By Chris Emma—
(CBS) Fabled Wrigley Field looked on with glee as the Cubs emerged in the center-field bleachers and raised their banner in early April.
The massive video board in left-center field played a montage of that magical run in 2016, which culminated in a World Series championship. Fireworks flew over the old ballpark, cameras flashed with each moment and tears flowed for some.
And there were the Dodgers, one by one along the first-base line, watching it all take place. They stood together as part of the pregame ceremony and waited for the Cubs to finish their festivities to play a ballgame.
The Cubs and Dodgers will meet for the second straight season in the National League Championship Series, beginning with Game 1 in Los Angeles on Saturday evening. It’s a meeting that seemed to be in the cards all season long. The Dodgers swept their way through the Diamondbacks in the NL Division Series, while the Cubs bested the Nationals in a wild five-game series.
While the Cubs have every right to be confident – especially after overcoming so much throughout the NLDS – these aren’t the Dodgers they’ve come to know.
“We’re a better club than last year — top to bottom,” Los Angeles manager Dave Roberts said. “We’re playing good baseball.”
Last October, the Dodgers were a team with top-heavy starting pitching and not enough pop in the lineup. Corey Seager and Justin Turner were two big threats, but depth and power lacked.
Enter Cody Bellinger, the surefire NL Rookie of the Year who made his mark in 2017. He crushed 39 homers in 132 games, an NL rookie record. Bellinger had a 4.0 WAR on FanGraphs after a call-up in May and filled a key void in the middle of the order for a team that led the big leagues with 104 wins.
Bellinger brought the Dodgers just what they were missing, a dangerous threat behind Seager and Turner in the top of the order. The emergence of Chris Taylor – who was below replacement level a year ago – as a lead-off man and starting center fielder made this team even stronger.
The Dodgers’ hopes for a playoff run always begin with ace Clayton Kershaw, the most dominant pitcher in baseball. He’ll be waiting for the Cubs in Game 1 and could be available for two more starts in the series, depending on how it plays out. At the least, he’ll start twice on full rest, a luxury he didn’t have last season when the Cubs defeated the Dodgers in six games in the NLCS.
But the Dodgers’ hopes don’t depend so heavily on Kershaw thanks to a healthy Alex Wood this fall and the addition of Yu Darvish. Wood was 16-3 with a 2.72 ERA, while Darvish’s arrival strengthened the rotation. They join Rich Hill in creating a formidable four-man challenge on the mound. The Dodgers have upgraded from rookies Kenta Maeda and Julio Urias, who appeared overmatched against the Cubs last October.
The Dodgers have greater bullpen depth, too, with Tony Watson, Brandon Morrow, Josh Fields and Tony Cingrani joining Maeda to set the table for Kenley Jansen, arguably the game’s best closer and someone who’s capable of recording two-inning saves.
After a grueling five-game series, the Cubs encounter a team that will present a fight stronger than before. The Dodgers are gunning for what the Cubs earned last year, and when they return to Wrigley Field next week, that championship flag will be flying in center field to remind the challenger what they’re up against.