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Dodgers, Cubs get rematch of '16 NLCS

MLB.com @DougMillerMLB

One team ended up winning it all and thrilling a fan base that had waited more than a century. One team went home early, spent the whole offseason shoring up weaknesses, and became the best team in the Major Leagues a year later.

A lot has changed for the Cubs and Dodgers since they met in the postseason last October, but as unpredictable as baseball might be, it does have a funny way of coming full circle. Both teams are back in each other's way in October, and once again the National League pennant is on the line.

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One team ended up winning it all and thrilling a fan base that had waited more than a century. One team went home early, spent the whole offseason shoring up weaknesses, and became the best team in the Major Leagues a year later.

A lot has changed for the Cubs and Dodgers since they met in the postseason last October, but as unpredictable as baseball might be, it does have a funny way of coming full circle. Both teams are back in each other's way in October, and once again the National League pennant is on the line.

View Full Game Coverage

Game 1 of the NL Championship Series presented by Camping World is set for tonight at 8 p.m. ET on TBS, but it's not beginning at Wrigley Field, and the Dodgers are the ones with the long World Series title drought.

This time, the Dodgers, who finished 2017 with 104 wins and then swept the D-backs in the NL Division Series presented by T-Mobile, will have home-field advantage against the Cubs, who squeaked by the Nationals in an epic five-game NLDS.

Chavez Ravine figures to be percolating and the Dodgers, coming off a series in which they beat the D-backs with a well-rounded mix of offense, defense and pitching from their well-rounded mix of veterans and emerging young stars, are primed to reach their first World Series since they won it all 29 years ago over the heavily-favored A's.

"As far as our game plan, just going out there and trying to continue to grind out at-bats, and continue to put the pressure on," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said.

"Those guys over there, they're the [World Series] champs. They're very resilient. They're a professional group, so they're going to come out and fight. But it's just up to us to go out there and keep our focus, and play well."

They'll hope to do just that in Game 1, and they'll also hope that they get a signature October performance from ace Clayton Kershaw, who wasn't his usual Cy Young-sharp self in his Division Series outing.

Kershaw, who battled through back woes to go 18-4 with a 2.31 ERA and 202 strikeouts in 175 innings during the regular season, gave up back-to-back home runs in the seventh inning of his Game 1 start vs. Arizona, and all told, he has a 21.86 ERA in the seventh inning of postseason games.

"People talk about all the postseason failures that I've had a lot, and I understand that," Kershaw said on Friday. "I don't really look at it like that, though, which is, I guess, a good thing for me.

"But ... I've had success at times, too, and I try to marinate on those. ... It just so happens a lot of the years we've lost, I've been pitching that night, so I'm going to try not to do that this year."

This time around, Kershaw is on his regular turn, unlike in other years where he had to pitch on short rest and even pitch in from the bullpen.

Also, the Dodgers are loaded, so even if their three-time NL Cy Young Award and former NL MVP Award winner is on a shorter-than-usual leash moving forward through this postseason, there's a good chance their bats can get the job done.

During the NLDS, for example, Justin Turner (6-for-13 with five RBIs), Yasiel Puig (5-for-11 with four RBIs), Austin Barnes (4-for-8 with three RBIs) and Logan Forsythe (4-for-9 with four runs scored) did a lot of the heavy lifting. But the Dodgers will be without shortstop Corey Seager, who was removed from the NLCS roster because of a back injury that has turned out worse than the club initially explained.

The Cubs came back from an early three-run deficit to outlast the Nationals, 9-8, in the decisive Game 5 on the road to earn their meeting with the Dodgers. They are the defending World Series champs, they will not be intimidated and they evolved even more over the course of a 2017 season that saw them 5 1/2 games back in the NL Central at the All-Star break, only to regroup and find themselves in a very familiar spot.

"Right now, we're playing with that same kind of mental acumen and edge that I've seen the last two years," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said on Friday. "Probably from the second half of '15 to last year to right now, it's very familiar. The first half of this year was unfamiliar. Now this is becoming more familiar again.

"Why? Because, like I'm saying, I just think the guys became more mentally engaged."

The Cubs announced Saturday that Jose Quintana will start Game 1. The Cubs had mulled whether to go with Quintana, whose relief stint in Game 5 on Thursday only lasted two-thirds of an inning and 12 pitches, or veteran John Lackey, didn't pitch in the NLDS.

One thing Maddon didn't have a problem discussing was this long-anticipated rematch.

"It's very interesting once again," Maddon said when asked to compare the upcoming NLCS to last year's, which the Cubs won in six games.

"[The Dodgers] are different because they really overcame the inability to really work against lefties. They are better. They made some nice moves. They are more balanced in that regard. They have lefties that hit lefties, too, which make them more difficult. They always have a good bullpen. They have a specific plan regarding how they like to pitch.

"They have Mr. Kershaw, obviously, and now they have [Yu] Darvish, et cetera. Listen, we just went through [Stephen] Strasburg and [Max] Scherzer. I mean, that's no day at the beach, either. When you get to this time of the year, you really have to be prepared to beat good pitching."

So here we go again.

The Dodgers are looking for payback. The Cubs are looking to keep hitting paydirt. The matchup is set for tonight, a perfect prime-time feature in the hills high above the land of silver screens.

"They're a good team, we're a good team," Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. "They're hungry and we're hungry, so it's going to be good baseball.

"It's going to be hard-fought. We're going to go do our best."

Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @DougMillerMLB.

Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers, Clayton Kershaw