The first dragon has been slain.
In another total team effort that's become the hallmark of this 2015 group, the Cubs beat the Cardinals 6-4 Tuesday evening to win their National League Division Series in front of a Wrigley Field crowd that was...
Delirious? Too sedate a word.
Raucous? Not nearly enough to describe the feeling.
Deafening? No, it was louder than that.
42,411 Cubs fans -- and yes, it was nearly all Cubs fans, tiny pockets of Cardinals red made up a few hundred of the throng at most -- all standing, chanting, yelling till they had no voice left, saw their heroes put together the type of win they'd posted all season. Including the regular season, it was the team's 101st victory of 2015, the first time any Cubs team had done that since 1945, the last pennant season. The explosion of joy finally came when Hector Rondon struck out Stephen Piscotty at 6:54 p.m. Central Daylight Time, just as daylight was fading into darkness in Chicago Tuesday evening.
But here, I'm starting at the end. Let's relive this entire game!
It did not start auspiciously. Four pitches into the game the Cardinals had a 2-0 lead. Matt Carpenter singled and Piscotty homered and the crowd was silenced. At the same time, I had, and I hope you had too, the confidence that even behind early, the Cubs would come back, as they had done so many times already this season.
That happened even sooner than some of the late-inning rallies that have become the hallmark of this team. Two singles and a force play put runners on first and third with one out in the second, but Miguel Montero struck out. That gave Joe Maddon a choice in what he apparently looked at as an all-hands-on-deck day. Should he bat for Jason Hammel after only two innings? He didn't, though he later said that if Montero had reached base, Tommy La Stella might have pinch-hit.
Hammel ripped a high fastball from John Lackey into center field for an RBI single and the Cubs had cut the deficit in half.
That brought Javier Baez to the plate. Baez. Who wouldn't have been starting this game if not for Addison Russell's minor hamstring injury Monday. And then this happened:
That was Lackey's first pitch to Baez, and as you know Maddon has preached aggressiveness to the ballclub all year. Suddenly, happily, the Cubs had a 4-2 lead.
Hammel pitched a scoreless third, helped along when Montero picked Jason Heyward off first base to end the inning. But when Hammel walked Jhonny Peralta to lead off the fourth, Maddon decided to go to his bullpen. First out of the pen was Justin Grimm. This made things a bit nervous for those of us who watched Grimm's rough ending to the regular season, in which he posted a 4.76 ERA and 1.765 WHIP in his final 15 outings (12 walks in 11⅓ innings -- ugly), and that ERA would have been higher if not for all five runs being unearned in a 7-5 loss to the Phillies September 12.
Randal Grichuk, the first batter Grimm faced, hit a ground ball right to Kris Bryant ... who bobbled it. Two runners on, nobody out.
But Grimm rose to the occasion, striking out the side on fastballs at 96-plus on the Wrigley pitch-speed meter, and getting the crowd revved up again. Travis Wood threw a scoreless fifth, but Heyward led off the sixth with a single. Wood, who was probably being removed after the lefthanded-hitting Heyward batted regardless, was lifted for Trevor Cahill.
Peralta singled off Cahill, putting the tying run on base, but Cahill struck out the next two hitters. That brought up Tony Cruz, playing only because Yadier Molina's thumb injury had flared up Monday. Cruz hit .204/.235/.310 during the regular season, a pretty typical line for a backup catcher, though he was 4-for-15 (.267) against Cubs pitching with a double and five RBI.
Guess he likes hitting Cubs pitching. Cruz ripped a double down the right-field line, scoring Heyward. That brought up Brandon Moss, batting for Adam Wainwright, who had relieved Lackey to start the fifth. Both managers were treating this one like an elimination game, though it only was that for Mike Matheny's team.
Moss fouled off a changeup and then singled to right, scoring Peralta with the tying run. The slow-footed Cruz also tried to score:
All the timely hits the Cubs got in this game and series, all the home runs, in my view this play by Jorge Soler was the most important one. If Peralta scores, the Cardinals have the lead and they're still batting. That would have changed the way the bullpens were used, the way pinch-hitters might have been used... everything.
Instead, the crowd roared its approval and the game went to the bottom of the sixth tied 4-4.
That score lasted three batters. The Cardinals had called on lefthander Kevin Siegrist, who had a pretty big reverse-split differential during the regular season:
Siegrist vs. LHB in 2015: .278/.406/.405 Siegrist vs. RHB in 2015: .164/.236/.275
Sure enough, the first two hitters he faced, the righthanded-hitting Soler and Bryant, were easy outs. Next hitter: Anthony Rizzo. Not only do lefties hit Siegrist well, Rizzo hit lefties quite well in 2015 (.294/.409/.472, six HR in 163 AB).
So you might have even predicted this would happen, even on an 0-2 pitch:
The sound on that clip does not even begin to convey to you how loud things got at the old ballyard at that moment. I wish there were some way for those of you watching on TV to experience the sounds of this game, roars such as I have never before heard at the corner of Clark & Addison in Chicago.
Fernando Rodney came on to begin the seventh. After Rodney faced three hitters, retiring two sandwiched aroudn a walk to Piscotty, Maddon called on his one remaining bullpen lefthander, Clayton Richard, to face Heyward. He had one job... and did it!
Give Heyward a lot of credit. He was probably the toughest out of any of the Cardinals in this series. He went 5-for-14 with a double, a home run and two walks, but Richard got him at a key moment.
You have no doubt seen the exclamation point Kyle Schwarber put on this one many, many times. So have I. It is most certainly worth watching again:
I heard from a couple of bleacher friends closer to the ball that it had cleared the board, but media reports said it landed on top and stayed there. Here is potential video proof that the ball is still sitting on top of the right-field video board:
Schwarber ball? pic.twitter.com/1UZydgyDCk— Paul Sullivan (@PWSullivan) October 14, 2015
Tyler Kepner, who writes about baseball for the New York Times, perhaps summed this up best:
Schwarber’s drive was majestic, soaring into the fading sky, landing atop the new video board down the right-field line. David Ross, the backup catcher, said most hitters could not even reach that in batting practice.
There's a quote from Schwarber in Kepner's article which is also worth noting:
"You hit it, and you run around the bases, and the place is going nuts," Schwarber said. "That’s when it hits you, that this is what it’s all about. This is what you live to play baseball for."
Schwarber is absolutely correct, and beyond that, this is what we as fans live for, too. To see one of the players we cheer for do something like this in a game of this magnitude brings the joy that had been missing from the North Side for so many seasons, only to come racing back at us with such speed that we almost don't quite know what to do with it. (I'm pretty sure we'll figure it out, though.)
Two innings to go, two runs ahead. Pedro Strop, who had well-publicized difficulties facing Cardinals hitters this year, was summoned for his usual eighth-inning setup spot. And who's the first hitter he's scheduled to face? Peralta, who hit a game-winning homer off Strop at Wrigley back in July.
Dragon? Slain. Strop struck out Peralta on a gorgeous slider. Then he struck out pinch-hitter Greg Garcia, who had hit a key game-tying homer off him in St. Louis in June. Those dragons are falling fast and furious now. Kolten Wong hit a bouncer to Rizzo, eighth inning done, three outs to go.
The Cubs had a chance to score more in the bottom of the inning after Bryant boomed a triple off the ivy. With one out, the Cardinals elected to intentionally pass Starlin Castro to pitch to Austin Jackson, who had replaced Schwarber in the batting order. Jackson tried a safety squeeze, but Bryant was thrown out at the plate.
Three outs to go:
And yes. Every potential clinching game, I'm going to do this.
And now Rondon, who lost his closer's job midseason but won it back, took the mound. He retired the first two hitters he faced, now one out from victory. Carpenter singled and took second on defensive indifference while Rondon pitched to Piscotty. One strike to go:
Once again, the sound in that clip doesn't even begin to capture the volume level, the emotions, the release of passions more than a century in the making. As I mentioned in the preview to this game, the Cubs had been the only big-league franchise that had won at least one postseason series to never do it in its home ballpark.
And now, they have. Wrigley Field rocked for a very, very long time after this final out, "Go Cubs Go" playing over and over and over as players jumped around in celebration and yes, joy at not only producing this team-effort series win, but doing it in front of their own fans. Being able to experience this sort of win in person is something I had always dreamed of. Now I've lived it.
Having said all this and still feeling the happiness this morning, there is much work remaining. The Cubs had the best regular-season record of any of the teams remaining in the tournament, but that means little in October, as the Cardinals found out. We have been here before, as you well know, and the Cubs' previous NLCS appearances all ended in failure. Having said that, this team cares nothing for that sort of history; they are young and energetic and talented and seem to have the knack for the big hit, the big out, the key play at exactly the time it's needed, and the right manager to set the proper tone and prepare his players properly for the task at hand.
I wanted also to note that beyond all the home runs the Cubs hit in this series -- 10 of them, and the nine in the last two games is the most ever by any team in two consecutive postseason games -- the Cubs got key pitching contributions in this clinching game from pitchers discarded or demoted:
Travis Wood, removed from the rotation in May
Hector Rondon, removed from the closer role in June
Trevor Cahill, dumped by three different teams earlier this year Fernando Rodney, released by the Mariners in August Clayton Richard, let go by the Pirates and also designated for assignment twice by the Cubs before finally sticking on the roster in mid-August
That's a tribute to Theo & Co. for finding key contributors on the scrap heap, and to pitching coach Chris Bosio for his excellent work with all of them.
Winning a division series is an excellent accomplishment. Defeating the Cubs' arch-rivals to do so is even sweeter. Two more dragons remain to be slain.
The Cubs do not yet know who they'll be playing Saturday, nor what time the game will be (although since either the New York or Los Angeles market will be involved, I'm reasonably certain the Cubs will play at 7 p.m. CT). As such, I won't be going to Games 1 and 2 -- too short notice to figure out travel plans and tickets. So I'll be watching on TV with the rest of you for those two games, before returning to Wrigley Field next Tuesday for NLCS Game 3. And please stick around here in the interim -- we'll have plenty of things to discuss here while we (and the Cubs players!) rest up for the beginning of the next series.
The old ballyard, in the process of being restored and renovated, might be even louder than it was this week, as hard as that might be to imagine. Can't wait.