It was one of those things that happens to other teams. Their fans get to see their favorite team rally from what feels like an impossible situation when it means the most. It doesn’t happen often, in fact, it hardly ever happens, but when it does, you always wonder what that must have been like—what it must have felt like.
Now, we know. Because last night, the Cubs were lying on the mat (fitting for a perennial doormat) with every reason in the world to stay there. Another game, one in their own ballpark was waiting for them, even if it meant going through Johnny Cueto again, and most likely getting another dose of Madison Bumgarner. Down three runs with only three outs left, they had done basically nothing on offense all night.
But one of the great things about baseball is that you can’t just run out the game. You can’t hold it until late in the shot clock. You can’t take a knee. You get 27 outs. They hadn’t used them all yet.
So when did you believe?
It probably wasn’t when Kris Bryant rolled a single into left field. It most likely wasn’t when Anthony Rizzo drew a walk. It could very well have been when Ben Zobrist doubled into the right field corner scoring Bryant and putting the tying run on second base with nobody out.
That’s when “at least they’re going down fighting” turned into, “holy shit, they might just do this!”
The Giants had been a very good team for much of the season, but their bullpen began to implode right after the All-Star Break and ended up blowing 31 saves. Thirty-one is a lot. The Cubs hadn’t really exposed that in the playoffs. The Giants didn’t use their bullpen in game one, it only allowed a single run (on a Travis Wood homer) in game two and it kept them in the game three after Bumgarner left. Bryant’s two-run homer in the ninth off of Sergio Romo (and off of a cartoon car in left field) had left a mark, but then the Cubs went five more scoreless innings.
But Bryant’s homer had a lasting effect. Romo ended up having to pitch two innings on Monday after blowing the save and he threw 32 pitches. Because of that, Bruce Bochy didn’t want to use him for more than a batter or two on Tuesday. So instead of going to their erstwhile closer for the normally mundane task of getting three outs before giving up three runs, Bochy ended up trying to mix and match his way through the ninth inning. Buck-toothed towel waver Derek Law gave up the single to Bryant. 1,000 year old Javier Lopez walked Rizzo. Romo gave up the double to Zobrist.
It was still 5-3, but the Cubs had the Giants on the ropes. At homes all over the country, Cubs fans’ posture went from slouched resignation that there was going to be game five to sitting straight up and realizing that shit was getting real.
FS1 had a shot of Joe Maddon talking to Willson Contreras in the dugout. Maddon thought that sending up Chris Coghlan to bat instead of his slumping 95-RBI shortstop, Addison Russell, would force Bochy’s hand and have him bring lefty Will Smith in to relieve Romo. The mere sight of Coghlan (who probably couldn’t hit Romo’s slider with a canoe paddle) caused Bochy to go to the mound to bring in Smith. Maddon (to the delight of all) called Coghlan back and sent up Contreras, just as he’d told Willson it would happen.
Sure, Contreras is a rookie, but he’s not scared and he rarely gives away an at bat. The ball he put in play wasn’t hit very hard. It was just to the right side of the mound. On the replay you can see Smith start to try to field it but pull his hand back because he assumed it was heading right to second baseman Joe Panik. It wasn’t. It skipped through the infield scoring Rizzo and Zobrist. The game was tied. There was still nobody out. The Cubs were breaking out the disco ball in the dugout. The Giants were shocked. We were all pretty sure that we were hallucinating.
Next up was Jason Heyward. Given his skilled ability to hit the ball on the ground right at the second baseman, Maddon had him bunt to avoid the otherwise inevitable double play. But the bunt was a bad one. It was too hard and it was right at the pitcher. Smith grabbed it, wheeled and made a good throw to second to get Contreras. Gold Glove shortstop Brandon Crawford made the pivot to throw to first to try to get the double play. But maybe it was the hustle of Heyward (who made it from home to first in a season fastest 3.7 seconds) that made him rush the throw, or maybe he just made a bad throw, but whatever the case, the ball ended up in the dugout. The Cubs had what they had set out to get. A runner at second with only one out. And, the added benefit of their best baserunner, Heyward, at second, carrying the go-ahead run.
Bochy continued wearing a path to the mound and replaced Smith with red-assed Hunter Strickland. Hunter is best known for his rookie season when he pitched to 23 batters in the playoffs and gave up five homers. After the fifth one, he nearly started a fight in the World Series by yelling at Salvador Perez of the Royals for not running fast enough after Sal crushed one off of him. In other words, Hunter’s not on the Mensa mailing list.
In game two, he took it upon himself to throw at Javy Baez after Javy had mistakenly thought he’d homered for the second straight game and trotted out of the box only to see the ball hit the basket. Javy hustled to get to second but a replay showed he popped up off the bag for the splittest of seconds. He was out. How this uncharacteristic lack of hustle cost the Giants, I’m not sure, but because he didn’t run hard enough for Hunter’s taste on two balls in the first two games, Javy felt the wrath of the Giants baseball policeman.
So Javy owed him one. Hunter proved again he’s not the sharpest tool in the shed with his pitch selection. He threw a slider on the first pitch that Javy missed by a yard. Then he threw two fastballs, the second of which Javy deposited in centerfield to score Heyward easily and put the Cubs in the lead.
One of the great sights of the inning had been the shot of Aroldis Chapman running from the dugout to the bullpen to warm up after Zobrist’s double. Chapman, who got a lot of blame for “blowing” game three (most of it undeserved—he inherited two on and nobody out and who knew that Conor Fucking Gillaspie could pull a 102 MPH fastball?), was ready for the bottom of the ninth.
With all the batting order machinations in the top of the ninth, the Cubs had significant changes for the bottom of the ninth. With Russell out, Javy moved to short, Zobrist came in from left to play second, Contreras went to left and Chapman came in to pitch. The outfield for the final half inning not only had a catcher in left, but Heyward in center and Jorge Soler in the huge right field at AT&T. That could have been a problem.
But from Aroldis’ perfectly located first pitch, it was apparent that the seven guys behind him could all sit down. He struck out Gorkys Hernandez, Denard Span and Brandon Belt in order. He only threw one pitch in the inning under 100 MPH, and that one was 99. His nemesis, Buster Posey was stranded in the on-deck circle watching the celebration.
In less than a half hour of real-time, the Cubs went from three runs down and two agonizing days waiting for a decisive, coin-flip, fifth game, to gathering on the mound to take another team photo in their victory t-shirts.
The hundreds of Cubs fans at AT&T Park gathered behind the first base dugout to celebrate. The millions of us at home just stared, mouth agape, at our TV, trying to process, “did that really just happen?”
It all seemed so surreal. The Cubs matched the evil 1986 Mets as the only teams in MLB Playoff history to win a decisive series game when entering the ninth inning down by three runs.
Their ninth inning rally was a thing of majestic beauty. They did it without a home run. They did it with a series of great, ground out, at bats and one key Giants error.
After big wins the Cubs gather on the field or in the clubhouse and chant, “We never quit!” “What?” “We never quit!” “What?” “We never quit!” Tuesday night, was proof that it’s not just a hollow boast.
All the win does is get them back to where they were a year ago. Back to the NLCS. They currently have a seven-game NLCS losing streak.
But they’ve never taken a team this good, to that round. And they’ve never gotten there in grand style like this. As much angst as we all swallowed the last couple of days, we should probably appreciate that they won the series 3-1, and never trailed in the two home games. They roughed up Madison Bumgarner in game three, and the only win the Giants got took them 13 innings to pry away from the Cubs.
We have the pleasure of watching a great team play baseball every night. If we doubted that for a second they slapped us across the face with that ninth inning. I guess we need to be reminded from time to time.
Young, fearless and talented is one hell of a way to go through life.
And the perfect way to get to the World Series.