manager’s superior temperament, one club’s superior chemistry or another club’s strategic approach which allegedly upends all we thought we knew about baseball before that point. Happens every year.

Any explanation that reduces a playoff series loss to something other than “in this particular set of seven games the winning club did baseball things better than the other club did baseball things,” however, is silly. It’s silly because great baseball teams lose four out of seven games fairly often. Indeed, even the best team in baseball in 2016 — the 103-win Chicago Cubs — did it seven times this season:

  • May 11-17: Lost four of six games to the Padres, Pirates and Brewers with five of the six games being at home;
  • May 19-23: Lost four of five to the Brewers, Giants and Cardinals;
  • June 20-23: Lost four in a row to the Cardinals and Marlins, with three of four at home;
  • June 30-July 3: Lost four in a row to the Mets;
  • July 5-July 9: Lost five in a row to the Reds, Braves and Pirates, three of five at home;
  • September 3-September 10: Lost four of seven to the Giants, Brewers and Astros;
  • September 13-September 18: Lost four of six to the Cardinals and Brewers, four of six at home.

Yep. The most dominant team in the league was beaten in a seven game “series” more often than once a month. Three times when they had the home field advantage in that swath of seven games. Often those loses were at the hands of some pretty pedestrian teams. No one drew deep meaning from any of those individual “series” losses. At most they were chalked up to cold bats, hot opponents, mistakes, injuries or just generally bad nights. You know, the tangible things that directly impact baseball games as they wash over us during a long baseball season.

The reason why a team loses any one game is pretty straightforward: they didn’t hit enough or they didn’t pitch well enough or they committed too many errors. Stuff like that. The reason why a team loses any best-of-seven series is often attributable to multiple failures on the part of the losing team and successes on the part of the winners, but it’s still basically the same deal: one team played better than the other, more often, over the course of 5-9 days.

I don’t know what will happen in the rest of the NLCS. But I do know this much: if the Cubs rally from being down 2-1 to win it, their victory will be attributed to something other than “they played better baseball than the Dodgers four out of [six or seven] times.” Likewise, if they lose it, the loss will be chalked up to some other overarching factor. In either case, that explanation will, by shocking coincidence, fit into a tidy 800-word narrative. When that happens, enjoy the narrative if the prose is good. Someone skilled at writing it put a lot of hard work into it and good prose is its own reward.

But know that the inherent and, at this time of year, only slightly-weighted randomness of baseball is the real factor behind any series win or loss. And that that is exacerbated by the fact that, at best, a seven-game sample of randomness is being run. Everything else is just words.