This piece, written by BP Wrigleyville’s Isaac Bennett, forms part of our in-house coverage of the Cubs in the playoffs, “Second City October.” Additional Game Four coverage can be found here.
The Cubs entered tonight’s Game 4 of the National League Championship Series in a familiar position. Last year against the Cardinals, they needed to do exactly what their task was this evening—win three out of four games, with two of those games on the road. And as dire as things felt as this game settled upon them, this team has experienced this sort of feeling before, and they passed the test with flying colors.
The debates surrounding the team raged beginning early in the morning. Should Joe Maddon make drastic moves to jumpstart a tepid offense? Should he forgo defensive stalwarts Jason Heyward and Addison Russell in an effort to get right-handed thumpers Jorge Soler, Willson Contreras and David Ross in the lineup together? There were strong opinions, but ultimately no correct answers. This is an exceptionally deep team with almost unlimited flexibility. They simply needed to remember how to get on base.
The visitors half of the first inning was simply a facsimile of the previous two games; three up, three down. The bottom half got interesting when John Lackey hit Corey Seager in the foot on wayward curveball, before Javier Baez made a throwing error on Justin Turner grounder that should have been an inning ending double-play. Turner was allowed to take second base, but two pitches later, Contreras picked him off with an 86 mph rocket that flipped the early momentum in an instant.
The second inning featured a one out, four-pitch walk taken by Baez. Contreras followed with a hard ground ball up the middle which Corey Seager dove for and snagged expertly, before flipping it to Chase Utley at second. Utley attempted to barehand the toss to make the quick turn to first, but instead dropped it and gave the Cubs an early two on, one out opportunity. Heyward—the object of many pundits’ ire when describing the Cubs’ offensive woes—had an opportunity to make Maddon look like a genius, but 20-year-old wunderkind Julio Urias got the best of him, striking him out after a seven pitch battle in which Heyward fouled off three hittable fastballs. Now with two outs, Urias attacked Russell with breaking stuff, ultimately hanging one in the middle of the plate, allowing Russell to smack it deep to left, only to get slightly too much air under it as it died on the warning track. The Cubs’ streak of scoreless innings stretched to 20.
Adrian Gonzalez led off the bottom of the second with a clean single to right, meaning Contreras’s web gem in the first likely saved the Cubs from another early deficit. After Lackey walked Yasmani Grandal to put runners at first and second with two outs, pesky Andrew Toles lined a solid single to right. Heyward fielded the ball and perceptibly paused, perhaps surprised that noted wagon-puller Gonzalez never hesitated around third and was being waved home. Heyward gathered himself and fired on a hop to Contreras slightly up the first base line, who fielded the throw and dove back towards Gonzalez, tagging him out on a bang-bang play. Initially, replay reviews appeared to show Gonzalez’s hand on the plate beating Contreras’s tag, but after a long look it was determined that there wasn’t clear evidence to overturn the call on the field. It was a potentially pivotal moment from a momentum standpoint, as TV crews caught Gonzalez telling the camera “don’t mess this up New York.” Upon hearing of the ruling, the Dodgers’ dugout went berserk, with manager Dave Roberts openly screaming an obscenity on camera. It was a much needed break for the Cubs, in a moment where it appeared yet another unfortunate play would go against them.
After a third inning that featured nothing eventful besides a warning track flyout by Utley, Ben Zobrist led off the fourth with a perfectly placed bunt base hit. Baez followed by using his two-strike short stroke hack to dump a Texas Leaguer into left, and the Cubs were in business with two on and nobody out. Contreras also got down two strikes, before dumping one into left for a third consecutive hit. Toles had an excellent chance to nail Zobrist at the plate, but instead his throw sailed 30 feet up the first base line, allowing the Cubs to score their first run in 21 innings. Heyward was up in yet another critical moment, and the result was the punchline that his season has become: 4-3 groundout. However, this particular 4-3 groundout happened to be an RBI 4-3 groundout. 2-0 Cubs.
What happened next deserves its own paragraph. After missing a home run by just a few feet in the second, Addison Russell rewarded Maddon’s faith by driving a 2-0 Urias fastball over the centerfield fence for a two-run home run. It was the swing Chicago had been pleading for. 4-0 Cubs.
With the Cubs finally sporting a healthy lead, it was imperative for Lackey to shut down the Dodgers to maintain momentum. After retiring the first two batters, Josh Reddick made contact with Contreras’s glove on a swing, inducing a catcher’s interference and taking his base. It was the second such instance for Contreras in these playoffs, and he’ll surely be receiving some instruction from the coaching staff to avoid allowing free passes in the future. Joc Pederson followed with a bloop single to left, setting up yet another blood pressure elevating moment. After getting two called strikes on Grandal, Lackey struck him out swinging with a wicked breaking ball in the dirt. The threat was over and the lead maintained, for the moment.
Pedro Baez throws very hard. The top of the fifth started with Baez hurling fastballs at greater than 97 mph. The struggling Rizzo turned on one of those fastballs and hit it a very long ways, only to watch it sail foul by a matter of a few feet. The next pitch was a borderline strike, upon which Rizzo took it upon himself to begin jogging down to first in assumption of ball four. Umpires hate when players do that, which is why my umpire’s heart was grateful when Rizzo sincerely apologized to Angel Hernandez for his assumptive behavior. The universe rewarded Rizzo’s good old-fashioned manners on the next pitch, a 99 mph dart delivered by Baez which Rizzo deposited over the right field fence. 5-0 Cubs.
Lackey started the fifth inning in precisely the opposite manner one should with a 5-0 lead, by walking the eighth and ninth hitters in the lineup. The wildness prompted Maddon to send him to an early exit, to which Lackey’s lips could easily be read in saying “I respect your decision, skip.” Maddon turned to lefty Mike Montgomery, who promptly gave up a single to Howie Kendrick. MVP candidate Seager came to the plate with the bases loaded and nobody out, but Montgomery perfectly executed his breaking pitches to punch out the young shortstop. Turner was next, and he chopped a surefire double play ball up the middle. As baseball demands, hilarity ensued when Montgomery foolishly stabbed at the ball, deflecting it away from Russell’s waiting mitt and into left field. Two runs scored and no outs were recorded, leaving fans in Chicago sick thinking of the possibilities. Thankfully, Montgomery forced two consecutive ground outs to stem the tide. 5-2 Cubs.
The action never stopped flowing in this game, and the sixth inning was no exception. After Russell reached on an infield single and a throwing error from Kike Hernandez, Maddon made the curious decision of allowing Montgomery to hit for himself. The move was certainly executed purely because of pitching motives, but Montgomery rewarded him anyway by smacking a single into left. Fowler followed by singling into left, extending the Cubs’ lead to 6-2. Bryant then worked a walk to load the bases, setting the stage for Rizzo. The big lefty came through as he has done so many times in the past, ripping a two run single into right to create even more breathing room for the Cubs. Zobrist then tapped a dribbler in front of the plate, which Grandal made an acrobatic play on to fire him out at first. The Cubs reviewed the play, upon which Zobrist was clearly safe. It was the Cubs’ second infield hit of the inning, and an obvious example of everything going right for the Cubs. Baez then batted with the bases loaded and an opportunity to blow it open. He blooped one into center, where Pederson made an excellent diving catch before firing wildly home in an attempt to nab the scoring Bryant. The ball got away from Grandal, allowing Rizzo to scamper across as well. The floodgates were officially blown open. 10-2 Cubs, and the scoring was concluded for the night.
The offensive breakout will get most of the attention, but the Cubs’ bullpen deserves a tremendous amount of credit in this game. They stopped the bleeding in the crucial moment of the fifth inning, before proceeding to shut down the Dodgers the rest of the night. It may not have been the storyline tonight, but it is a critical indicator of how the rest of the playoffs may unfold. Carl Edwards Jr. did leave the game with an apparent hamstring strain, so his availability should be monitored closely. He’s quietly become an important piece of Maddon’s ‘pen.
Beyond the obvious ecstasy of a huge win, the Cubs received other welcome news in the form of contributions from Rizzo and Russell. A combined 3-for-50 in the playoffs entering tonight, the pair went 6-for-10 with two home runs. It must be a massive burden removed from each of the young men’s shoulders, and it certainly is for this fan as well.
Thursday’s Game 5 will feature the Cubs’ ace Jon Lester, facing rookie Kenta Maeda. The Dodgers’ bullpen will likely be taxed after a short outing by Urias tonight, so it will be imperative for the Cubs to make Maeda work hard early. With Kershaw looming in Game 6, this is another crucial game for the Cubs. Enjoy the ride, friends. It’s only just beginning.
Lead photo courtesy Kelvin Kuo—USA Today Sports.