All year long, Cubs’ leadership has preached a simple mantra to their young players: “Do simple better.” That mantra won the Northsiders the NLDS in Game Two’s critical second inning. It kept them close in the first two games of this long-awaited NLCS. And it led to countless moments in which the team was able to take advantage of more careless opponents and rack up victory after victory over the course of a long and happy Chicago summmer .
Tonight, the summer turned to fall.
Suddenly, there was Javier Baez—filling in at shortstop for the injured Addison Russell—whiffing on the first play of the game. There was Jorge Soler, diving for a sixth-inning ball he had no business putting an outstretched glove anywhere near. There was Kris Bryant, an inning later, and a half-step too late on a ground ball that should have retired Daniel Murphy. And, perhaps most damagingly, there was the ball off the bat of a scorching-hot Yoenis Cespedes, which Kyle Schwarber dropped into the damp left-field grass mere moments after securing it on a dead run for what would have been the second out of the inning.
In the late innings at Wrigley, a light rain started to fall on the listless crowd, masking the tears—and, yes, I saw a few—with heaven-sent fresh water that served a hellish purpose just the same. The storm—moving with growing fury towards Wrigley as the night went on—was as good a metaphor as any for the feeling that grew in the old grounds Wednesday night, as the Cubs’ fate slipped between their fingers time and time again, 108 red stitches glancing slickly in the dewy night.
Sure, there were breaks for the Mets. Home plate umpire Ted Barrett called a strange zone all night. Sharply-hit balls off Chicago bats often took the most direct route possible to the gloves of New York fielders. And in the sixth inning, Miguel Montero dropped a third strike from Trevor Cahill that would have ended the frame and kept the game tied at two. But here’s the fact: none of that mattered tonight. I mean, it mattered, of course, but only in the way it matters whether or not a home run landed two or ten rows back. The ball was going out anway.
The ball sure went out tonight. The Cubs did simple worse, and it cost them badly. They’ll head into Game Four tomorrow in a 3-0 hole, their backs up against the crumbling foundations of a blessed season.
Maybe that’s a metaphor too far. After all, the Cubs’ foundation, far from crumbling, is actually as strong as any team’s in baseball. The young ones—Bryant, Russell, Baez, Schwarber, and Soler—will be back next year, and hopefully better than ever. And, of course, they’re not out of this one yet. Theo Epstein, for his part, noted after the game that the Cubs have had nine streaks of at least four wins already this season. And so, tomorrow afternoon, as the sun sets behind Wrigley Field and casts the ballpark into sharp relief against the Chicago sky, the hopes of two cities will once again take the field in twin shades of blue.
In his postgame comments, New York captain David Wright was having none of the World Series talk that swirled around him in dizzying eddies. “We understand [that], just like we’ve won the first three games, these guys can win the next three games very easily,” he told a packed room. “This is an excellent team, and you give them room to win a game, or streak along a couple good innings, and they’re going to get all the confidence in the world and expect to beat us three in a row. So it’s as simple as that.”
It is, in fact, as simple as that. The Cubs cannot lose again—not until next week—if they want to keep their season alive. Chicago manager Joe Maddon isn’t even looking that far ahead. “Win on Wednesday,” he said, minutes before Wright spoke. “It’s just about tomorrow.”
Lead photo courtesy Jerry Lai—USA Today Sports.