On Tuesday, we relived the drama and joy of the Cubs’ NLDS victory over the odious San Francisco Giants. Perhaps you need more joy today. I can’t think of a better way than to recount our collective ecstasy brought upon by the Chicago Cubs’ pennant-winning series versus the Los Angeles Dodgers, so I’m going to walk you through a handful of moments in the NLCS that are worthy of reflection.
Baez Breaks for Home
Jon Lester didn’t quite match his NLDS performance in this series opener, but he tossed six innings of one-run, four-hit, one-walk baseball, in what seemed enough to give the Cubs a comfortable victory. The Cubs touched up Kenta Maeda for a run in the first, the result of a Dexter Fowler single and soft Kris Bryant double, and the Dodgers pocketed several hard-hit outs that salved a wound in danger of bursting open.
The second inning featured much of the same: Jason Heyward tripled to lead off the inning, and Javier Baez knocked him home with a bloop to center field. While nearly every other major leaguer would have been halted at first by the first base coach or their own instincts, Baez—who plays the game at a different speed than most—found another gear and hustled into second, a surprise double that triggered an important sequence. Maeda unleashed a wild pitch allowing Baez to scamper to third, and, with one out and the light-hitting Lester at the plate, Joe Maddon decided to test the Dodgers’ defensive meddle.
Lester squared to bunt. Maeda fired a 92-mile-per-hour fastball low-and-inside. Carlos Ruiz received the pitch and fired to third without hesitation after Baez deked toward home. The NLCS MVP-to be bolted. Justin Turner gloved the throw off balance and slung the ball to Ruiz, but Baez slid in well under the ball and Ruiz never handled it cleanly. The Cubs took a 3-0 lead, and Javier Baez stole home in the playoffs.
It was a transcendent moment: not only did we get to revel in the joy that is Javy Baez single-handedly altering the course of a ballgame with his smarts and instincts, but we saw a Cubs steal home in the playoffs for the first time since outfielder Jimmy Slagle did so in the 1907 World Series.
Miguel Montero Is Good
What appeared to be a textbook playoff pitchers’ duel, in the vein of the Johnny Cueto-Jon Lester matchup in Game One of the Division Series, ended up in the hands of the team’s bullpens after Lester exited with a 3-1 lead. In the top of the eighth, two of the Cubs’ best pitchers, Mike Montgomery and Pedro Strop, loaded the bases with two singles and a walk. For one of the only times in these playoffs, Joe Maddon reacted with urgency: he trusted Aroldis Chapman with the difficult task of escaping from a bases loaded, no out situation.
Chapman got two of the three most dangerous bats in the Dodgers lineup to strike out: Corey Seager and Yasiel Puig. But the man who would prove to be the biggest offensive thorn in the Cubs’ side, Adrian Gonzalez, slapped a single into center, scoring two runs and tying the game. Chapman escaped the inning, but the collective damage was done.
Of course, those events merely set the stage for one of the biggest moments of the playoffs. In the bottom half of the inning, the Cubs rattled anthropomorphic thumb and Kyle Schwarber doppleganger Joe Blanton, loading the bases with the pitcher’s spot due up. Maddon, with a bench only lacking Jorge Soler and Chris Coghlan, who had previously pinch-hit, called upon the forgotten Miguel Montero in a pivotal spot.
Down 0-2 to the slider-loving Blanton, Montero coiled into his patented violent loading position, and unleashed a swing that sent the failed back-foot slider deep into the right-field bleachers. The photo of Montero’s follow through, Fowler’s arms raised in jubilation (his bat discarded, at the apex of its parabolic path), and the frenzied Wrigley crowd is iconic.
After the World Series parade, Montero expressed some dismay at the role he ended up playing in the playoffs. He lamented the fact that he didn’t catch any innings in the World Series until the final two of Game Seven, and that Maddon and the front office didn’t communicate to him what his role would be on the playoff squad. For the man who now has two of the biggest hits in Cubs history, we would be correct to remember him by how he made us feel with his words and his deeds—those that helped instill a winning culture with its insistence that “we are good.”
The Thrill Is Gone… and Back Again
Games Two and Three featured an uncharacteristic silence from the Cubs’ bats, as they faced peak Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill. Hand wringing abounded; the bats were cold; the takes were hot. As in the Giants series, which teetered on despair as Game Three descended into madness, those eager to write off the Cubs as a juggernaut regular season team with a poorly constructed playoff roster licked their lips. The Cubs weren’t snakebitten, though, no matter the accumulated narratives and the reality of a hitting cold streak. In Game Four, against youngest-ever playoff starter Julio Urias, they sprung for a couple of crooked numbers.
As the story that has already been retold many times goes, it began with a bunt. In the fourth, Ben Zobrist led off with a squeaky bunt single. Javier Baez followed with a base hit, and the Cubs had Urias on the ropes. A Willson Contreras single and Jason Heyward groundout plated two runs, but the death blow, and the eventual winning runs, came in the form of an Addison Russell two-run homer. The Cubs were back, baby, and they were going to hit like they did all season. They were going to bludgeon opposing pitchers, they were going to induce fear and cowering and myriad other emotions from both the stoic and the bleeding heart, and they were going to win baseball games with their bats.
It was a watershed moment for Russell, too, as he and Anthony Rizzo awoke from seven-game offensive slumbers to deal a series of staggering jabs to the Dodgers’ increasingly thin pitching staff. The Cubs exploded for five more runs two innings later, off of Ross Stripling and Luis Avilán, and the final NLCS batting lines for Russell, Rizzo, Fowler, Baez, and Bryant all ended north of .800, with Contreras just a stone’s throw from that mark. The Cubs could hit, and they proved it in a tight series against a few great pitchers and a host of mediocre ones.
The Cubs Have Won the Pennant!
Lead photo courtesy of Jerry Lai—USA Today Sports