“In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened!” — Vin Scully
SAN FRANCISCO — One moment, I’m sitting in my seat at AT&T Park Tuesday night, thinking sad thoughts, wondering how I’m going to write about another crushing defeat and the possibility of losing yet another playoff series when one more win would send the Cubs to the next round, and starting to figure out what my personal logistics would be for Game 5 at Wrigley on Thursday.
And in the next moment, and really it wasn’t much more than that, it all happened so fast even with Giants manager Bruce Bochy trotting out a veritable parade of ninth-inning relievers, I was yelling “Get through!” to Willson Contreras’ single that tied the game, just getting past a diving Joe Panik. And then, up again from my seat another brief moment later, yelling those same words at the baseball Javier Baez bounced up the middle, well out of reach of a desperate Brandon Crawford, never mind that nothing I yell is going to make a single bit of difference in where that baseball went.
But it did get through, and there raced Jason Heyward from second, rounding third, scoring without a throw, and the Cubs led, and eventually won, 6-5, a game they trailed 5-2 entering the ninth inning, and somehow I should have known this was going to happen because this team never, ever, ever, ever gives up, and this inning was a microcosm of a 103-win season where eight of those wins came when the Cubs were behind after eight innings. You want to see those hits again, I’m sure.
Early in the ninth inning Tuesday night, Giants fans were waving orange towels above their heads and yelling loudly, deafeningly, screaming the chant I’ve heard so many times in that ballpark, aimed at whatever opposing player they want to heckle at the moment: “What’s the matter with Rizzo? He’s a bum!”
No. Not in this one, not a bum, instead part of ninth-inning heroics that had not been seen in three decades:
In 1986 LCS: 3 games in which a team rallied from 3 down in 9th to win in a 5-day span— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) October 12, 2016
Didn't happen again until 2016! (via @eliassports)
I’ll tell you a story about one of those games later. First, let’s re-live that ninth-inning rally, which also produced this tidbit:
Cubs: 5th team with game-tying RBI in 9th inning or later of back-to-back postseason games (last- 2001 Yankees) (via @eliassports)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) October 12, 2016
Matt Moore stymied the Cubs all night, 120 pitches worth of domination. At 120 pitches, though, that was it for him. Just 23 times in the 2016 regular season had 120 or more pitches been thrown by a starting pitcher. Interestingly enough, the pitcher who threw the most pitches in a single game this year was... Matt Moore, who did it August 25 against the Dodgers, 133 of them.
But on this night, Bruce Bochy decided 120 was enough. He, and Giants fans, will be left forever to wonder whether Moore’s dominance -- two hits, two walks, two runs (one earned) and 10 strikeouts — could have continued for three more outs.
One of the reasons the Giants had such a bad second half was bullpen failure, to the point where they replaced Santiago Casilla as closer with ex-closer Sergio Romo. It worked, for a while. But Romo was not the first man out of San Francisco’s pen on this night.
No, it was Derek Law, the guy we all learned very quickly to dislike from his histrionics after strikeouts during Monday’s game.
They play “I Fought The Law And The Law Won” when Law enters games at AT&T Park. Law had thrown 35 pitches Monday night. He threw four of them Tuesday, and Kris Bryant bounced pitch number four into left-center for a leadoff single. This time the Cubs won the battle with Law; he was done. Javier Lopez entered to pitch to “the bum” Anthony Rizzo. Rizzo drew a walk, his second of the game, finally a game in which Rizzo generated some offense in this series (he also singled) after going 0-for-13 in the three previous games.
Well, that got my interest going and the sad thoughts began to turn hopeful. The tying run was at the plate, Ben Zobrist. The reliever parade continued; now it was Romo’s turn. Zobs laced a double down the right-field line and it was 5-3 and the tying run was now at second base, still with nobody out. Now, excited murmurs from the Cubs fans in the crowd and Giants fans began shaking their heads.
Relief pitcher number four, Will Smith, was summoned after Joe Maddon sent Chris Coghlan to bat for Addison Russell, an odd choice, you might think. Thing is, Joe surely had no intention of letting Cogs bat in this situation. No, the matchup he certainly wanted was Contreras facing Smith, and he got it.
Bam! Three pitches into the at-bat, Contreras’ ball found a hole and the game was tied. The Cubs fans in the crowd — hope you could hear us! -- were on their feet, screaming, as was Contreras at first base.
That’s four relievers used by Bochy up to this point in this inning, and none of them recorded a single out.
Heyward came to the plate against Smith and bunted -- a little bit too hard. It looked like it might turn into a double play, no, then Heyward might beat the throw to first — and then perhaps the biggest break of the inning, Crawford’s relay throw was bad and Heyward wound up at second base on a throwing error. So the Cubs got what they wanted from the bunt in the first place: getting a runner to scoring position.
Reliever number five, Hunter Strickland, was brought in to face Baez. He went down 0-2. He hit another bouncer up the middle... through! Through! Through!
That’s how you felt just then. Right?
Heyward scored to give the Cubs the lead.
It almost didn’t matter that David Ross hit into a double play to end the inning. Ross had homered earlier in the game. At the time it tied the game 1-1, and provided this fun fact:
David Ross just became the oldest catcher to homer in a postseason game, as well as the oldest Cubs player.— Andrew Simon (@AndrewSimonMLB) October 12, 2016
And of course you’d like to see it again!
At last, it was Aroldis Chapman time, even though he had a heavy workload on Monday (21 pitches, and many of them not so good).
This time, he was the Chapman the Cubs had wanted when they dealt for him in July. 13 pitches, 10 strikes, all but three of them in triple digits, three swinging strikeouts and the Cubs had a win that was... well, just how many superlatives did you use to try to describe it? I am out of them. You might be familiar with what the famous baseball columnist Red Smith wrote 65 years ago in attempting to describe what he had seen in New York when Bobby Thomson homered to win the pennant for the then-New York Giants:
Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.
That, my friends, is how this one felt. The Cubs, the Cubs! are now part of postseason history and lore -- in a good way, the best way.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the ninth inning of Game 4 might be the single most important inning over the last 70 years of this franchise. At last, the Cubs won a postseason game west of St. Louis, after 10 previous failures. At last, they took care of business after going up two games to none in a best-of-five and losing Game 3 in exciting, but in the end disillusioning, fashion. Before the series I’d predicted the Cubs would win the first two games, lose to Madison Bumgarner, then win Game 4. That’s exactly what happened, though the MadBum game loss wasn’t precisely the way any of us might have imagined it.
Nor was this Game 4 win. I’ve left out the early-inning struggles of John Lackey, who was definitely not sharp in this game and is going to have to work to improve in the NLCS; these things don’t get any easier, as Lackey surely knows. With this win, he wouldn’t have to start again till NLCS Game 4, which will be next Wednesday, enough time, one would hope, to fix whatever went wrong in this one. Part of what went wrong was Conor Gillaspie, pretty much the definition of “journeyman” (drafted by the Giants, traded to the White Sox, sold to the Angels, signed again by the Giants as a free agent) with a 95 OPS+ and 1.7 career bWAR in 469 regular-season games.
And then this guy, just “a guy,” really, gets four hits in this game, joining a club that has a couple Hall of Famers:
Gillaspie was 6-for-15 in the series after hitting the game-winning three-run homer for the Giants in the wild-card game. This kind of thing isn’t likely repeatable; he’ll have to give back the baseball equivalent of Cinderella’s glass slipper before next season, if the Giants even keep him.
Justin Grimm, the first Cubs reliever in the game, wasn’t good either, giving up hits to two of the three men he faced. Gillaspie and Panik put a pair of runs on Grimm’s record by getting a hit and a sac fly, respectively, off Travis Wood. But after Gillaspie’s RBI single in the fifth, Cubs relievers allowed only one more hit all night -- naturally, by Gillaspie in the eighth. Hector Rondon, who gets credit for the “win” in this one, got out of that inning with a double play.
Which, at the time it was recorded, to end the eighth, didn’t seem like such a big deal, with the Cubs down three runs with three outs remaining.
And yet it meant everything. We just didn’t know it yet.
Whatever happens the rest of this postseason, that inning, this game, will be seared into my memory and yours as one of the best moments in all of Cubs history. Jon Lester has named the foundation he started to raise money for pediatric cancer research “NVRQT,” a worthwhile cause, incidentally, and that’s exactly what this team did on this night, they did not quit. They simply would not allow themselves to lose this game, and thrilled me, and I’m sure you, on a night when we were ready to start stressing over a Game 5 which now will never happen.
Instead, the Cubs have already had their happy flight home, taken in the wee hours of Wednesday -- and so will I, back to Chicago Wednesday afternoon, and the team will have a well-deserved couple of days off before meeting either the Nationals or Dodgers in Game 1 of the NLCS Saturday. No game time has yet been set, but I’d be surprised if it wasn’t a night game, likely at 7 or 7:30 p.m. CT.
My preference? I want the Nats. They’ll have to use Max Scherzer in Game 5 Thursday, so he won’t be available until Game 3 of the NLCS next Tuesday. That means the Cubs would be able to face lesser pitchers in Games 1 and 2, presumably with Lester and Kyle Hendricks (who pronounced himself “good to go” after playing catch in the AT&T Park outfield before Tuesday’s game). Besides, it would be poetic justice of a sort for a Cubs team to bounce a Dusty Baker-managed team out of the NLCS to get to the World Series.
Here’s my story about the 1986 NLCS. The sixth and eventually deciding game of that series is a contest that’s nearly been forgotten, with the focus of most discussions of the 1986 postseason being the Mets’ dramatic comeback over the Red Sox in the World Series. But in NLCS Game 6, the Astros had a 3-0 lead going into the ninth, three outs from tying the series at three games each.
It was a game much like the one you saw Tuesday night. Astros starter Bob Knepper had dominated the Mets that afternoon, eerily identical to what Matt Moore did to the Cubs Tuesday night, allowing only two hits through eight innings.
Back then, managers often let starters complete what they began, if they were up for it. Knepper was, but he got hit hard in the ninth. The Mets scored a pair of runs off him before you could blink, and then closer Dave Smith entered to try to nail down the win. But a sac fly tied the game, and on to extras they went -- long, long extra innings, and I remember this vividly because I had taken a postseason trip to Montreal and Quebec City that October, two places I’d always wanted to see. My return flight to Chicago got delayed due to weather, somewhere, I forget where now, and I spent the rest of that evening watching that game in an airport bar in Montreal.
Both teams scored in the 14th inning, the Astros on a solo homer by former Cub Billy Hatcher. In the 16th, the Mets scored three times, and Jesse Orosco, who’d already been in the game for two innings, stayed in to try to wrap it up. With two out the Astros scored two runs and had the tying and winning runs on base and Kevin Bass hit a ball that was foul by about six feet, which would have been a walkoff homer. One pitch later he struck out and the Mets went to the World Series.
I tell you this story now because, as I noted above, that game’s been nearly forgotten today. It’s one of the best games in postseason history.
And so are the two you have just witnessed, the crazy 13-inning Cubs loss in Game 3, and the even crazier four-run, ninth-inning comeback that sent the Cubs on to the National League Championship Series. Don’t ever forget either of them. I know i certainly won’t, especially after experiencing both of them in person in San Francisco.
Which brings me to this final thought I’d like to express: What a wonderful experience these two games were, beyond the incredible baseball that was played. Stadium employees at AT&T Park couldn’t have been more friendly, accommodating and helpful. Kudos to all of them, it’s an extremely well-run operation. And to Giants fans: A big tip o’ the Cubs cap to you, my fellow travelers as baseball fans. Giants fans were extraordinarily gracious in defeat, every single one of them who made eye contact with me after their team suffered one of the most crushing defeats in postseason history wished me well, congratulated me and said they hoped the Cubs would win the World Series. Thank you for being so kind in defeat. It couldn’t have been easy. We know. We’ve been there.
So onward the journey goes, continuing Saturday at Wrigley Field. Go Cubs. The best is yet to come!