Hey look, the 2016 Cubs showed up for the World Series!
I am almost as relieved not to be writing a Cubs obituary right now as you are not to be reading one. Apparently the Ricketts have contracted with Miracle Max to open up a stand next to Hot Doug’s because it turns out that the Cubs are only mostly dead.
And after watching Javy Baez flail wildly at a Trevor Bauer pitch that bounced in the opposite batter’s box, Max would have been the only one in the ballpark to say “I’ve seen worse…”
We’re going back to Cleveland! And no one has ever uttered that sentence so happily unless they were being paid to tape the opening of The Drew Carey Show.
Tonight was about gutsy pitching, the reappearance of defense as a performance art, and one inning with just enough offense to keep the Cubs from being crushed under the weight of the Brobdingnagian Andrew Miller/Cody Allen combination.
Things didn’t begin so cheerfully, though, as Jose Ramirez interrupted a scintillating start by Jon Lester by getting the good part of the bat on a well located low-inside pitch and lining a home run to left to take a 1-0 lead in the second. Ramirez has turned himself into quite the dangerous hitter, which is especially impressive since his blonde highlights indicate that his real passion in life is Backstreet Boys cosplay.
Leading the offensive onslaught (and yes, we have reached the point in this Series where that word is defined as “three runs”) in response was Kris Bryant hitting the Cubs’ first World Series home run since Phil Cavaretta. After the latest in a seemingly never-ending series of frustrating strikeouts in the first, Bryant finally got a hittable 1-1 Trevor Bauer fastball over the inside part of the plate and rode it into the first row of the left-center field bleachers to lead off the fourth.
It was time to exhale. By our favorite method of exhaling: screaming our damn fool heads off.
Anthony Rizzo followed on the very next pitch by lining a high fastball into the right field well. Rizzo hesitated out of the box and Joe Buck speculated that he was the latest in a long line of Cubs hitters to mistakenly think he’d hit a home run. But anyone who’s watched this Series knows that this was actually because when Rizzo made good contact and hit a hard line drive, he assumed that by World Series rule, it would have to be a foul ball. Thankfully he recovered in time to make it to second on a double.
Ben Zobrist then laced a 3-0 pitch into right field for a hard single that moved Rizzo to third. And in one of the key at-bats of the game, after fouling off a safety squeeze attempt, Addison Russell make just the right amount of contact on a 1-2 pitch to nub a ball slowly enough toward third to score Rizzo and give himself an infield RBI single.
The Cubs had come all the way back from a 1-0 deficit in the fourth. And the way everything had been going, it felt like all that was missing was Vin Scully informing us that “the impossible has happened!”
Most importantly, the Cubs were still not done. After a Jason Heyward strikeout, Baez again strode to the plate. And as the official scorekeeper was two-thirds of the way through a pre-emptive “K,” Javy dropped a gorgeous bunt down toward third for another infield single. And with the bases loaded, David Ross showed everyone that the Cubs line-up could still grind out an aat-bat repeatedly fouling off Bauer pitches until he found one that he could lift for a sacrifice fly to left.
It was the only inning where the offense came though. But thanks to the aforementioned scintillating pitching and defense, it was enough.
Jon Lester was everything we hoped he would be in an elimination game. He hit the corners much more effectively than Game 1. And as a bonus, Tony Randazzo even called some of those pitches strikes. He walked none and struck out five in six efficient innings, impressively working around a lead-off double in the fifth.
But perhaps the best part was that he didn’t allow a single until the sixth, giving us five solid innings of freedom from Joe Buck mentioning that he never throws to first. It’s unclear if Lester will win the Cy Young this year but this should definitely qualify him for an Emmy.
He was also aided by some gorgeous defense. After the second inning misadventures from last night, this was a welcome return. Ross and Rizzo pulled off a dynamite Bob Boone/Pete Rose impression as Grandpa Rossy dropped a foul pop by Cleveland’s dugout only to see Rizzo swoop in behind, juggle, and scoop the ball out of the air.
Not to be outdone, Heyward slightly overran a Bauer foul pop to right, corrected himself by bracing himself on the wall, and made a leaping catch as the ball descended. Even Bauer himself had to applaud the effort on his way back to the dugout. And while Cleveland fans might not have shared his sentiments, they must have been happy that he was doing anything with his hands that didn’t involve a drone.
In the end, though, the night belonged to Aroldis Chapman. Joe Maddon removed Lester after six innings and only 90 pitches with a 3-2 lead, sensing that he was beginning to run out of gas, and brought in Carl Edwards, Jr. because he must have assumed that there wasn’t enough unease in Wrigley. Edwards gave up a lead-off single to Mike Napoli (with a good cut-off by Zobrist to hold him to one) and a Willson Contreras passed ball moved him to second.
After Edwards got Santana to fly to left, Maddon decided to hoist Cleveland on its own petard. (Which sounds like a very flowery way to describe this move until you realize that there’s a 90 percent chance Maddon will use that phrase himself before the Series is over.) It was time to bring in the closer to get eight outs.
So this was why the Cubs got Chapman. And he announced his presence by striking out Ramirez on a 101 MPH fastball. After causing a brief worry by grazing Brandon Guyer on the thigh (thereby making the Guyer the player of the game for getting hit by a Chapman fastball and still existing), Chapman got Roberto Perez to ground to Baez and finish the inning.
There was more trouble ahead in the eighth. With one out, Rizzo made a beautiful diving stop on a grounder by Rajai Davis up the first base line. Rizzo got up and flipped to no one since Chapman had neglected to cover first base, giving Cub fans flashbacks to literally everyone who’s every pitched for this team.
After the federally mandated steal of second, Chapman got Jason Kipnis to foul out to just over the left field bullpen mound as Zobrist made a good play to keep the ball in his glove while the ground suddenly got bumpy. Just to make things even more intense, Davis stole third. But in the key out of the game, Chapman threaded the outside corner on a 2-2 count with a 102 MPH fastball as Francisco Lindor watched helplessly.
Thankfully, the ninth inning flew by with much less drama as Chapman struck out Napoli, got Santana to pop to right, and blew away Ramirez on three pitches. He gutted his way through two and two-thirds innings and picked up an amazingly rare eight-out save.
And we learned that the only sweeter sound than a Wrigley crowd singing “Go Cubs Go” was that of Goose Gossage shutting the hell up.
So on a night where Eddie Vedder duetted with Harry Caray on the seventh inning stretch, the Cubs gave every sportswriter the laziest way possible to proclaim that they were still alive. (Including this one. It’s 1:08 AM. Sorry.) Now they head back to Cleveland having to win only two more games to complete to create the greatest moment in team history. It’s still going to be very difficult and improbable. But the path to victory just got a little clearer. And it will hopefully be just a little easier now that the team we all recognize got here just in time.
Lead photo courtesy Jerry Lai—USA Today Sports