LOS ANGELES – Justin Turner followed the baseball until it disappeared over the center-field fence with two out in the ninth inning Sunday night, and he raised his arms, and the Los Angeles Dodgers beat the Chicago Cubs, 4-1, to take a two-games-to-none lead in the National League Championship Series.
Turner’s three-run, walk-off homer off Cubs right-hander John Lackey brought a full Dodger Stadium to its feet, and Turner’s teammates to home plate. Yasiel Puig and Chris Taylor scored ahead of Turner.
The Dodgers’ bullpen has not allowed a hit since Game 3 of the division series. Game 3 of the NLCS is Tuesday night in Chicago. Yu Darvish is scheduled to start for the Dodgers, Kyle Hendricks for the Cubs.
Through four postseason games, Dodgers relievers had a 1.72 ERA. They threw four more scoreless innings in Game 2. Cubs relievers, through six games, had a 7.08 ERA, in part because they’d walked 15 batters in 20 1/3 innings and allowed five home runs.
By Sunday afternoon, the Cubs and Dodgers had played seven games over two Octobers. They Cubs had won four, which was plenty. All they’d needed.
The Dodgers had started this NLCS with a message on their clubhouse whiteboard: “You get few opportunities in life to be great. Be … great today!” The final three words read, “End the Cubs!” It would be among their last thoughts as they passed through the door, took a left past the video room, and continued through a hall into the dugout.
Really, it would be about timing. As in, whose time is it?
The Cubs beat the Dodgers in six games last fall, the final two outs coming off Puig’s bat. The MVP of that series, along with Javy Baez, was Jon Lester, the veteran left-hander who started two games against the Dodgers. The Cubs won them both. It was their time. Still could be.
A year later, Lester ranks first in career postseason innings and second in postseason wins among active players, and on Sunday, four days after a 55-pitch relief appearance against the Washington Nationals, he pitched again at Dodger Stadium. Among the enduring storylines with Lester has been his reluctance, or inability, to throw to the bases. He lacks confidence on those throws. Particularly in the dense air of the playoffs, this frailty has been a constant curiosity, one that has evoked large leads, occasional havoc, and more than a few postgame questions.
Yet Lester was ever combative on the mound, seemingly holding runners on nerve alone, and in Game 4 against the Nationals he picked off Ryan Zimmerman from first base. Four months before, he’d picked off the St. Louis Cardinals’ Tommy Pham. They remain awkward and tense experiences, these heaves to first base. Nevertheless, at least two were effective enough. The Dodgers were middle of the pack in National League stolen bases, though one of their regrets in the last NLCS was their timidity on the bases during Lester’s starts.
Well, Kike Hernandez walked to open the second inning. He stepped out from first base comfortably, one stride, then two, then another. He bounced around a little. He waved his arms around some. He faked a couple starts toward second base. He did not run.
Lester lacked precision to the plate at times, but shut out the Dodgers for four-plus innings. The Cubs were ineffective offensively against Dodgers lefty Rich Hill, however. Through four innings, they had just one hit, a single, and in the series arrived in the fifth inning one for their previous 31. Their final 18 hitters in Game 1 had been retired. Hill stuck with his usual fastball-curveball plan and struck out seven Cubs – Anthony Rizzo twice on curveballs – in four innings. In the fifth, Hill threw a 1-and-2 fastball to Addison Russell, who appeared to have been thinking about that pitch for hours. He pulled the fastball into the left-field seats, just right of the foul pole. The Cubs led, 1-0.
Hill finished the fifth having allowed that one run on three hits. He was removed for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the fifth, when the Dodgers scored their sole run against Lester. Charlie Culberson lashed a leadoff double to left-center field, and, with two out and two strikes on him, Turner pushed a grounder through the right side.
Lester left after 4 2/3 innings having allowed five walks, both his shortest postseason start and the most walks he’d given up in a postseason appearance.