Second City October: On The Brink

This piece, written by BP Wrigleyville’s Clarissa Young, forms part of our in-house coverage of the Cubs in the playoffs, “Second City October.” Additional Game Five coverage can be found here.

With the series tied 2-2, the Dodgers entered Thursday night’s contest armed with a handful of strategies designed to tip the scales and trigger an elimination game for the Cubs. One of these advanced tactics apparently necessitated batting Carlos Ruiz in the cleanup spot (Ruiz was 0-for-14 against Cubs starter Jon Lester heading into this game and is now 0-for-17), though most seemed to revolve around unnerving the man on the mound Lester, taking advantage of his well-documented reluctance to field balls and throw to bases.

But of course it was the Cubs who emerged from Game 5 with an 8-4 victory, and prior to the visitors’ five-run eighth inning, the prominent story for most of the evening was precisely the composure and resolve of Lester, who literally stared down his opponents across seven innings of one-run ball.

The lefty was unfazed when leadoff batter Enrique Hernandez danced out to a 20-foot lead after walking to start the bottom of the first. He eventually advanced to second base, then third, though notably not due to any of the leads he got on the basepaths. In fact, it seemed as though the Dodger baserunners were more out of their comfort zone than Lester, who took a moment to pointedly glare in the direction of the home dugout after successfully chasing down just the sort of bunt grounder designed to shake him, throwing a one-hopper to Anthony Rizzo at first to close the second inning.

Rizzo was responsible for giving his team a small edge before Lester even took the hill. After Dexter Fowler opened the game with a single, Rizzo continued to cast a haze over those recent memories of playoff struggle, making it four for his previous four with a one-out double into the right field corner against starter Kenta Maeda. Fowler, running on contact, scored easily from first.

The Cubs threatened with unconverted scoring opportunities a few times early against Maeda, who was able to fan six and work out of jams despite some wildly-fluctuating fastball command. He was chased from the game after just 76 pitches, when the Cubs’ man on deck with two on and two out in the fourth forced Dave Roberts to make a change. The man on deck was Jon Lester, bringing a 0.064 average and -46 wRC+ to the table. The move was presumably another element of strategy.

While the Cubs bats remained patient yet stingy, the Dodgers did take their solo run off Lester on a grounder toward first by Adrián González in the fourth. Rizzo uncharacteristically bobbled the scoop and was forced to go for the out at first, allowing Howie Kendrick to trot home. This was the extent of the damage against Lester, who preserved some of the Cubs’ bullpen arms while LA paraded out six relievers, whom the Cubs eventually found a way to take advantage of.

Javier Báez continued his dynamic postseason tear with a single in the sixth, which he added to by stealing second. The steal was rendered unnecessary when Addison Russell furthered his own playoff redemption, blasting a two-run homer on a gift of a hanging slider by Joe Blanton.

Russell later went on to score in the eighth inning on a single by Fowler against Pedro Báez. With Báez still on the mound that inning, Kris Bryant made his mark with an RBI single to send Willson Contreras home. Contreras had entered the game as a pinch hitter and reached base on a single of his own in his first at-bat of the night.

For a game which had retained such a tight scoreline for the majority of its four-plus hour grind, a 5-1 Cubs lead seemed fairly luxurious, but that would do nothing to temper the bat of Javy Báez, who cracked the game open once more with a three-run line-drive double to right, crowning the Cubs’ eight run feat.

It’s an exuberant effort that looks less lavish and more essential in retrospect. The Dodgers did take one run back against Pedro Strop in the bottom of the eighth and two against Aroldis Chapman, who once again wasn’t fooling anyone.

But for now, what matters is that this Cubs team is one win away from booking a trip to the World Series in front of the home crowd at Wrigley. All they have to do is get past Clayton Kershaw.

Lead photo courtesy Kelvin Kuo—USA Today Sports.

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