LOS ANGELES – John Smoltz has lived this dream more times in one 14-year span than any five players put together would have a right to expect in their careers.
Only to continually get slapped back to consciousness before the dream was finished.
“No player’s going to admit it, but everybody knows,” said Smoltz, whose Braves won 100-plus games six times during that 14-year run of division championships (through 2005) – without any of the six winning a World Series.
“I’ve been there, done that,” Smoltz said. “We were the best team in baseball, but in a best-of-five series, we could be just as neutralized as anybody else.”
This is where the Cubs find themselves again after the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw shut them down Sunday to even the best-of-seven National League Championship Series at one game apiece.
Tuesday’s game in at Dodger Stadium becomes a de facto Game 1 of a five-game series – the kind of short series that recent history says is especially dangerous to what Smoltz calls “prohibitive favorites” in the postseason.
It makes Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta’s start Tuesday look more important than any he has made since last October. And it makes the lineup’s struggles – in particular those of a slumping Anthony Rizzo – look more urgent.
Forget the weight of 108 years or anything else that smells like a goat.
“The bigger issue is they’re favored,” said Smoltz, the Hall of Fame pitcher-turned-ace-broadcaster. “How many times have they been favored in the last 108 years? That’s where the pressure lies.”
Smoltz isn’t saying anything different than history has for the first 16 years of this century.
Only one team that won 100 games during the 2000s won the World Series. Only two others reached it. Nine lost in five-game Division Series and two more after seven-game series were tied after two games.
“There’s no doubt that the depth of our team plays stronger in the regular season than it does in the postseason,” said Ben Zobrist, who helped the Royals win last year’s World Series. “Maybe their depth isn’t near as deep, but it doesn’t matter as much during the postseason.”
More off days, dropping the fifth starter from the rotation and having the luxury of adding an arm to the bullpen are just a few of the factors that allow underdog teams to mitigate competitive differences.
One result is an October stage in which the top-half quality of rosters becomes more prominent, often creating tighter games in which one or two plays can swing series.
“It becomes more even,” Zobrist said, “because everybody’s top half of their talent across the league is fairly similar, among the top teams.”
Nobody has more top-half quality in the remaining field than the Cubs, with their seven 2016 All-Stars, including a pair of MVP candidates, another pair of Cy Young candidates and at least three Gold Glove candidates.
“There was so much hype around this team in spring training, but it was all justified,” Smoltz said. “Their pitching staff was going to take them to the end, and it did. It exceeded what I’m sure everybody thought from a statistical category. Their position players are second to none. They addressed their bullpen and added the needed pieces that made them the prohibitive favorites.”
But the Dodgers have the best pitcher in baseball in Kershaw, a dominant closer, legitimate left-handed hitting in their lineup and their own significant playoff experience.
And they get to start over Tuesday with a critical “Game 1” of what’s now a five-game series.
“That’s the issue,” Smoltz said.