Cubs vs. Indians: Who has the edge?
Jon Lester is 4-0 lifetime with a 3.72 ERA in eight career games at Progressive Field, and he never has looked sharper in a Cubs uniform than he has recently. Kyle Hendricks is lined up to pitch at Wrigley Field, where he has done his best work. No surprise that Jake Arrieta and John Lackey must be sharper than they were in the National League Championship Series. For all the talk of the Cubs' depth, the Indians had the second lowest ERA in the American League (3.84) and they have survived the loss of Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar to late-season injuries. Corey Kluber's curveball ranks as one of the best, as he displayed in a March 9 start in which he struck out four in three innings against a veteran Cubs lineup. Josh Tomlin likes to induce early contact, so the patience of Cubs hitters could test him.
It wasn't necessarily smooth sailing for a Cubs bullpen that didn't work often in normal roles in the NLCS. But closer Aroldis Chapman could match up well against the Indians. Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon haven't returned to normal levels since returning from the disabled list. Manager Joe Maddon is leaning more on left-hander Mike Montgomery. Carl Edwards Jr. could play a bigger role. Thanks to the trade deadline arrival of Andrew Miller, the Indians tied with the Royals for the second-lowest ERA in the AL (3.45). From shoring up the left side to pitching multiple innings, Miller creates pressure for opponents to score early. Groundball specialist Dan Otero has been one of the most underrated acquisitions of the offseason. The extended break may help Bryan Shaw, who appeared in 75 games. Closer Cody Allen looked dominant in the ALCS. Control can be an issue for Zach McAllister, who has gotten more comfortable after starting during most of his career.
Dexter Fowler was one of the more unheralded players during the NLCS with his defense and timely hitting, but Kluber and Tomlin will test the Cubs' plate discipline. Ben Zobrist is a lifetime .246 at Progressive Field. Javier Baez continues to show better plate discipline, especially on breaking pitches on the outside corner. After struggling at times against left-handers Rich Hill and Julio Urias, the Cubs should feel more comfortable against a predominantly right-handed Indians staff. The Indians led the AL with 134 stolen bases and will try to exploit the slow deliveries of Arrieta and John Lackey. There's plenty of length in the Indians' lineup, starting with leadoff batter Carlos Santana (34 home runs, .366 on-base percentage). Jose Ramirez struck out only 62 times in 618 plate appearances, a remarkable feat for a 23-year-old. Mike Napoli struck out 194 times during the regular season but has stabilized the middle of the lineup. Rajai Davis' speed is the equivalent of a migraine headache for pitchers and catchers.
The only major area of concern for the Cubs will be at catcher, as the Indians' running game will test David Ross, Miguel Montero and rookie Willson Contreras. Look for Contreras to be part of more late-inning double-switches in games he doesn't start. Ben Zobrist has looked OK in left field since Baez took over at second base. Don't expect outfielder Jorge Soler to see the field too often. One longtime scout liked shortstop Francisco Lindor over the Cubs' Addison Russell. Tyler Naquin is an above-average center fielder. Right fielder Lonnie Chisenhall has settled in nicely after looking uptight at third, according to a scout. Second baseman Jason Kipnis and third baseman Jose Ramirez continue to get better. Catcher Roberto Perez doesn't have big-time tools but does a smart job with the pitchers.
One of the more memorable showdowns occurred in the 2008 ALCS when Maddon's Rays edged Terry Francona's Red Sox in seven games. Francona nearly guided the Red Sox all the way back from a 3-1 deficit, starting in the seventh inning of Game 5 when he used Jonathan Papelbon down 7-0 in a game the Red Sox ultimately won 8-7. Although Maddon likes managing under NL rules, he should feel comfortable with as many as four games under AL rules that employ the designated hitter. Maddon won't have to worry about preserving his bench in the AL games. For his part, Francona isn't afraid to do things in an atypical (and successful) manner such as using a slugger like Santana at leadoff to employing radical shifts to using Miller in the middle innings for extended periods. Francona has done diligent work despite the loss of Michael Brantley, Yan Gomes, Carrasco and Salazar.
Tribune staff predictions
Mark Gonzales: Which team will end its World Series championship drought? The Indians breezed to the American League title without two starting pitchers and have one of the best game-changers in left-hander Andrew Miller. The Cubs' series victories over the Giants and Dodgers will serve them well in making history. Cubs in 7.
David Haugh: Surreal as it seems in Chicago, the Cubs cannot be stopped now. Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks continue to pitch masterfully. The offense has regained its oomph. And Joe Maddon keeps pushing all the right buttons, even if sometimes you wonder if he needs to push so many. But nobody on the North Side is complaining — and may never again after this. Cubs in 5.
Colleen Kane: It's incredible the Indians have gotten to this point given the injuries to their starting pitchers. An outstanding bullpen has played a big part in the run, but the Cubs' bats have come alive and will do damage the Red Sox and Blue Jays couldn't. Indians fans will replace Cubs fans as the longest-suffering in baseball. Cubs in 7.
Chris Kuc: The red-hot Indians are rolling and have been a terrific story in their own right, but the Cubs have a date with destiny and will ride their superior starting pitching and suddenly hot hitting to meet it. It is, indeed, going to happen. Cubs in 5.
Paul Skrbina: No. 1 meets No. 2 in a clash of franchises that top the list for longest World Series droughts. Combined, the Indians and Cubs have gone without a title for 174 years. Next year finally is here for the Cubs, who are built for October (and November, if necessary). Cubs in 7.
Paul Sullivan: There is no reason to stop believing in the Cubs at this point, even if the Indians have home-field advantage because of Bud Selig's inane decision to award it to the league that wins the All-Star Game. Starting pitching will decide it, and in that category it's a glaring mismatch. Cubs in 6.
Projected Cubs roster
Probable Game 1 lineup
Dexter Fowler, CF: After a 2-for-15 NLDS, went 9-for-27 with four RBIs in NLCS
Kris Bryant, 3B: Most consistent Cub: 13-for-39, .409 on-base percentage
Anthony Rizzo, 1B: Is 7-for-14 last three games to snap a 2-for-26 start
Ben Zobrist, LF: He went 3-for-20 with four walks in NLCS
Addison Russell, SS: Like Rizzo, two homers in last three games stopped slump
Jason Heyward, RF: Versatile outfielder is just 2-for-28 with one RBI
Javier Baez, 2B: Rising star is 13-for-38 with five extra-base hits, seven RBIs
David Ross, C: Surprising home-run ratio continues with one in 11 at-bats
Albert Almora Jr., OF: Rookie is hitless in nine at-bats
Chris Coghlan, UT: Utility man is 0-for-4
Willson Contreras, UT: Rookie is 8-for-20 with a home run in NLCS clincher
Miguel Montero, C: Only hit was a grand-slam winner in NLCS opener
Jorge Soler, OF: 2015 postseason star is 0-for-8
Jon Lester: Three starts, two runs allowed, three Cubs victories
Jake Arrieta: Cubs have lost his last three playoff starts dating to 2015
Kyle Hendricks: Allowed one run on five hits over 12 2/3 innings in NLCS
John Lackey: Didn't record an out after fourth inning of either start
Aroldis Chapman: Put in some tough spots, not as dominant as he had been
Carl Edwards Jr.: Has thrown 3 2/3 scoreless innings
Justin Grimm: Two runs, three hits in 2 1/3 innings.
Mike Montgomery: Has been reliable besides one rough inning mop-up duty
Hector Rondon: Has allowed two runs in 3 2/3 innings.
Pedro Strop: Has allowed two runs in 3 2/3 innings
Travis Wood: Has allowed one run in 4 2/3 innings — and hit one home run
Rob Zastryzny: Added to NLCS roster but wasn't used against Dodgers
Projected Indians roster
Probable Game 1 lineup
Carlos Santana, 1B: He's 5-for-29 but hit two home runs in ALCS
Jason Kipnis, 2B: Had just one hit in 19 at-bats in ALCS, a solo home run
Francisco Lindor, SS: He's 10-for-31 (.323) with two homers and two doubles
Mike Napoli, DH: Big bat is 5-for-28 with only one home run and two RBIs
Jose Ramirez, 3B: Followed a 5-for-10 ALDS with one hit in 17 at-bats in ALCS
Lonnie Chisenhall, RF: He's 7-for-26 with one home run and four RBIs
Coco Crisp, LF: Veteran traded from A's has two homers in 14 at-bats
Tyler Naquin, CF: Rookie is 3-for-16 with two doubles
Roberto Perez, C: Has four hits in 23 at-bats in first postseason experience
Rajai Davis, OF: Speedster is 0-for-12 but managed to steal one base
Yan Gomes, C: Still recovering from a shoulder injury, has yet to play
Brandon Guyer, OF: He's 3-for-8 in three games
Michael Martinez, IF: Struck out in his only plate appearance
Corey Kluber: Ace has allowed two runs over 18 1/3 innings in three starts
Josh Tomlin: He's 2-0 with a 2.53 ERA in two starts
Trevor Bauer: Forced to leave Game 3 of ALCS with bloody finger
Ryan Merritt: Rookie allowed two hits in 4 1/3 innings in ALCS clincher
Cody Anderson: Spot starter hasn't had any action in playoffs
Cody Allen: Has thrown 7 2/3 scoreless innings with 12 strikeouts
Mike Clevinger: Rookie has been used once (1 2/3 innings, one run)
Jeff Manship: Also has only one appearance (1 1/3 scoreless innings)
Zach McAllister: Allowed one run in one inning in lone appearance
Andrew Miller: Has thrown 11 2/3 scoreless innings with 21 strikeouts
Dan Otero: Has allowed one run in three outings (3 1/3 innings)
Bryan Shaw: Has given up eight hits, three earned runs in 5 2/3 innings