I am speechless. I am without speech.
This was the kind of win where I really have to work to find the right words to describe the joy of getting to witness it. And it’s ultimately fruitless because it’s the kind of euphoria where if I were able to capture it in words, it would somehow feel diminished.
So I sit there with a big smile on my face, completely drained of all remaining life force, watch Jon Lester drunkenly talk about blacking out during the last couple innings (right with you, Jon), and just soak every last second of it in.
My God, what did we do to deserve this team?
That’s the first time I’ve ever uttered that question in something other than the fetal position.
Winner take all postseason games are baseball’s showcase events where even casual fans tune in to see what’s going to happen. Here’s a quick list of things MLB probably doesn’t want to appear in such a game:
- Umpires botching the rules at a crucial moment
- Catcher’s interference
- Multiple replay reviews
- Six pitching changes per team
- Marlins Man
- Time of Game: Wagernian Opera
NLDS Game Five had all of that and more. And yet somehow it will go down as an all time classic. It was perhaps the greatest bad baseball game of all time.
To begin with, it took an MLB postseason record 4 hours and 37 minutes to complete. And honestly, that feels a little low. At one point, Ernie Johnson remarked that Jayson Werth had chosen the Game of Thrones music for his walk up music. Which made sense because in the time it took to play Game Five, George R. R. Martin finished three books.
That 4:37 was a-g-o-n-i-z-i-n-g to watch. Every out felt like it required a herculean effort and every inning was an epic drama where just a few men were all that stood between us and the forces of annihilation.
In other words, it was appropriate that all this was taking place in Washington, DC. God help us all if North Korea figures out how to weaponize elimination games.
It would be foolhardy to attempt to do go through this entire game and attempt to do it justice. For one thing, I’m pretty sure BP Wrigleyville doesn’t have nearly enough bandwith. So let’s take a look some of the key moments where things ended up turning in the Cubs’ favor.
For starters, Kyle Hendricks had to gut his way through the Nationals order without anything resembling his best stuff. He wasn’t able to live on the corners the way he had done so effectively in Game One and every time he threw a high fastball, it seemed to leak out over the middle of the plate. This resulted in second inning home runs to Daniel Murphy and Michael A. Taylor as the Nats jumped out to a 4-1 lead.
After the Cubs cut it to 4-3, Maddon decided to let Hendricks bat for himself in the fourth inning. It looked for all the world like he was surrendering an out in a game where The Professor was only destined for another inning or two.
Hendricks squeaked through the fourth, stranding Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper on a fly ball that Ryan Zimmerman’s bat just got under. It didn’t seem like it at the time, but that turned out extremely important inning because Maddon then proceeded to manage the game within an inch of its life and he ended up with barely enough relief pitching to cover the next five innings.
The game changing rally took place in the fifth. It began as game changing rallies often do: with two outs and nobody on against Max Scherzer.
Usually, that combination of words correlates with a scoreless inning almost as precisely as “All we need is a clutch hit from Fred McGriff.” But not tonight. Willson Contreras got things going with an infield single. And then Joe Maddon made the first crucial move of the frame by pinch hitting Ben Zobrist for Albert Almora, Jr.
Maddon could have gone to Kyle Schwarber and tried to turn the deficit into a lead with one swing of the bat. But against the flame throwing multiple Cy Young winner, he decided to go with a contact hitter and the move paid off when Zobrist floated an opposite field single to left. On the very next pitch, Addison Russell scorched a double down the third base line to plate both runners and put the Cubs on top 5-4.
And that’s when all hell broke loose.
Jason Heyward was up next and to that point, he had turned in two of the worst at bats on the night. In both instances, he made outs with big swings on pitches well outside the strike zone. Astoundingly in spite of all that, Baker chose to intentionally walk him.
Read that again. Dusty Baker decided to avoid having Max Scherzer pitch to Jason Heyward. He is still that wedded to handedness and reputation. Hell, the Cubs could have probably caused him to take Scherzer out if only they had the foresight to activate Lenny Harris.
Dusty’s insane move appeared to work when Javy Baez struck out on a pitch in the dirt. However, his bat glanced off Matt Wieters’s mask on his follow through and the ball rolled behind the Nats catcher. Baez reached first as Wieters threw the ball into right field and another run scored.
It turned out that home plate umpire Jerry Layne screwed up as the contact with the catcher’s mask should have resulted in a dead ball and strike three. Unfortunately for the Nats, Wieters’s mask was located in the one place where it was guaranteed Layne would blow the call: in the strike zone.
The nightmare inning kept going as Tommy LaStella reached on catcher’s interference, loading the bases for Jon Jay. Scherzer proceeded to hit him in the left knee with a slider and the Cubs were suddenly ahead 7-4.
A pattern then developed over the next few innings: Joe Maddon would bring in a new pitcher. Said pitcher would issue at least one walk. The Nats would creep back in the game. Maddon would lift him for a new hurler who would escape the jam. And in the the pattern would repeat in the very next inning.
It’s the Circle of Life. With every Cub fan playing the part of a wildebeest.
Finally, the Cubs found themselves with a precarious 9-7 lead with two outs in the seventh. With one on and Zimmerman representing the tying run, the final key decision point was at hand. Maddon decided to bring in Wade Davis for a potential seven out save.
Huh. That sounds familiar.
Davis proceeded to blow away Zimmerman on four pitches. That turned out to be the easy part. The eighth inning proved to be positively hellish.
Again, I could swear that’s been written before.
Davis gave up two walks, got a double play, and then surrendered an RBI single to Connor Gillaspie/Andrew Toles/Brandon Guyer impressionist Michael A. Taylor to cut the lead to 9-8. He then allowed another single to José Lobatón to put the go ahead run on base and only got bailed out when replay determined Lobatón’s foot left the bag on a Contreras pick-off.
So with a one-run lead going into the bottom of the ninth and the top of Washington’s order due up, it was understandable to wonder if Davis had enough left to get the three most important outs of the year.
And at just that moment, Davis turned into an unhittable destroyer of worlds who feeds on hope and dugout cheerleaders holding up signs that say “GET LOUD.” He got Turner to fly harmlessly to center. Werth struck out swinging. And after two quick strikes, Harper worked the count to 3-2. With the tension built to a peak and all of Nationals Park pleading with their megastar to save their season, Davis threw a hellacious cutter that broke down and in. Harper swung over it to end his team’s season and the Cubs had won their third consecutive NLDS.
And in a moment that somehow feels even more unprecedented, Wade Davis showed an emotion.
If you want something that summarizes how great this team is, consider this: the Cubs played a five game series with the Nationals. They faced Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg in four of those games. And they still managed to win it. That is the very definition of “We never quit.”
This is only the first step on the playoff journey and the 104-win Dodgers await. But it also feels like a season defining moment. It’s obviously not life changing like the World Series winner, but it is a game we’ll all remember for the rest of our lives.
Let’s hope they space these kind of games out so those lives can last a little bit longer.
Lead photo courtesy Geoff Burke—USA Today Sports