On to the National League Championship Series. Somehow, the Cubs did it. The Cubs went into the District and beat the Nationals 9-8 in one of the wildest games in a long time. With the win, the Cubs win the National League Division Series, 3 games to 2.
I’m supposed to recap this game, but I’m not sure I can do it justice. This game had more twists and turns than a John le Carré novel. Was that Joe Maddon or George Smiley managing the Cubs? But in the end, the good guys won an ambiguous victory by the skin of their teeth, just like in a le Carré novel.
The Cubs broke out early in this game when Jon Jay doubled and came around to score on a two-out single by Albert Amora Jr. But it looked like the Cubs were going to regret coming away with just one run after loading the bases later in the inning with two out. A weak Jason Heyward grounder ended that threat.
The lead was short-lived. Starter Kyle Hendricks got into trouble in the bottom of the inning after giving up a leadoff single to Trea Turner. Turner stole second and went to third on a line drive to center field that Almora made a nice catch on. Then with the infield in, Bryce Harper hit a ground ball to Javier Baez. Baez threw a bullet to the plate to get the speedy Turner going home. No other second baseman in the majors makes that play. That run turned out to be huge later on.
But Hendricks wasn’t saved by his bullpen in the second inning. Daniel Murphy led off the inning with a home run, and it’s got to the point where I wouldn’t be surprised if Murphy doesn’t have “The Cub Killer” listed as his nickname on Baseball-reference.com. Then Anthony Rendon singled to center field and for the first time in his career, catcher Matt Wieters laid down a bunt for a base hit.
That brought up Michael Taylor, who hit a grand slam his last time up in game four. This time, he could only manage a three-run home run. Blame his teammates. The Cubs were down 4-1 and it was only the second inning.
Kris Bryant led off the top of the third with a double, breaking what had been a bad streak for Bryant of six straight strikeouts, going back to game three. Anthony Rizzo struck out and then Willson Contreras and Albert Almora both walked to load the bases with one out. A Russell groundout make it 4-2. It became 4-3 when Gonzalez, who had poor control all game, uncorked a wild pitch, scoring Contreras.
Meanwhile, Hendricks didn’t look great after the second inning, but he looked better. He gave up a two-out single in the third inning and then two two-out singles in the fourth. But no runs.
The fifth inning is going to be remembered in Washington far longer than it will be remembered in Chicago. With Gonzalez struggling, manager Dusty Baker pulled him in the fourth inning for Matt Albers. Albers retired the Cubs in order and then as planned, Baker went to likely Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer on short rest to pitch the fifth inning.
Words to live by:
Love innovative pitching usage, but "short-rest" is always dicey. #NLDS— Brian Kenny (@MrBrianKenny) October 13, 2017
It was the right call by Dusty, but it blew up in his face. After Scherzer retired Bryant and Rizzo to start the inning, Contreras kept the inning alive with an infield single that shortstop Trea Turner couldn’t get to first base in time. (Actually, I don’t even think Andrelton Simmons would have retired Contreras, so don’t blame Turner.)
Ben Zobrist then pinch-hit for Almora and hit a soft line drive that found outfield grass. That was the last time Scherzer would look good all night. Next up, Russell scorched a line-drive double down the left field line and the Cubs took a 5-4 lead.
Then Baker made his one truly head-scratching decision of the night. He intentionally walked Jason Heyward to load the bases to face Javier Baez. I understand the thinking: walk the lefty to face the righty. Baez is going to have trouble making contact against Scherzer. But it’s Jason Heyward! He had looked lost at the plate all game.
But for a split-second, it looked like walking Heyward was the right call. Baez struck out on a ball in the dirt. But the ball got past catcher Matt Wieters who then threw wild to first. Replays showed that Baez hit Wieters’ mask on the backswing and the play should have been ruled dead, but the umpires didn’t see it and the play was not reviewable. Russell scored from second base. Wieters bad day continued as the next batter, pinch-hitter Tommy La Stella, reached on catcher’s interference to load the bases.
Scherzer had lost all control by this point and he hit Jay in the foot to force in another run. Bryant popped out to end the inning, but for the record, the Cubs scored four runs in the fifth inning after seven straight batters reached after two were out. And boy, how they reached. Infield single, soft line drive single, hard-hit double, intentional walk., dropped third strike, catcher’s interference and hit by pitch.
The Cubs tacked on an insurance run in the sixth inning, again with all the damage being done after two were out. Rizzo and Contreras grounded out to start the inning and then Zobrist walked. Russell then hit a sinking line drive to Jayson Werth out in left field and Werth just whiffed on it. It was almost a replay of the big error Kyle Schwarber made in game two, except at least Schwarber got a glove on it. Werth only caught air. So Russell was credited with his second-straight RBI double in two innings. That run turned out to be huge later on.
The Nats had a two-out rally of their own in the sixth. Reliever Pedro Strop walked Werth with two-outs and then Joe Maddon called upon Mike Montgomery to face Harper. Harper pulled a line shot past the first base bag to put runners on second and third. Montgomery bounced a wild pitch on ball four to Ryan Zimmerman and Werth scored from third.
That made it 8-5 with “The Cub Killer” Murphy at the plate as the tying run. Murphy hit a double over Zobrist’s head in left field to make it 8-6. It could have been worse. After an intentional walk to load the bases, Wieters hit a fly ball down the right-field line that Heyward tracked down to end the inning with the Cubs still leading.
The Cubs got a run back in the top of the seventh when pinch-hitter Kyle Schwarber crushed one to right field. I was sure it was a home run, but it hit about three feet from the top of the wall and bounced back for a single. I know it was about three feet from the top because the TBS broadcast showed the dent in the wall it made. Then Jay, who had a great game, singled to put runners on the corners with one out. Bryant then hit a grounder to third that he beat out to prevent the double play and allow Schwarber to score from third. The Nats asked for a replay review, arguing that Jay had an illegal slide at second. It was worth a shot, but Jay’s slide was ruled legal.
Carl Edwards Jr. started the bottom of the seventh and walked one batter. That was all for him, as he showed all of the wildness he had shown yesterday. Jose Quintana came into the game and loaded the bases with one outs after a single by Turner and a walk to Werth. Harper then just missed it, hitting a sac fly to center field to make it 9-7. Then Joe Maddon called on Wade Davis, who struck out Ryan Zimmerman.
The Cubs went meekly in the top of the eighth and then the Cubs faced their demon all series: the eighth inning. Davis had not pitched more than one inning the entire regular season. Davis walked the first two batters and then got a gift from pinch-hitter Adam Lind, who swung at the first pitch and grounded into a 4-6-3 double play. But a single by “The Other Cub Killer” Michael Taylor had another RBI single and Jose Lobaton singled to put the tying run on second and the go-ahead run on first.
You want another twist to the plot? Sure, why not. With Davis struggling to find the plate, Contreras threw behind Lobaton at first. Lobaton beat the throw back and was called safe, but the Cubs appealed. They needed to take to video feeds synched up to make a ruling, but Lobaton’s foot came off the bag while Rizzo’s glove was still on Lobaton. The threat was over and the Cubs got out of the eighth inning, clinging to a one-run lead.
Here’s the best look at this play that I saw.
Davis came out to pitch the ninth inning on fumes. I thought it was a mistake not to go to Justin Wilson or John Lackey here and I still do. But somehow, someway Davis gutted out a 1-2-3 inning, retiring Turner on a fly out and then striking out Werth and Harper. It couldn’t have been more dramatic. It couldn’t have been more satisfying.
Credit goes to the Nationals, who were a tough opponent and fought back after Nationals Park was quieter than a morgue after they fell behind 8-4. I said going into this series that it would be a coin flip who won, and that seemed to be proven correct. Does anyone think the Nats couldn’t have won this game?
Of course, the real winner of this game was the Cubs, of course, but also the Los Angeles Dodgers. They dispatched of the Diamondbacks in three games and have been cooling their heels in SoCal, awaiting the winner of this battle royale. The Cubs head to LA battered and bruised. It won’t be easy.
But in the end, no one is ever going to forget this game or this series. It was a classic worthy of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Both sides made big mistakes but also showed great heroism. It’s a shame anyone had to lose. It’s also a shame that we’ve got to face the Dodgers on Saturday.
But all that is better than the alternative, which would be the season being over. Fly the W, fellow Cubs fans. If the Dodgers think this team is just going to roll over for them, forget it.