LOS ANGELES — Almost there, my friends. Almost there.
Addison Russell did it again, after being silent for most of the postseason. He homered in the sixth inning, breaking open a tight pitchers’ duel, and the Cubs poured it on with a five-run eighth for an 8-4 win in Game 5 of the NLCS. One. More. Win. will put the Cubs in the World Series.
Crawling out of your skin yet? There’s a lot to unpack from this long win — first, at four hours, 16 minutes, it’s the sixth-longest nine-inning postseason game in major-league history. And if you think I’m the only one who noticed that:
Watching Pedro Baez pitch reminds me of waiting for my dial up modem to connect #prodigy— Jim Deshaies (@JimDeshaies) October 21, 2016
It’s not just Baez, it’s the entire Dodger pitching staff, which seems to have three speeds: slow, slower and nonexistent.
Kenta Maeda worked a 26-pitch first inning, and the Cubs scored once on a single by Dexter Fowler and double by Anthony Rizzo. Ben Zobrist walked after Rizzo’s double and the Cubs could have had the bases loaded:
I mean, come on. That’s not even close. Baez could have walked, or done something else positive with his at-bat; instead he was called out on strikes.
After that, Maeda settled down, retiring eight of the next nine men he faced.
But Jon Lester was matching him. He allowed a single and a walk in the first, then retired the last two hitters to end the inning. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts had a plan:
Dodgers Roberts on Lester: "We're going to get huge leads and try to bunt on them and try to get in his psyche a little bit"— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) October 20, 2016
Did no Dodger scout mention to Roberts that Lester has gotten better at holding runners and fielding bunts? Joc Pederson tried to bunt with two out in the second. Lester’s throw... well, it wasn’t great, it bounced to Rizzo, but it got there. Justin Turner singled and stole second with two out in the third, but was stranded when Lester struck out Corey Seager. Lester wasn’t happy with some of Alfonso Marquez’s ball-and-strike calls on that Seager at-bat:
Lester gives that look to home plate ump after finally striking out Seager to end 3rd. Thought he got him on 1-2 pitch. #Cubs— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) October 21, 2016
The Cubs got runners on first and second with nobody out in the fourth when Baez doubled and Jason Heyward was hit by a pitch. Two outs later, Roberts pulled Maeda. In the fourth inning. With Lester due up.
That started a buzz on Twitter — “Has this ever happened before?” Yes, and recently, in fact. The Royals did it in Game 3 of last year’s World Series, yanking Yordano Ventura with Noah Syndergaard due up. The Royals got out of the inning, but lost the game.
The Dodgers got out of the fourth inning when Lester flied to left. Lester had three credible at-bats in this game, flying to left field each time. He’s really improved as a hitter and fielder. The Dodgers’ plan to bunt and “get into Lester’s psyche” failed.
The Dodgers did tie the game up in the fourth, on a misplay that resulted in an out. Howie Kendrick doubled and stole third, and that steal proved to be important. Gonzalez grounded to Rizzo, who looked up at the runner a bit too quickly and bobbled the ball. Kendrick scored -- he might have anyway, as he had a good jump off third -- and Rizzo tossed to Baez to at least get an out. That might have worked out better; if Rizzo throws home and Kendrick is safe, so is Gonzalez.
That’s when Lester really put on his “big-boy” shoes, as he’s described these games in the past. He allowed two more baserunners, both singles, and neither runner got past first base. He was also helped out by this slick defensive play by Baez when Gonzalez tried to push a bunt past Lester:
Gonzalez was called safe by first-base umpire Ted Barrett, but you can see clearly that Baez’s throw beat him to the base. And ESPN.com’s Jayson Stark is surely right about this:
October can be a time for star-making. I see those stars shining on Javier Baez. Maybe the most entertaining defender in the game.— Jayson Stark (@jaysonst) October 21, 2016
No doubt, Jayson. No doubt. We’ve enjoyed Javy’s entertaining and spectacular defensive plays as Cubs fans all year, and now Javy is shining on the national stage. I’m really happy for him -- and for the team, since his defense (and hitting) have really helped this October.
By the time Javy made that play, the Cubs had a 3-1 lead, thanks in part to Javy, who led off the sixth with a single and stole second. He didn’t need to do that to score, thanks to Addy:
Probably not the best place to throw Addison Russell a slider... Crushed it 104.4 MPH and projected at 419ft. pic.twitter.com/qdpT2RvKfK— Daren Willman (@darenw) October 21, 2016
The Cubs had another chance to score in the seventh. Finally, finally, Rizzo decided to bunt into the shift. He did so perfectly [VIDEO] and Zobrist walked, but both were stranded. I’d like to see Rizzo bunt more often in situations like this. Not all the time, of course; you don’t want to take a power bat down and just have him hit bunt singles. But there are times and places for doing this, and this was one of them. I hope he brings out this weapon in future postseason games. Also, I love this:
Anthony Rizzo's exit velocity on his bunt base hit... 35.1 MPH. Launch angle -1 degrees.— Daren Willman (@darenw) October 21, 2016
Joe decided to let Lester throw the seventh. This is exactly why Jon Lester is here, his stepping up big-time in postseason games:
Lowest Postseason ERA— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) October 21, 2016
Wild-Card Era, Minimum 10 Starts
Madison Bumgarner 2.11
Curt Schilling 2.12
Jon Lester 2.50
And he dispatched the Dodgers in that seventh inning, first on the Baez play on Gonzalez’ bunt attempt, then getting pinch-hitter Yasmani Grandal to end the inning after a two-out single by Pederson.
Seven innings, five hits, one walk (the first batter he faced), one run, six strikeouts. Couldn’t really ask for more.
And then the Cubs blew the game open in the eighth. Russell reached on an error and Willson Contreras singled. After Albert Almora Jr. advanced the runners on a bunt, Dexter Fowler singled to make it 4-1. Kris Bryant singled and it was 5-1. Rizzo hit a line drive to second baseman Kiké Hernandez, who appeared to double Fowler off second.
Thank you, replay review!
If Fowler’s out, the inning is over. Instead, Zobrist walked to load the bases, and then it was Javy’s turn. He doubled to deep right field [VIDEO], clearing the bases and making it 8-1, and that also began to clear the Dodger fans out of their seats for the second straight night.
The Cubs had Pedro Strop and Aroldis Chapman lined up for the eighth and ninth when it was still just 3-1, and as sometimes happen when late-inning relievers enter in non-save situations, things got a bit sloppy. Strop allowed a leadoff double and hit Turner — who was not happy about it, though it was clearly unintentional. The Cubs turned a double play, but Carlos Ruiz doubled for one run. Chapman was a bit wild in his appearance, not unusual for him when he hasn’t pitched in a few days. He walked the first hitter he faced and allowed a single. After a force play, another single and a sac fly made it 8-4 before Turner grounded to Russell to end it, to cheers of the remaining fans, pretty much all of whom were Cubs fans. Again, I estimate maybe 10,000 of the 54,449 in Dodger Stadium were wearing Cubs blue instead of Dodger blue, a good showing, and we got some really good 2016 Cubs baseball over Games 4 and 5: timely hitting, power when needed, and solid starting pitching.
Kudos to the Dodgers, who had two of their former players lined up (Eric Karros, also an ex-Cub, and Steve Garvey) to do an introductory “It’s time for Dodger baseball,” Vin Scully’s signature broadcast line. Instead, they introduced Scully himself:
That brought applause from everyone in the house, including Cubs fans. It was a pleasure to be able to salute the great now-retired broadcaster.
And what a pleasure it was to witness more great Cubs baseball in Los Angeles. The Cubs did just about as well as anyone could have hoped in the three games in Southern California, taking two of three and setting up what could be the greatest celebration in decades at Wrigley Field Saturday evening.
It will not be easy. They’ll have to face Clayton Kershaw again, and Kershaw just might be the best pitcher in baseball. He shut the Cubs down last Sunday. There are ways to get to him, and I’m sure Joe and the coaching staff will help prepare the players well for the challenge. Kyle Hendricks, who threw reasonably well against Kershaw in that Game 2 loss (one run in 5⅓ innings, but with four walks), will have to bring his best game Saturday night.
We are so close to realizing part one of the dream we’ve all dreamed for so many years, getting to the World Series. I hope the Cubs can solve Kershaw and win this series Saturday, because I’m not sure any of us are quite ready for the tension of a Game 7.
Final note: Before the game I met a couple of old friends who live in the L.A. area for lunch at Philippe’s, a local landmark that isn’t far from Dodger Stadium. There were lots of other Cubs fans there, too. Check out the “History” tab on their website link and see what year this place was established. Somehow, that seemed important.
One. Win. Away. I can feel it happening. Can you? #LetsGo