Dodgers tab Maeda for Game 1 against Cubs

Japanese righty looks to bounce back from rough playoff debut

October 14th, 2016

CHICAGO -- The Dodgers and Cubs will open the National League Championship Series on Saturday (8 p.m. ET/5 PT on FS1) on the same field, yet in completely different places. The Cubs' rotation is rested and aligned, with postseason-tested left-hander starting Game 1, eight days after twirling eight shutout innings against the Giants in the NL Division Series.

Then there are the Dodgers and .

Maeda will be starting on regular rest, but he remains an October unknown after the Nationals knocked him out after three innings in the Dodgers' NL Division Series Game 3 loss on Monday. A similarly truncated outing on Saturday would be a significant setback for a team that rolled into Wrigley Field on Friday deliriously weary in the wake of its marathon, all-hands-on-deck Game 5 win over the Nationals in Washington the previous night.

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"All I know right now is we're going to start Kenta in Game 1," manager Dave Roberts said of his pitching plans for the NLCS.

Roberts said "came through well" after recording a two-out save in the wee hours of Friday morning, and hinted that the lefty ace could go in Game 2 on Sunday (8 p.m. ET/5 PT on FS1). But that decision will not be final until Saturday afternoon. That would set up to work on regular rest in Game 3 in Los Angeles on Tuesday (8 p.m. ET/5 PT on FS1).

First thing's first: Game 1. Maeda, a star in Japan who signed with the Dodgers last winter and went 16-11 with a 3.48 ERA in 32 starts as a 28-year-old Major League rookie, blamed poor execution for his abbreviated postseason debut against the Nationals. He left the bases loaded in a scoreless, 28-pitch first inning and pitched a clean second, but the Nationals struck for four runs in a fourth-inning rally capped by 's 432-foot, two-run home run on a 90-mph fastball right down the middle.

Through a translator that day, Maeda called the outing "very regrettable." But Dodgers coaches offered hope. If the team advanced to the NLCS, they told Maeda, he would start Game 1. Kershaw & Co. delivered.

"I just want to make sure that I do well and kind of fit in with the general positive flow of what we're feeling right now as a team," Maeda said on Friday. "We've been relying a lot on our relief pitchers to take the load, so I want to be able to -- I'm really just focused on throwing quality innings as long as I can. That's what I'm really focused on."

Maeda, his performance waning and the Dodgers protecting his right arm, has not thrown a fifth-inning pitch in any of his last three starts. He has not worked past the fifth inning in his last five games. In his regular-season finale on Oct. 2 against the Giants, Maeda surrendered a season-high nine hits, matched a season high in allowing five earned runs, and logged a season-low 2 2/3 innings.

Eight days later, Maeda labored against the Nationals. Now, here come the Cubs.

"It just is going to depend on how sharp he is," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "If you look at the more recent game logs, I know he hasn't pitched more deeply into the game. However, of course he's capable of that."

Maeda will be the fourth Japanese-born pitcher to start an LCS game, with Masato Yoshii, Daisuke Matsuzaka and former Dodger Hiroki Kuroda. Yoshii and Matsuzaka also started Game 1s. Maeda said he was honored to join those lists.

"Since it is my second time around, I think I'll be able to imagine better what it's going to feel like," he said, adding, "Last time around I couldn't really pitch the way I wanted to."

The Dodgers hope he will be better able on Saturday.

"Kenta hasn't pitched, obviously, in this stage in this country, but he's pitched in a lot of big ballgames," Roberts said. "And I think he's a guy that -- he's not scared, and I think that it's just about execution."