With an 8-4 victory in Los Angeles Thursday night, the Chicago Cubs took a 3-2 NLCS lead over the LA Dodgers and now head back to Chicago just one win away from the World Series. According to FiveThirtyEight’s Elo prediction model, the Cubs have an 81 percent chance of capturing the franchise’s first pennant since 1945. And with a 51 percent probability of winning the World Series, Chicago is now more likely than not to end its 108-year drought and celebrate a title for the first time since 1908.
Of course, Cubs fans have heard some version of this before. The team entered Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS under the same conditions — up three games to two, needing only to win one of the next two games (both at Wrigley Field) to clinch the pennant — but then disaster struck. They also led the 1984 NLCS two games to none, needing to win only one of the next three games in San Diego to advance (back when the league championship series used a best-of-five format). That advantage conferred an even greater pennant probability1 than Chicago has now or had in 2003,2 and they still managed to blow it. So Chicagoans can be forgiven if they’re not booking travel to Cleveland quite yet.
And if the Cubs’ championship dreams end up being deferred to a 109th year, it’ll probably be because of the Dodgers’ pitching trio of Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen and Rich Hill. According to Elo’s starting-pitcher rating component, Kershaw is the best starter in baseball by a mile — he boosts LA’s Elo rating by a whopping 71 points when he takes the mound — and he’ll try to help the Dodgers stave off elimination Saturday night. Hill, LA’s starter for a potential Game 7, is no slouch either: He ranks 14th among starting pitchers in our ratings. And for his part, Jansen, the Dodgers’ closer, has completely shut down the Cubs when called upon in the NLCS so far, notching 16.2 strikeouts per 9 innings over a couple of multi-inning appearances.
The Cubs will counter with their own aces — Game 6 starter Kyle Hendricks ranks seventh in Elo, and they’ll likely send 18th-ranked Jake Arrieta to the hill in Game 7 — but Chicago’s fate might come down to how well its lineup hits LA’s star pitchers. Although the Cubs’ offense has been incredibly uneven in this series, scoring eight or more runs in each of the team’s three wins and zero in each of its two losses, the common threads in those scoreless games have been that either Kershaw or Hill took the mound as the starter, and Jansen (who appeared in both games) came in to close it out. Before Chicago can pop champagne in Wrigley’s spacious, newly renovated locker room, they’ll probably have to score some runs off the Dodgers’ aces.
But for now, the Cubs find themselves in a good spot. They’ve been the talk of baseball all season long; now they’re closer than ever to fulfilling their potential and ending the franchise’s absurdly long dry spell.