Cubs show Dodgers -- and everyone else -- they're the team to beat in NL

CHICAGO -- Teams don't establish themselves as "the team to beat" on the basis of a regular-season series in baseball, especially one that unfolds over two chilly weekdays in the middle of June. Still, after a series pitting the past two National League pennant winners against each other, this seems like as good a time as any to point out that the Chicago Cubs are the Senior Circuit's team to beat.

They've wrested that mantle from the preseason favorite Los Angeles Dodgers, whom the Cubs beat 4-0 on Wednesday. The victory gave Chicago a series win in a three-game set that unfolded over 28 hours on Tuesday and Wednesday, thanks to Monday night's rain/blackout. L.A.'s only win came in the first game of Tuesday's doubleheader, and in that one, the Dodgers needed a two-run, ninth-inning rally against a Chicago bullpen missing its closer.

"I love it," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "Don't you love it? I mean, that's what everybody is looking for. We still hit the home run, but this field taketh away a lot. You could see it today with the fog blowing in. So we put the ball on the line."

It wasn't a bad series for the Dodgers. Their corporate playing style was on display, with take after take at the plate resulting in walk after walk. They pitched well and made few miscues in the field or on the basepaths. With better situational success, the Dodgers easily could have swept the Cubs. But even if that had happened, it would still feel like the Dodgers lack something in comparison to Chicago -- call it athleticism, daring or some other ephemeral trait that makes stat geeks roll their eyes.

Simply put, the Cubs do most everything that the Dodgers do as well as the Dodgers do it, but the Cubs' athleticism, bat-to-ball skills, willingness to hit to all fields, to hit and run, to steal a base -- all of this has created a separation between the two powerhouses. For now.

"Really big," the Cubs' Javier Baez said of winning the series. "They are hot right now, and they have a great team. Great hitters and obviously great pitching."

But this series is not why Chicago has emerged as the NL favorite, something that isn't immediately obvious from a glance at the standings. With the win, the Cubs were in a virtual tie with the Milwaukee Brewers, entering their game later Wednesday, atop the NL Central. Meanwhile, the Dodgers fell two games back of the idle Arizona Diamondbacks in the NL West. While the American League has largely unfolded according to preseason expectations, it has been an upside-down first half in the NL. And while the paths of either or both the Cubs and Dodgers still could be derailed, nothing has happened to knock them off their projection-based perches as league favorites.

Chicago's array of strengths was evident during the matchup this week, especially on Wednesday. Kyle Schwarber homered for the second straight day with a shot into the wind that still reached the batter's eye in dead center. There was a successful hit-and-run, with Ben Zobrist punching a base hit to the opposite field against an L.A. shift that set up the Cubs' first run.

And there was Baez, doing what he has been doing for years now at Wrigley Field before a home crowd that adores him. Baez doubled to the left-field fence twice, then tripled with another shot that bounded away from Matt Kemp in left. Baez slid hard to beat the throw to third and looked like he had jammed his ankle or foot on the bag, though he later said his thumb was the problem.

However, a couple of innings later, after Enrique Hernandez's leadoff double, Baez snared a Justin Turner line drive that appeared headed for center field, then hurled his body at the second-base bag, reaching it just in time to double off Hernandez. He also stole a base and scored two of Chicago's four runs.

Seriously, have you ever seen a player throw his body around on the field as much as Baez does?

"Chuck Cecil, the free safety," Maddon joked. "He just plays like a free safety. He throws his helmet, his whole body, out there all the time. But he gets back up, and he's got that flair about him. People want to come see Javy play. When his name is announced, the place erupts all the time. But he's always in the middle of something good."

The funny thing about Baez is that while his exploits leave his fans often thrilled -- and often worried because he's always shaking off an injury -- he says he has to play that way to stay healthy. Rationalization, it seems, is a powerful weapon.

"I do my best," Baez said. "I gotta play hard. If I don't play hard, that's when injuries come. I'm just trying to stay healthy the whole year."

OK, Javy. And Evel Knievel jumped over all those buses on his motorcycle so he wouldn't get run over by them.

Anyway, with Baez leading the way, the Cubs were all over the field defensively in the series. On Wednesday, Albert Almora Jr. made a diving catch coming in on a sinking liner off the bat of Yasiel Puig. Heyward threw out Chris Taylor at the plate in the third, with catcher Willson Contreras making a nice tag to complete the play. Contreras got a bloody nose for his trouble and, after pausing to collect himself, wheeled and fired the ball into the upper deck to a section of fans not used to getting souvenirs.

"[Almora] comes in and dives for one," Lester said. "I'm just like, 'OK, I'm done clapping for you guys.' I mean, it's expected now that these guys make these plays. It's fun. [For pitchers, it's like,] here, hit it, and those guys are going to run it down."

This is the kind of flair and intensity Chicago displayed for a full season during its 2016 championship run, but there is more evidence of this dynamism than subjective thrills. According to the baserunning metric at Fangraphs.com, the Cubs lead all of baseball in extra value from their exploits on the basepaths. Meanwhile, Chicago ranks third in defensive runs saved, a hallmark of that 2016 team. The Dodgers are currently below average.

"That's what we do, man," Baez said. "I'm not surprised. We tried to do our best for our pitcher. Great defense wins ballgames, and we know we're going to score runs for our pitchers."

Chicago has the league's best run differential at plus-99, well ahead of second-place Atlanta (plus-73), while the Dodgers sit third with plus-52. The Dodgers' mark is all the more remarkable given their injury woes, which at one point had franchise shortstop Corey Seager, 2017 MVP candidate Justin Turner and longtime ace Clayton Kershaw on the disabled list, not to mention three of Kershaw's rotation mates. Despite that, the Dodgers have won 22 of 31 even after dropping the last two games in Chicago.

There are countless ways this could go off the rails, but we could well be lining up for a third straight Chicago-L.A. National League Championship Series. The Cubs knocked off the Dodgers en route to their 2016 championship, while L.A. beat the Cubs in October for its first pennant in 30 years.

If we do get that three-peat, right now it looks like the Cubs would be the favorites. Part of that is due to metrics, but part of it is the extra layer of dynamism that was on display this week at Wrigley Field.

"It was an experienced series," Cubs right fielder Jason Heyward said. "Good baseball, good teams, teams that have been to the NLCS and the postseason."

If you go position by position, the Cubs are a team with only a couple of possible holes, and there might be none at all. Chicago ranks in the top eight by WAR at every position on the field except first base and ranks third in the bullpen. The rotation lags at 18th.

Meanwhile, the Dodgers rank in the top 10 at five positions. One of those is first base; another is right field, where Puig and his cohorts rank one spot above Heyward and his. At L.A.'s three other top-10 spots, the Cubs are better -- as is the case at the spots at which the Dodgers have struggled.

As for first base, the Dodgers have fared well enough with Cody Bellinger, Max Muncy and others, but the Cubs' lackluster standing is largely due to the slow start by perennial All-Star Anthony Rizzo. That might not be an advantage for the Dodgers at all.

Among the pitching staffs, the L.A. ragtag group has hung together thanks to the efforts of replacements such as Wednesday's starter Ross Stripling, who took the loss but has been exceptional all season. With Kershaw nearing his return from a back injury and Rich Hill back from the DL with his best 2018 outing under his belt -- six shutout innings Tuesday in Chicago -- the Dodgers' starting staff should once again be elite.

The Cubs' rotation might have its best days ahead of it as well. Yu Darvish (right biceps tendinitis) threw a simulated game at Wrigley Field before Wednesday's game and by all accounts looked good. Meanwhile, Lester has had three seven-inning, zero-run performances in his past four outings, and his season ERA is all the way down to 2.10. Mike Montgomery has emerged as an impact option in the rotation, which has continued to get steady performances from Kyle Hendricks.

Chicago's biggest edge on the stat sheet might come in the bullpen. Closer Brandon Morrow hit the disabled list Wednesday because of back tightness, but he has given Chicago a comparable back-of-the-bullpen option to what the Dodgers have in Kenley Jansen, who has recovered his effectiveness, if not his old strikeout rate, after early-season struggles. In front of the closers, things have crystallized much more for Chicago than they have for Los Angeles, partially because Morrow, Jansen's setup guy last year, is now a Cub.

The Dodgers have survived the rough early part of the season, and perhaps their resilience will pay off in the months to come as the stars get back into the fold and, hopefully, recover their accustomed levels of performance. However, Seager is out for the year, and in a mano y mano comparison with the Cubs, that leaves the Dodgers short a star against a team that can match them in strength atop the roster, in roster depth and even in the key area of roster versatility.

"It's a good group," Lester said. "It makes you come to work every day and appreciate what you've been given."

The pennant races haven't even heated up in the National League, and the Cubs and Dodgers have plenty of work ahead before they can start eyeing a third straight postseason clash. We can look ahead, though, and right now, it sure looks like the Cubs, not the Dodgers, are better situated for such a matchup. They simply have more ways to win.

"They all understand that Renaissance chicks dig the leather," Maddon said. "Just look at the Mona Lisa, and you'll see that. That's what we're capable of doing. In the past when we've won at a high level, we've played outstanding defense. It never gets old to watch that kind of baseball -- the baserunning, the defense, the throws, all of that stuff."