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Three Strikes: Russell, Cubs take control of NLCS with Game 5 win

Led by Addison Russell, the Cubs’ bats stayed hot in Game 5, leading to a win over the Dodgers and a 3–2 NLCS lead as the series heads back to Chicago.

After torching Dodgers pitching en route to a 10–2 win in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series on Wednesday, the Chicago Cubs carried their impressive offensive output over to Thursday, taking a 3–2 series lead with a commanding 8–4 victory in Game 5. Jon Lester was brilliant through seven innings for the Cubs, who used a five-run eighth to break the game open. They’ll head back home to face ace Clayton Kershaw in a potential series-clinching Game 6 on Saturday night.

Back to Addison

The Cubs are heading back to West Addison Street with a chance to go to the World Series thanks in part to the return of their shortstop, Addison Russell.

After beginning the postseason just 1 of 24 (.042) and getting pinch hit for Jason Heyward—yes, that Jason Heyward—Russell has come alive in the last two games of the series. In Game 4, he broke out of his slump like the Undertaker out of a casket with three hits in five at bats, including a long home run to center. In Game 5, he went right back out to center for another dinger, taking Joe Blanton deep in the sixth to give Chicago the lead for good.

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The revival of Russell could propel the Cubs over the top. The 22-year-old struggled all season to hit for average, but drove in 95 runs to go along with 21 roundtrippers and a solid .251 average with runners in scoring position. He seemed to find a home hitting fifth in the order, and given his past two games, the Cubs may at least want to move him to sixth, considering Javy Baez isn’t letting go of the fifth spot.

With Anthony Rizzo and now Russell in the fold, Chicago looks more formidable than it did a few games ago.

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The Dodgers tried to employ an interesting, bunt-centric game plan that Royals manager Ned Yost would be mighty proud of during Game 5, but it did not faze Jon Lester.

Manager Dave Roberts and many of the Dodgers talked up their unconventional plan pregame to bunt against Lester, who has had issues fielding them in the past. The tactic was somewhat apparent—being employed three times by Adrian Gonzalez and Joc Pederson though seven innings—but returned negative results. On top of that, when Los Angeles hitters did reach base in the game, they tried to crawl underneath Lester’s skin by shuffling back and forth off first base. Again, Roberts ended up with nothing to show for it.

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Considering the Dodgers are far better against righties, and they were facing a big-game pitcher like Lester, it’s easy to see why Roberts, who has gambled correctly countless times this October, wanted to go for something wild. But when Gonzalez, one of the best hitters in the game, is bunting for a hit, perhaps the plan has gone a bit too far. The bunts didn’t make up the run differential in this game, but it accents what can happen should Roberts try to get too cute managing against one of the most dangerous clubs in baseball.

Lester, for his part, was sensational, and there was little the Dodgers could have done to stop him. The lefthander went seven innings and allowed just one run on five hits, striking out six, to improve his postseason ERA to 1.38. It felt like we haven’t seen a starter go seven this entire postseason, so this was a nice change of pace (though the incredibly slow pace of the game was totally not a nice change of pace).

Where is the glove?

The Cubs’ defense was historically sound in 2016, saving a whopping 95 runs above the league average during the regular season, 30 more than the second-best club. As the tired cliche goes, though, none of that matters in October.

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Over the past two games, the lauded Cubs defense has been sloppy. After two errors and a poor throw from Heyward in a blowout win in Wednesday’s Game 4, the gloves—especially Rizzo’s—were asleep once again Thursday.

In the fourth, that led to the Dodgers tying the game at 1–1. With one out and the bases empty, Kris Bryant was forced to move in on the infield grass to guard against a Howie Kendrick bunt due to pitcher Jon Lester’s shaky glove. This left just enough room between Bryant and the third-base line for the Dodgers second baseman to sneak a liner by for a leadoff double. Moments later, Kendrick would steal third thanks to a poor tag from Bryant, who caught the ball too soon and pulled his glove back slowly instead of letting the throw come to him. That opened the door for Kendrick to score Los Angeles’s first run, when Rizzo fumbled a Gonzalez tapper to first.

It was an unusual comedy of errors for a usually-competent Chicago defense, which added some stress to a pivotal playoff game. There’s still more baseball to go, and though Baez has looked like the game’s greatest fielder, the infield needs to turn things around to make this team truly elite again.