In Game 6 of the National League Championship Series, the Chicago Cubs will take on the Curse of the Billy Goat and Clayton Kershaw will take on the narrative.

It wouldn’t be October without a big chance for Kershaw to prove he can be a clutch postseason performer. Saturday’s Game 6 assignment will be his best chance yet, as the Los Angeles Dodgers will need a good performance from their ace to get out of a 3-2 hole and force a Game 7.

Meanwhile, Kyle Hendricks will be trying to pitch the Cubs into their first World Series since 1945. The Wrigley Field crowd would no doubt appreciate it if he did.

First pitch will happen shortly after 8 p.m. ET. Let’s pass the time by looking at three keys for each team to win Game 6.


Keys for the Los Angeles Dodgers

For Clayton Kershaw, Keep Pounding Those Fastballs

We all know about Kershaw‘s struggles in the postseason, but he’s still the best pitcher on the planet and the best hope for the Dodgers to get back on track after dropping Games 4 and 5.

Or as first baseman Adrian Gonzalez told Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register, “We can grab back that momentum with one nameKershaw.”

A repeat of Kershaw‘s start in Game 2 would do nicely. He pitched the Dodgers to a 1-0 win with seven scoreless innings in which he allowed just two hits and a walk. He wasn’t messing around, and Brooks Baseball shows he went right at the Cubs with his highest fastball percentage of the season:

Why go right at the Cubs? Well, here’s a better question: Why not go right at the Cubs?

The defining characteristic of Chicago’s offense is its patience. Few teams swung less often in the regular season, and few teams expanded the strike zone less often. These things were big factors in the team’s NL-best .343 on-base percentage.

Kershaw is the perfect pitcher to combat this habit and make the Cubs beat him the hard way. Only fellow Dodger Rich Hill pounded the zone more often in 2016.

And if Kershaw sticks with his fastball to do so in Game 6, he’ll be relentlessly pounding the Cubs with 93-94 mph heat. Per Baseball Savant, their offense only tied for 15th in batting average when attacking that kind of heat in the zone.


Come Out Swinging Against Kyle Hendricks

Kershaw may be the best pitcher on the planet, but Hendricks is no slouch. He led baseball with a 2.13 ERA in the regular season. No wonder he’s not sweating Game 6.

“This is still the same game,” he said, per Paul Skrbina of the Chicago Tribune. “You’re making the same pitches. It’s the same lineup. There’s just more going on (on) the outside.”

It presumably will be the same lineup Hendricks faced in Game 2, when he allowed one run in 5.1 innings. The Dodgers did well to work him for four walks. But if they want to get to him, they should make like Merrill Hess and swing away.

Attacking Hendricks early makes sense on two fronts. One is within his first 25 pitches, where he was relatively hittable, allowing a .693 OPS this season. On another, this chart from Baseball Savant shows he’s most vulnerable early in counts:

Here’s a simpler breakdown: Hitters hit .302 against Hendricks on 0-0, 1-0 and 0-1 counts and just .172 in all other counts.

The trick is to avoid his changeup. It’s his only swing-and-miss offering, and he throws it often. But he throws it most often in two-strike counts, when it makes up over 40 percent of his pitches.


Have Kenley Jansen on Speed Dial

If at all possible, the Dodgers do not want to use any reliever other than Kenley Jansen in Game 6.

This should be obvious in light of what Dodgers relievers not named Jansen have done in this series. Joe Blanton has served up two big home runs, and other relievers not named Jansen helped turn close games into laughers in the club’s last two losses.

Manager Dave Roberts seems to be more aware of how ugly it’s been than he wants to let on.

“I’m not going to shy away from any of these guys [in the bullpen],” he said after Game 5, per Eric Stephen of SB Nation. “But obviously you look at going into Game 6, Kenley’s going to have a few days off, and we’ve got our ace going. So it will give our guys a chance to reset. But again, these guys have gotten big outs for us all year long.”

Translation—I know they’re there, but I’d rather only Kershaw and Jansen pitch in Game 6.

Good idea. Jansen will indeed be well-rested after last being used in Game 3 on Tuesday. He’s also a good matchup for the Cubs in the same way Kershaw is a good matchup for them: He’s an aggressive strike-thrower with an overpowering fastball. The only difference is that Jansen’s is a cutter.

It shouldn’t be a big deal if Roberts needs Jansen before the ninth inning. He’s entered earlier than the ninth in four of his six appearances this postseason. He’s put a goose egg on the board each time.

If he can do so again in Game 6 after a Kershaw-like performance from Kershaw, this series could be tied.


Keys for the Chicago Cubs

Come Out Swinging Against Clayton Kershaw

Cubs hitters should approach Kershaw the same way Dodgers hitters should approach Hendricks.

The alternative is working Kershaw and trying to drive up his pitch count, with the idea being to get at the underbelly of the Dodgers bullpen. Or if that fails, possibly luring Kershaw into the kind of seventh-inning trap that tends to snare him in October.

However, the Cubs experienced the pitfall of taking such an approach against Kershaw in Game 2.

After swinging at just 45.4 percent of all pitches in the regular season, Baseball Savant put their swing rate in Game 2 at just 46.1 percent. Given how much Kershaw pounds the zone, it’s no wonder he got through seven innings on just 84 pitches before handing the ball to Jansen to close out Game 2.

Going into attack mode is a better idea when facing the three-time Cy Young winner. He has a similar count split to Hendricks, holding batters to a .276 average on 0-0, 1-0 and 0-1 counts and a .155 average on all other counts

Besides that, trying to work Kershaw is typically a good way to get into a two-strike count. On that note, check out where he ranked in OPS allowed with two strikes this season:

  1. Clayton Kershaw: .281
  2. Corey Kluber: .357

When you’re that much better at something than Corey Kluber, you’re really good at that something.

Let that be a warning to the Cubs. Don’t mess around. Swing the bats.


Sinkers and Changeups for Kyle Hendricks

Hendricks doesn’t normally need to be told to throw sinkers and changeups.’s Jesse Rogers has some notes about why:

According to ESPN Stats & Information, he used [sinkers and changeups] more than 75 percent of the time in the regular season, keeping the ball in the lower third of the strike zone 56 percent of the time. The result was a .450 OPS on those pitches, by far the lowest among all qualified pitchers.

And yet, Hendricks got away from his two bread-and-butter pitches in Game 2. Only 51 of his 91 pitches (56 percent) were sinkers and changeups. Instead, he opted for one of the highest percentages of four-seam fastballs he’s used all season.

This may have been a reaction to the lineup he was facing. The Dodgers started only one right-handed hitter (Justin Turner) in Game 2, attacking Hendricks with left-handed hitters in the other eight spots in their lineup. Throughout the year, Hendricks generally has preferred his four-seamer against lefties.

The argument for sticking with his four-seamer against the same lineup in Game 6 is the .355 average lefties compiled against his sinker. But it’s a hollow .355, containing only eight extra-base hits (all doubles). Given that 53.5 percent of the sinkers lefties have put in play have been on the ground, that can continue in Game 6.

As for Hendricks’ changeup, there are no issues there. Lefties have hit just .135 against it this year. It’s not a pitch they’re jonesing to see.


No Lefties Left Behind

Here’s a not-so-hot take: The Cubs bullpen is better than the Dodgers bullpen. If Game 6 becomes a bullpen battle, the Cubs will have the advantage by default.

But if Chicago skipper Joe Maddon wants to press his advantage in Game 6, he’ll unleash the lefties.

You’ve probably heard about the Dodgers’ struggle against left-handed pitching. If not, well, they put up a .622 OPS against lefties this season, easily the worst of any team. If given a choice between facing a lefty and a root canal, they may go for door No. 2.

This is where Mike Montgomery, Travis Wood and Aroldis Chapman come into focus.

They’re three solid left arms for Maddon to throw at the Dodgers if need be, and he shouldn’t be afraid to use any one of them. Although Montgomery and Chapman have given up four earned runs in this series, they’ve also combined for four scoreless appearances. Wood has three of those of his own. In other words, these three have mostly been able to exploit the most obvious weakness on either side of this series.

If they can do it again in Game 6, the Cubs could find themselves in their first World Series in 71 years and that much closer to finally ending their 108-year championship drought.


Stats courtesy of and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted or linked.

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