The Chicago Cubs’ Game 1 starter in the National League Championship Series will be left-hander Jon Lester. Their closer, potentially to be deployed in roles beyond that of a typical ninth-inning specialist, will be left-hander Aroldis Chapman. But, in between, the Dodgers will see few pitchers of the type that so often stymied them this season.
The club has reached Major League Baseball’s semifinals despite a significant flaw, one that surfaced again in the five-game National League division series against Washington. The Dodgers faced Nationals left-handers in 60 plate appearances and notched just three extra-base hits, all against Game 3 starter Gio Gonzalez, and a .157 batting average in all. They got on base at a .283 clip and slugged .254, for a .537 on-base-plus-slugging-percentage.
Those statistics are even worse than the league-worst numbers logged by the Dodgers during the regular season, when they hit .213 with a .622 OPS against left-handers. And so Manager Dave Roberts will continue to stack his lineup with as much right-handed hitting as he can.
But this is a matter of personnel, not orientation.
“With all the left-handed hitters in their lineup, they provide the ability to move it back and forth, which is expected,” Cubs Manager Joe Maddon said Friday. “That’s very good. It’s been planned out that way.”
The only other Cubs left-handers likely looming in this series would be Travis Wood, who’s known more for his hitting than his pitching, and Mike Montgomery, who arrived in July from Seattle. At the time Montgomery was acquired, Cubs President Theo Epstein compared him to Jeremy Affeldt, another tall left-handed starter converted into a reliever who helped San Francisco to three World Series titles.
The next week, Chicago traded for sidearming Angels right-hander Joe Smith, who this season performed equally against right-handed and left-handed hitters. Smith did not make the Cubs’ first-round roster, but they will reconfigure, and he could factor into their new plans. So could rookie left-hander Rob Zastryzny, who threw 16 effective innings in the final two months of the season.
While Santa Clarita native Montgomery has carried fairly even splits throughout his career, Wood could be Maddon’s lefty-on-lefty weapon of choice. Over parts of seven major league seasons, left-handers have a .593 OPS against him, 156 points worse than right-handers. This season, his first as a full-time reliever, he permitted a .447 OPS to left-handers and an .865 OPS to right-handers. He might well appear in every NLCS game, as Washington left-hander Sammy Solis did in the NLDS.
One-time lefty masher Justin Turner performed far worse against left-handers this season, a fact Nationals Manager Dusty Baker either did not know or ignored Thursday during the decisive seventh inning of Game 5 at Nationals Park, when he removed Solis for a right-hander. Maddon, who has earned a reputation of a top tactician, is unlikely to make a similar mistake.
During a news conference Friday at Wrigley Field, Lester noted the importance of Adrian Gonzalez, his former Boston teammate, in the Dodgers’ lineup. The top of the order may represent an area for the Cubs to exploit, with the Dodgers’ preferred first four hitters — Chase Utley, Corey Seager, Turner and Gonzalez — all inferior against left-handers.
While the Dodgers have said they would remove a reserve position player from their roster in favor of a reliever because of the back-to-back-to-back Games 2-4 in this series, they are also considering adding utilityman Enrique Hernandez.
Hernandez did not travel with the team to Washington but is in Chicago. He owns an .841 career OPS in 265 plate appearances against left-handers. Although that number did not hold up this season, his emergence on the roster would indicate the Dodgers’ intention to try another option that might help them fare better in an area where they have struggled.
Follow Pedro Moura on Twitter @pedromoura