Chris Taylor delivers decisive blow in Dodgers’ 5-2 victory over Cubs in Game 1 of NLCS
The noise already felt deafening when Chris Taylor started to clap. He was a few strides away from second base. His go-ahead homer, the deciding stroke in a 5-2 Dodgers victory over the Cubs in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series, had already disappeared beyond the outfield fence. The applause from Taylor got lost in the delirium of a sold-out crowd of 54,289 at Dodger Stadium.
A foreboding afternoon turned blissful once night fell. The Dodgers absorbed the psychic shock of a series-long injury to All-Star shortstop Corey Seager and the actual shock of a two-run deficit to batter the Cubs and their shaky bullpen in capturing the best-of-seven series opener.
After four quiet innings, the Dodgers came alive in the fifth. Yasiel Puig put his club on the board with a bat-flipping double. Charlie Culberson, a last-minute replacement for Seager, tied the score with a sacrifice fly. An inning later, Taylor launched his solo shot. Puig provided insurance with a homer in the seventh. Culberson scored another run on a controversial call later in the inning.
Clayton Kershaw withstood a sizable shot in the fourth inning, a two-run homer by Cubs outfielder Albert Almora, Jr., to complete five innings. He kept the Cubs scoreless otherwise, but manager Dave Roberts trusted his bullpen for the last 12 outs.
As the series dawned on Friday, the Dodgers held an enviable position. Kershaw would pitch on seven days of rest. Jose Quintana, Chicago’s Game 1 starter, had appeared in relief on Thursday night and spent a portion of Friday in Albuquerque tending to a medical issue with his wife. The Dodgers rested their bullpen for four days. The Cubs shredded theirs to get past Washington.
Yet lingering beneath the surface was the specter of Seager’s sprained lower back, an injury the Dodgers downplayed after Seager injured himself sliding into second base in the final game of the divisoin series against Arizona. By Friday, the team knew the pain-killing epidural injection Seager received would not have him ready for this series. In a stunning move on Saturday morning, the team left him off the 25-man roster and revealed he would not travel to Chicago next week.
“This sucks, to be honest,” Seager lamented. He looked forlorn when introduced to the crowd before the game.
The fear of back trouble had not filtered through the rest of the roster. As batting practice wound down, Puig thunked his bat across the water coolers as he left the dugout. Nearby was hitting coach Turner Ward, who jumped on Puig’s back for a modified piggyback ride. Ward bailed after a brief journey.
Kershaw had faced the Cubs only once since they mauled him in Game 6 of the 2016 NLCS to end the Dodgers season. Chicago smacked 11 hits against Kershaw on May 28, when they tagged three homers and booted him from the game in the fifth inning.
Kershaw ducked a first-inning haymaker from the Cubs. He permitted a single by third baseman Kris Bryant and first baseman Anthony Rizzo. Kershaw fashioned an escape by striking out catcher Willson Contreras with a curveball and inducing a groundout from Almora.
Two innings later, the least potent member of Chicago’s lineup added to Kershaw’s stress. Quintana had spent his entire career with the White Sox before moving to the South Side this past July. He totaled two hits in his regular-season career. That did not prevent him from chopping a 92-mph fastball down the first-base line for a leadoff single.
A bunt moved Quintana into scoring position and opened the door for the Cubs, with Bryant and Rizzo looming. Bryant hit a belt-high fastball toward Enrique Hernandez in left field. Rizzo smashed a 94-mph fastball into right field. Kershaw spun his head upon impact. The ball was stung, but destined to land in Yasiel Puig’s glove.
The escape did not alleviate the pressure. Kershaw failed to locate his pitches in the top of the fourth, leaving a 3-1 fastball at the thighs of Contreras, who singled. Kershaw lost a pair of sliders in the dirt before a 3-2 slider to Almora crossed over the plate. Almora pulled it over the left-field fence.
The blast awakened the Cubs’ dugout, enlivening a group of players who spent five hours on an airport tarmac in New Mexico on Friday after a medical emergency involving Quintana’s wife. Almora pointed to his teammates and hollered as he rounded first base. Kershaw tucked his glove in his armpit and sighed.
The Dodgers lacked experience with Quintana. Only Logan Forsythe had faced him for more than six plate appearances. Forsythe notched a single in the second inning — and was promptly erased when Austin Barnes grounded into a double play. Quintana faced the minimum through four.
Forsythe interrupted Quintana’s reverie in the fifth. He took a five-pitch walk. Barnes followed with a seven-pitch walk. The table was set for Puig.
Puig relished the spotlight. His postseason at-bats have morphed into performance art, a nightly display of dancing feet and wild gesticulations. He punctuated a ringing double off the center-field wall in fitting fashion: Puig flipped his bat and pounded his chest at second base.
The hit cut the deficit in half. Up came Culberson, who had spent the majority of the season in triple-A Oklahoma City and appeared in only 15 games for the Dodgers. But he still managed to fish for an 0-2 curveball and lift it into left for a sacrifice fly to tie the score.
The tie did not last long. Cubs manager Joe Maddon chose Hector Rondon to replace Quintana for the sixth. Rondon did not make the roster in the first round, but Maddon trusted him to face the top of the Dodgers order. Taylor belted the second pitch Rondon threw, a 97-mph fastball down the middle, over the fence in left-center field.
Puig greeted Cubs left-handed reliever Mike Montgomery in similar fashion in the seventh. Puig launched a fastball deep to left. He did not flip his bat — perhaps he was fooled by left fielder Kyle Schwarber, who called for the baseball before reaching the warning track. Schwarber did not catch the ball.
But Schwarber did make an excellent throw, several batters later, after a double by Culberson and an infield single by Taylor. Maddon dispatched veteran starter John Lackey to put out the fire. Justin Turner responded with a single to left, which Schwarber returned on a rope to the plate.
As he waited for the ball to arrive, Contreras stuck out his left leg as Culberson slid. The obstruction prevented Culberson from touching the plate. Contreras tagged him out, but the Dodgers objected. The review cited the rule designed to protect catchers from collisions, and barred the blocking of the plate. Culberson was safe. Maddon was livid. He huffed at umpire Lance Barksdale until getting ejected.