Best team in baseball, meet the best pitcher on earth.
Clayton Kershaw on Sunday night did to the Cubs what neither Johnny Cueto nor Madison Bumgarner could do this postseason, and because of that, the Dodgers left Wrigley Field with a 1-0 victory, stealing a split of the first two games of the best-of-seven National League Championship Series.
“It’s not going to just be a cakewalk,” said slumping Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who just missed a potential tying home run in the fourth when it hooked foul. “It doesn’t matter if we’re facing a AA team; it’s not going to be a cakewalk this time of year.”
Nobody has a right to feel that more than Rizzo, who’s 1-for-23 this postseason.
But nobody in a Cubs uniform had anything on Rizzo on a night Kershaw dominated in his first start of the year against Chicago.
The hero of the Dodgers’ first-round series victory over the Nationals, Kershaw came back after a two-out relief appearance between starts to limit the Cubs to two singles and a walk over seven innings.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts then went to closer Kanley Jansen for a six-out save just three days after Jansen’s career high 51 pitches after being called upon in the seventh to help finish the Nats in that decisive Game 5.
Jansen retired all six he faced, including the top of the Cubs order in the ninth – Rizzo lining to second for the final out.
“They got the best pitcher on the planet going. They won that game. That’s fine,” said a stoic Jake Arrieta, the 2015 Cy Young winner who starts next for the Cubs in Game 3 on Tuesday.
“They’ve got to beat us three more times, which ain’t gonna be easy,” Arrieta said. “We’re going to be ready.”
The last time the Cubs played at Dodger Stadium, seven weeks ago, they lost two of three, including a 1-0 decision in the last meeting.
“We’ve been dealing with adversity all year,” catcher David Ross said. “Now it’s a five-game series.”
Which makes Arrieta the “Game 1” starter in the same place he threw his first career no-hitter the last time he pitched there, on Aug. 30 of last year.
“We have confidence,” Ross said.
If there’s another reason for relief, if not confidence, it might be that they won’t have to deal with Kershaw until Game 5 at the earliest (against Jon Lester), or possibly Game 6.
“I don’t think there’s any relief, or whatever it is,” said Jason Heyward, whose popup in the fifth ended, a first-and-second, two-out rally – the closest thing the Cubs had to a scoring threat all night.
“We were on the other side of that when we beat Cueto 1-0 [in Game 1 of the NLDS] and when we had Bumgarner beat in San Francisco,” Heyward added. “We welcome those challenges, facing the other team’s best. You know that’s what you’re going to get in the playoffs.
“It’s a gift and a curse in the postseason,” he added. “You’re going to get everybody’s best, whether it’s the ace of the staff or the next guy up.”
Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks, the official major-league ERA leader (2.13), nearly matched Kershaw, the would-be ERA leader (1.69) without enough innings to qualify, scoreless inning for scoreless inning.
Adrian Gonzalez’s leadoff home run to the opposite gap in the second was the difference.
Hendricks, whose first playoff start was ended in the fourth inning when he was hit on the forearm by a line drive, said the forearm was “100 percent.”
“It was fun to pitch against him, but at the same time it was a tough way to lose,” Hendricks said. “But we’ll be all right.”
Kershaw retired the first 14 he faced before a two-out single in the fifth by Cubs playoff sensation Javy Baez.
“We can’t win all of them,” Baez said. “We know we’re the best. We’ve got the best team out there.”
Baez also had the defensive play of the game when he turned a soft liner into a double play by letting it drop with one out in the top of the sixth.
With men at first and second, Baez said he saw both runners retreat as Joc Pederson’s low liner approached.
After letting it drop he threw to second for a force. A surprised Addison Russell instinctively looked to relay toward first until Baez yelled and gestured to go after the runner halfway between second and third. A two-throw rundown later, and Baez had his double play.
“He sees things, man,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s like a good running back. He sees the whole field. Like a point guard. He sees the court.
“He just sees everything. He’s got that gift.”