Emotional Moments: NLDS Edition

Some might seek to rank the Cubs’ best playoff moments with leverage index, taking a stab at quantifying the emotional heft of each moment. Others might take a look at certain games or players, weighing the impact of a player’s contributions, or crafting stories of games that drove us to despair and unbridled celebration, those two often experienced within a just few pitches of each other.

I think those are fine methods that do little to capture the joy and relief and ecstasy that we’ve experienced, now that the Cubs are World Series champions. In the wake of Game Seven, how can I look at indices and make lists and expect it to make any sense in the face of these raw feelings? No, I strive for something slightly different: a completely subjective, probably-wrong-but-I-don’t-care gathering of the moments this postseason that evoked the strongest positive feelings in me. They’ll be different from yours, sure, but I mostly want you to join me in reliving a few of these plays that capture the highs of this climactic, surreal experience. This installment: the Cubs’ NLDS victory over San Francisco, which nearly got out of hand and threatened to stall the Cubs’ playoff train before it left the station.

Baez Finds the Basket

Many made out the Division Series matchup between the Cubs and Giants to be a “trap” matchup for the former: some rust accumulated by a few weeks of almost meaningless baseball, called upon to face the relentless Even Year Champs. In Game One, Johnny Cueto strolled into Wrigley Field to face the playoff bulldog Jon Lester, and the pair of pitchers did not disappoint.

Lester tossed eight dominant innings, and Cueto matched him, perhaps looking even better than his lefty counterpart. That is, until the eighth. It was then that we received the first of many gifts from the benevolent second baseman, Javier Baez. Staring down a full count, Baez got a fastball middle-middle from Cueto, and skied it very, very, very high into the Chicago night. Baez expected the ball to land on Waveland—as did I, and most anyone else watching from home or at Wrigley—yet the stiff wind knocked it down. Luckily, it found the basket in left, just beyond the reach of the Giants, giving the Cubs a 1-0 lead with Aroldis Chapman ready to close out the ninth. It was the first moment that induced screams and a jump from me, after many simple fist pumps following big Lester strikeouts. It was also the first time that Baez reminded the national audience that he was not to be trifled with. It wouldn’t be the last.

Visions of 2003—in a Good Way

The next night was one of few games the Cubs played this October that didn’t induce horrible anxiety for a host of Cubs fans. Kyle Hendricks, the ERA champion of the majors, left the game in the third after being struck in the forearm by a line drive, threatening not only the Cubs’ chances in that game, but their odds of advancing to the World Series. Travis Wood replaced the righty, and Wood shone brightly in 1 and 1/3 innings.

However, it wasn’t his arm that landed Wood on this list, as you know. In the bottom of the fourth, Wood hit after Willson Contreras, who grounded out against Giants reliever George Kontos. He did this:

It was the crowning achievement of a career with the Cubs that wasn’t always easy. Wood is the longest-tenured Cub, acquired before the 2012 season for Sean Marshall, and he started for three seasons with Chicago before his conversion to a relief arm in the early portion of 2015. He was all but forced out of his starter spot due to poor performance and better in-house options, and one would have forgiven him if he had made a stink about being relegated to the ‘pen. As it was, Wood became Joe Maddon’s peculiar Swiss Army knife: he was a loogy, he was a long reliever, he was a pinch-hitter and -runner, and, on a few occasions, he was the left fielder.

Wood experienced the bad years of 2012-2014 more than any other Cub—even more than Anthony Rizzo—and so his unlikely Game Two homer finds a place in the pantheon of great 2016 moments. As many noted at the time, he wasn’t the first pitcher named Wood to homer in a Cubs playoff game. Fortunately, this one came in a victory. He might be gone next year, but we’ll always have his miraculous catch in left, his serviceable relief work, and his shirtless air guitar moves at the World Series rally.

The Second Most Bizarre Game of the Playoffs

The Cubs flew to San Francisco hoping to sweep the series. It wasn’t going to be easy, with Jake Arrieta squaring off against postseason demigod Madison Bumgarner, and everyone anticipated this to be the game the Cubs would lose (if they were to lose one). The Cubs lost, sure, but the game was whacky and weird and wild, and it defied everyone’s expectations regardless of result. There are three moments in this game that deserve recognition.

Arrieta hit a homer off Bumgarner. Considering the opposing pitcher, it was even more improbable than Wood’s homer the previous night. The lefty tossed a belt-high, 92-mile-per-hour fastball to Arrieta, who, in a rare occurrence, wore batting gloves. Arrieta found the bleachers just beyond the left-field wall, sending Anthony Rizzo and his teammates into a frenzy. Arrieta shouted as he rounded second, and he found himself with a 3-0 lead.

That lead wouldn’t last, of course, and the Cubs looked destined to lose Game Three in as heartbreaking of a fashion as one can lose the third game of a Division Series with a 2-0 lead. The Dread Giant Conor Gillaspie, whose Wild Card Game heroics propelled the Giants over the limping Mets, tripled, and Brandon Crawford singled, the culmination of Chapman Meltdown 1.0.

Enter Kris Bryant, who found himself with a runner on base and Sergio Romo on the rubber in the top half of the ninth. Romo is a slider specialist and the former Giants’ closer, thrust back into the role after incumbent closer Santiago Casillas struggled down the stretch. Romo spins sliders less effectively than he did in his heyday, but it was a fitting matchup for Bryant. The presumptive MVP improved greatly versus sliders this year, partially the result of a more level swing plane, and it showed: Bryant swatted a cement-mixer, 78-mile-per-hour offering just far enough to plate Dexter Fowler and himself, tying the game at five and eventually causing extra innings. Despite a robust slash line, Bryant hit only one home run in the first two series of these playoffs. But he made it count.

That game ended in a fashion most Cubs fans would probably like to forget, but before you do that, I’d like to call to your attention to two more valiant performances. The first is obvious, and, though it’s not available for embedding, I encourage you to watch the video.

Albert Almora, Jr., who Joe Maddon and Cubs’ brass selected over Matt Szczur as the Cubs’ final outfielder on the playoff roster, made a once-in-a-lifetime catch to save the game for the Cubs. He entered the game in a sequence of dubious managerial decisions, but the results were favorable. The sinking liner off of Buster Posey’s bat was ticketed for the corner, ensuring Pence extra bases and the Giants a victory, but Almora chased it down, caught it in a dive, and sprung up with the presence of mind to throw to first to double up the runner who didn’t tag.

Maddon emptied his bench and bullpen swiftly in Game Three, attempting to combat the considerable magic that the Giants were conjuring in the late innings. Almora’s entrance was a symptom of those decisions. So were Mike Montgomery’s four innings of one-run ball, from the ninth inning until the end of the game. Unfortunately, that lone run ended the contest; for that, we can’t fault Montgomery. He began with two one-two-three innings, and followed with two innings in which he faced four hitters each. His effectiveness ran dry in the 13th, when Brandon Crawford and Joe Panik hit back-to-back doubles, but Montgomery stared down an unenviable situation and almost pitched the Cubs to victory in a truly bizarre game. It portended great things to come for the left-hander.

Killing Even Year B.S.

Not satisfied with the weird nature of Game Three, the Cubs stormed back to cement this NLDS in postseason history with another comeback in Game Four. The game was fairly staid for the first eight innings, a plain 5-2 affair favoring the Giants, but the Giants’ bullpen couldn’t stave off the Cubs’ relentless bats.

Kris Bryant singled. Javier Lopez came in the game to face Anthony Rizzo. Rizzo walked. Sergio Romo, Game Three’s goat, came in to face Ben Zobrist. Zobrist doubled, scoring Bryant. Will Smith entered to face Chris Coghlan, but Maddon pulled Coghlan back for Willson Contreras. Contreras’s liner to center scored two and tied the game. Jason Heyward put down a lackluster bunt, but reached second on a throwing error. Javier Baez, the series hero, plated one final run—the game-winning run—with a soft single up the middle.

It was a sequence rare in Cubs history, due to the enormous pressure brought by the circumstances, but the team exhibited its considerable resolve. It was a fittingly feverish ending to the NLDS, which became an instant classic, and it differentiated this club from many of the Cubs teams who have come before. And it was the capstone on a series full of soaring emotional highs, from a midseason pickup’s gritty mastery of a handful of key innings in a loss, to home runs so unexpected that you couldn’t help but laugh.

Lead photo courtesy John Hefti—USA Today Sports

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