Second City October: NLDS Recap—Cubs Advance to Second Consecutive NLCS

I feel the dread creeping in. It starts around the edges, like a foot slipping out from under a blanket on a cold night, the frigidity not gripping you completely but letting you know it’s there. It’s a familiar feeling, too: the frustrating boringness of the 2007 and 2008 National League Division Series, the resignation of last year’s NLCS sweep. It’s the eighth inning of Game Four, and the Cubs are staring down a dealing Matt Moore and the prospect of Game Five at Wrigley on Thursday.

Although he garnered six plate appearances in the 2015 playoffs, David Ross, the wizened catcher, found his first hit in two postseasons with the Cubs on Tuesday night, a homer to tie the game. Joe Maddon, earlier in the evening, had made a bold decision to start Ross behind the plate with John Lackey on the mound. The first three games of the series played out mostly as expected at catcher, with one start apiece for the Cubs’ threesome of Ross, Miguel Montero, and Willson Contreras. With hard-throwing left-hander Matt Moore on the bump for the Giants in Game Four, the odds were against lefty Montero; with Maddon looking for a pitching advantage with the veteran on the mound, he tapped Lackey’s best partner for the job.

For his part, Contreras proved to be a key contributor in his first postseason. Giving Maddon the versatility he craves by soaking up innings in left as well as catching Game Two, Contreras capitalized on his hitting opportunities more than any other Cubs position player. He totaled four hits in seven late appearances, with a walk, a strikeout, and two runs batted in—Tuesday night’s ninth inning heroics. As they had all year long, the Cubs’ catchers combined for an impressive Division Series, integral to the Cubs’ win. In the longer stretch that is the NLCS, having three capable catchers with different skill sets will be valuable.

The eighth ends, and Kris Bryant toes the box versus the first non-Moore pitcher of the evening, the pesky Derek Law. He works the count 2-1 before lining a single to left, a clean hit breaking the spell that Moore and catcher Buster Posey had cast upon the Cubs for the first eight innings. Bruce Bochy goes to the well again, unsatisfied with Law, to match lefty Javier Lopez with left Anthony Rizzo. Lopez’s breaking ball nearly puts Rizzo away, but the Cubs’ masher lays off one final breaker in a 3-2 count to draw a base on balls. The Cubs have two on with no out, and the hope begins to claw back at the dread.

In the fourth, Denard Span—second to only Conor Gillaspie in Cubs’ fans contempt over the last two days—smashed a grounder up the middle, Javier Baez swiftly moved to his right, gloving and spinning, off balance, to throw firmly to Anthony Rizzo at first. Replay ruled Span safe, but Baez’s goal is to seize the game, and the series, for his team. Span then took off for second, taking advantage of Lackey’s slowness to the plate, and Ross fired to the bag. Baez was in front of the bag, an unusual position for a fielder receiving a catcher’s throw, but he snagged the throw and swooped to tag Span in one motion, a hallmark of the utility man’s stellar defense. In between innings, the TV broadcast showed Baez in the dugout, bobbling a small, green piece of candy, chuckling, and pointing at the camera. It was a beautiful visual shorthand for the exuberance Baez brought to the series, of particular importance in the most dire moments of Monday and Tuesday’s games.

Baez’s home run in Game Four of last year’s NLDS versus the Cardinals, off this selfsame John Lackey, was possibly the highlight of last year’s postseason, non-Schwarber division. It’s a testament to the Cubs’ process and their commitment to depth that they could weather the struggling and pressing apparent in this series from some key contributors, and a testament to Baez and his work ethic that he rebounded from a disastrous 2014 at the plate and a heartbreaking and disappointing 2015 to become the Cubs’ postseason savior. By the time he sauntered to the plate in the ninth with the game on the line, it felt nearly inevitable that he would come through in the clutch. With Contreras, Baez has been the Cubs’ shot in the arm that previous teams (especially 2008) sorely missed.

Bochy isn’t done. Sergio Romo—he who surrendered the game-tying home run to Bryant in Game Three—enters the game to turn Ben Zobrist around to hit lefty. But Zobrist’s contact skills, one of the primary skills that led the Cubs to acquire him in the winter, are on full display. He doubles just inside the right-field line, scoring Bryant and putting two runners in scoring position. It’s 5-3 Giants, and Giants’ bullpen is finally looking vulnerable after securing Game Three.

Game Two and Game Four each featured one of the Cubs’ newest strengths: their bullpen. Jon Lester tossed eight innings of crafty shutout ball in Game One, with Aroldis Chapman picking up the final three outs, so Game Two’s injury to Kyle Hendricks had the trappings of a pivotal moment in the series and a chance for the ‘pen, carefully constructed down the stretch, to prove itself on the big stage.

An “unlikely hero” in a series of unlikely heroes, Travis Wood entered Game Two in the wake of Hendricks’s forearm injury, adding a monster home run to his inning-and-a-third of solid work. His Game Three appearance spanned two batters in two innings, not perfect but essential to Joe Maddon’s plan for the late innings, and his 1 2/3 innings in Game Four helped the Cubs escape a subpar John Lackey outing with some hope intact.

Even more crucial to the Cubs’ bullpen’s success, though, was Mike Montgomery’s valiant Game Three performance, entering in the ninth and eating up four-plus innings before taking the hard luck loss in the 13th. Montgomery bailed out his fellow relievers, who had unsuccessfully put out the eighth inning fire, and made a name for himself in the process.

Carl Edwards, Jr., tossed two spotless frames in two victories. Pedro Strop only saw the mound once, but he was perfect in that appearance (with Mike Montgomery, the only good relief appearance of Monday’s loss).

Conversely, the Giants’ pen finally showed its true colors on Tuesday night. After Derek Law, Sergio Romo, Hunter Strickland, and Ty Blach all threw at least one inning in the Giants’ Game three comeback, Bruce Bochy had little to work with. To paraphrase Randy Quaid’s Major League character, “You’re Old Mother Hubbard… and only a host of relievers who went long on the previous night are in the cupboard!” The five-reliever parade of Game Four’s ninth seemed as inevitable as Javy Baez’s clutch hit.

Over a short series, team weaknesses are not guaranteed to be exposed. With the Cubs’ relentless lineup, even at its worst, the Giants’ bullpen was due for a scare.

Joe Maddon decides to pull some strings. Addison Russell, due to face Sergio Romo, finds himself pulled back to the dugout, as Maddon sends Chris Coghlan, a lefty, to the plate, goading Bochy into bringing in lefty Will Smith. Maddon burns the position player; Willson Contreras hits for Coghlan, with a liner to center that scores both runners. It’s a tie game. The dread is gone, and the knowledge of another likely marathon affair sets in. If the Cubs are going to win this game, it isn’t going to be easy. Nothing is against these Giants.

More than Even Year BS, more than Baez, and more than Maddon’s managing, the story of the series was the Cubs’ scuffling offense. Matt Moore quieted the Cubs’ bats on Tuesday night, the most feared possibility by most who dreaded a Cubs implosion. Fowler, Rizzo, Zobrist, and Russell—four of the Cubs’ first five hitters—sported ice cold Louisville Sluggers almost the entire series. The pivotal ninth inning of Game Four, the stake through Even Year BS’s heart, was a minor awakening for the top of the order, and it was the Cubs’ most complete rally since early in Game Two.

Rizzo tallied thirteen hitless plate appearances in the first three games, looking vulnerable to breaking balls out of the zone, eager to make some contact. Giants’ pitchers, likely the beneficiaries of good advanced scouting, exploited Rizzo’s patience, goading him into chasing outside the zone and frustrating him with nothing to hit. He roped a liner to center in the fourth inning of Game Four, and walked in the ninth to move the rally along, but his series was a struggle against a few good starters.

Fowler drew the short straw late in Tuesday’s game, finding himself on the bench due to a double switch and his impotence at the plate. He worked counts for most of the series, but managed only two hits in 15 plate appearances with a team-high six strikeouts. No matter the Cubs’ opponent in the NLCS, Fowler’s return to form will be a necessary development if the Cubs are to succeed.

Although Maddon maneuvered a platoon advantage with Contreras, he forfeited one with Jason Heyward on deck. Heyward squares to bunt versus Smith, pushing a hard bunt to the pitcher, who reeled around to throw to second. Contreras is out; Heyward sprints down the line, beating the throw from Brandon Crawford, which sails past first base. Functionally the same as a sac bunt, the Cubs now have a great baserunner on second with Baez up.

Down 0-2 to new reliever Hunter Strickland, who nearly stuck one in Baez’s ribs in Game Two, the Cubs’ electric utility man singles just out of reach of the middle infielders, scoring Heyward. The inning ends, and a spotless ninth secures Game Four and series victories for the Cubs. Bring on the NLCS.

Lead photo courtesy Kelley L. Cox—USA Today Sports.

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