History tends to forget what almost happened. With baseball, people remember which team wins a postseason series, and even which team may have blown a big lead in a game. But take, for example, the three runs allowed after Clayton Kershaw left Game 4 of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ series with the Washington Nationals, bringing the left-hander’s line to six innings pitched and five earned runs. History won’t remember how great Kershaw was before taking the mound in the seventh inning, or the subsequent bullpen implosion.
It’ll merely go down as another poor playoff performance for Kershaw, despite what we all saw with our eyes on that day.
When people look back on the 2016 NLDS between the Cubs and Giants, they’ll remember that the Cubs won in four games. They’ll remember the ninth inning rally in Game 4, and that the Giants were three outs away from tying the series. But what they won’t remember is that heading into that fateful ninth inning, by most objective measures, the Giants were winning the series.
I know, technically the Cubs were still leading the NLDS 2-1 at that point, and they still needed another victory to actually win. It was still anybody’s series, at that point. But splitting hairs, as we love to do, it’s clear the Giants had the upperhand in that series. Let’s take a look at the facts about the Cubs and Giants, as of the end of the eighth inning in Game 4.
The first game of the series was tight, with Jon Lester outdueling Johnny Cueto and Javier Baez playing the role of the hero, with a 1-0 victory. This game really could’ve gone either way. I have a vision of the future, where some traumatized version of the human race that’s finally put the world back together after we destroyed it in the year of twenty-and-sixteen. Those future humans find a baseball time capsule with hundreds of games, labeled specifically to display a perfect example of a genre of the game. This game? It’s labeled “Game of Inches.”
The Baez home run lands in the basket directly above Angel Pagan, who is waiting with his outstretched glove. In the top of the ninth, Aroldis Chapman misses his spot with a fastball that’s crushed by Giants catcher Buster Posey, which gets knocked down by the wind and bangs off the wall in left field, missing a game-tying homer by maybe a foot or two. All of that is to say, the Giants could easily have been the winner of that game.
Game 2 was won handily by the Cubs, in most respects, and they were leading Game 3 early on as well. But a bullpen meltdown in the eighth inning and subsequent comeback in the ninth made this one a little harder to pin down. In the end, the Giants would win and keep hope alive—but not until the game would get into the 13th inning.
And here we are in Game 4. Chicago had fallen behind 5-2 after John Lackey became unable to throw strikes and stop allowing base hits. Left-handed starting pitcher Matt Moore had thrown the game of his life, shutting the Cubs down through eight innings. The series was about to be tied, but if you’re being honest with yourself in that moment, it really felt like the Cubs had been completely outplayed by their opponent.
And that’s because they had been. Here are the stats on each bullpen, as of the end of the eighth inning.
This one is pretty simple and straight forward. Really the only mistake that the Giants’ bullpen had made all series was the home run to Kris Bryant in the ninth inning of Game 3, and even that just barely cleared the wall in left field. It was less than a foot away from being caught for an out. But that’s not really the point, which is that the Cubs were being outplayed by a significantly thinner bullpen.
But this goes beyond the ‘pen. The starting pitching was relatively similar, although San Francisco got two excellent performances from Cueto and Moore while the Cubs only really got one great pitching performance, and that would be Jon Lester in Game 1. Jake Arrieta was fine in his six innings, allowing just two earned runs, but his inability to be efficient with his pitches and go deep into the game was one of the culprits in the Game 3 bullpen meltdown. At best, Arrieta had a good-not-great game.
On the hitting side, there was a clear advantage for the Giants. Subtracting out pitchers and just looking at the regular offensive players, yet again Chicago was outplayed.
The Giants hadn’t exactly set the world on fire, but the Cubs’ offense was putrid in the NLDS. Four runs in the ninth inning to steal Game 4 glosses over that nicely, but it’s the simple truth of the matter. Of course, this subtracts out runs driven in by the pitchers—for both teams—and you can make an argument that it’s not fair to do that. However, Addison Russell, Anthony Rizzo, Dexter Fowler, and Jason Heyward were a combined 5-for-57 in that series. That means quite a bit.
The Cubs got it going when it mattered, immediately transforming back into the team that we watched from April until September, dropping an improbable four-spot on five Giants relievers and then witnessing Chapman buzz through three batters in the bottom half. But make no mistake, the Cubs were losing in this phase in the waning moments of the series.
There are other key facts to point out, such as the Giants outhitting the Cubs in total, 36 to 28, or the Cubs committing five errors to the Giants’ two. All that is now in the past, and none of it means anything going into the NLCS against the Dodgers. But with one inning to go in what would turn out to be the final game of the series, San Francisco had everything going their way in the NLDS. They were three outs from sending Johnny Cueto to the mound in a deciding game at Wrigley Field, having thoroughly outplayed the 103-win Chicago Cubs.
But it didn’t happen that way, and history won’t remember.
Lead photo courtesy John Hefti—USA Today Sports.