Originally Published: October 15, 2016 5:55 a.m.
CHICAGO — Joe Maddon was driving his RV through Virginia two years ago when he got the news. Andrew Friedman was leaving Tampa Bay to take over the Los Angeles Dodgers.
One pivotal moment on the road to this year’s NL Championship Series.
A month after Friedman’s departure, Maddon was introduced as the 54th manager of the lowly Chicago Cubs. Friedman hired general manager Farhan Zaidi in his first big move in Los Angeles, and the Dodgers continued their winning ways.
Now Maddon and Friedman are together again, with a spot in the World Series on the line. The Cubs and Dodgers play Game 1 of the NLCS on Saturday night at Wrigley Field.
“We stay in touch all the time,” Maddon said before his team worked out on Friday. “I know his family really well. His mom’s a trip. I really enjoy the whole group. So Andrew and I are very close.”
Friedman’s move to sunny LA triggered an opt-out clause in Maddon’s contract, and Chicago jumped on the opportunity to put the Pennsylvania native in its dugout. The decision has worked out quite well so far, with the Cubs returning to the NLCS for the second straight year for the first time.
It turns out there are lots of friends on each side of this year’s series.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts contributed a famous steal to Boston’s run to the World Series title in 2004, stopping an 86-year drought. Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer worked for the Red Sox at the time, and they acquired Roberts in a trade with Los Angeles on July 31 that year.
“I kind of put Theo and Jed together and they’re good friends of mine,” Roberts said, “and there’s a lot of, a little bit of banter, but obviously I’ve got the ultimate respect for those guys and they really helped me get a ring.”
Roberts and the Dodgers arrived in Chicago on Friday, fresh off a dramatic 4-3 victory at Washington in Game 5 of their NL Division Series. The NL West champions used six pitchers in the series-clinching win, including closer Kenley Jansen for a career-high 51 pitches and ace Clayton Kershaw for the final two outs.
The taxing finale in Washington left Roberts few options for Game 1 of the NLCS, and he said Kenta Maeda will get the ball for the opener against the Cubs. Roberts wasn’t ready to announce his rotation for the rest of the series, but hinted Kershaw likely would go in Game 2 on Sunday night.
“Physically, he feels great,” Roberts said before the Dodgers’ workout. “He’s going to go out there and get a lift in and throw and run and do what he does. So, obviously, we’re not prepared to make that decision yet, but he’s tracking to start when we all think.”
Jansen thinks he will be ready for the NLCS opener, and Kershaw said he felt fine. The three-time NL Cy Young Award winner also said he isn’t sure when he will make his next start.
“I haven’t heard a thing,” he said.
The 28-year-old Maeda went 16-11 with a 3.48 ERA in his first season in the majors. But the Japanese right-hander has lost three straight starts, lasting just three innings in his first career playoff appearance Monday against Washington.
“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,” Maeda said through a translator. “And as long as I keep throwing quality innings, then I would be able to throw longer and deeper into the game.”
The Cubs have been resting since they used a four-run ninth to finish off San Francisco with a 6-5 victory in Game 4 on Tuesday night. Jon Lester is lined up to start Game 1, followed by Kyle Hendricks, Jake Arrieta and John Lackey in a repeat of the Division Series.
Lester pitched 15 innings of one-run ball in two starts against Los Angeles this year, and the Dodgers hit .213 against lefty pitching overall.
“He’s good. And right now he’s at the top of his game,” Maddon said. “I mean, from what I’ve seen, he’s had a couple hiccups, which everybody does. But, man, he’s been pretty much right on the last couple months, including the first game of the playoffs for him.”
There was some question about Hendricks’ health after he had a comebacker go off his right forearm in Game 2 against the Giants. But the right-hander, who had a major league-best 2.13 ERA this year, felt fine after a bullpen session on Thursday, allowing the Cubs to finalize their rotation.
“Our staff has been really, really good this year, and I think that, really, if you put all of our names in a hat and pulled one out, I don’t think you could go wrong,” Lester said. “So, it’s a huge honor, especially for an organization like this, to get the ball again and try to go out and give us a good start.”