Not to take anything away from Jacob deGrom, Daniel Murphy, and all the New York Mets who did the little things right Tuesday night. (And, in Murphy’s case, one not-so-little thing even more right.) But the way the Chicago Cubs finished the evening on the brink of elimination was just too Cubs for comfort.
Maybe Cub Country, that long-battered, long-picked-on nation of Jobs, can find some small comfort in knowing that it didn’t happen with the Cubs five outs from the World Series. And maybe Mrs. O’Leary’s cow was carrying a flashlight, too.
It’s bad enough that peculiar things have seemed to happen in the late innings to most of the postseason entrants, this season and in a few seasons past. There are peculiar things, and then there are the Cubs.
This time it was a tiebreaking wild pitch one inning, two fielding hiccups the next. This time, it was what proved the winning run coming home on a strikeout. This time, it was a Met who seems unable to live a day without hitting a home run, lately, collecting maybe the most important infield hit of his career. This time, it was another Met executing his first sacrifice bunt in over four years.
And before you finished blinking, before you finished wondering, the Mets had a 5-2 Game Three win in their pockets, and the Cubs stood a very good chance of losing the National League Championship Series on Back to the Future Day.
Today is the date that that absurdist film comedy predicted the Cubs would finally win the World Series again. Something they haven’t done since the Roosevelt Administration—Theodore’s. Somebody forgot to send those producers the memo from Tuesday night.
This is nothing against the Mets, of course. They’re a likeable, tenacious, spunky, and colourful team. They think nothing of pranking each other at the press conference dais one night and, with apologies to the franchise’s very first manager, finding new ways to win you never knew existed before the next.
That’s not exactly the kind of news by which to make friends and influence outcomes in the Cubs’ favour.
When deGrom shakes off first inning blues to bear down and retire the last eleven hitters he faces following Jorge Soler’s fourth-inning solo jack, when Murphy defies logic, set, and numbers to hit one out in his fifth consecutive postseason game—a hanging 2-1 slider from Cub starter Kyle Hendricks that he deposited in the right center field bleachers (See? It isn’t just the aces whom Murphy can mash)—all you can do is tip your beak, hoist a tall one, and congratulate that tenacious spunk.
But what do you do when Cub reliever Trevor Cahill throws Michael Conforto a curve ball that escapes catcher Miguel Montero and allows Yoenis Cespedes—feinting, dancing, prancing, and teasing down the third base line like he’d been taking lessons from Jackie Robinson on the extraterrestrial hot line—to shoot home with what proves the winning run in the top of the sixth?
(Other than to say Tommy Henrich no longer has the most powerful should-have-been inning-ending strikeout of all time? “[Michael Cuddyer] actually came up to me and said, ‘Is that the biggest strikeout of your career?’” Conforto said after the game. “All you can do is laugh.”)
What do you when—after the gift of a ground rule double, after Soler misplayed Wilmer Flores’s macaroni liner and the ball ended up in the Wrigley ivy, negating a possible Conforto score—David Wright bloops a one-out double, Murphy picks up an infield hit when third baseman Kris Bryant double clutches on his throw across to first, and Cespedes lines one toward Kyle Schwarber in left on which Schwarber steps back only to have the ball bang off his leather, scoring Wright and enabling Murphy to have third before scoring on a followup ground out?
What do you do, knowing that not even Schwarber hitting one solo in the first and Soler hitting one solo in the fourth can keep deGrom, the delta wing-haired Met, from burying the Cubs’ bats otherwise? Or Mets relievers Tyler Clippard and Jeurys Familia from keeping them buried over the final two, while you’re trying to believe or misbelieve (the choice is yours) what you saw in the two innings preceding Clippard’s arrival?
Can you count on serious prayers to the Cub Country gods that Theo Epstein—whose Boston Red Sox overthrew an 0-3 deficit and their too-long-nemesis New York Yankees in the 2004 American League Championship Series, before going forward to a World Series sweep that smashed decades of extraterrestrial Boston sorrows—will prove to have infused these Cubs with just enough of that 2004 mojo?
“Of course you think about those things, you think about the parallels, think about the fact that that happened against a New York team,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said ruefully after Tuesday’s game finished. “We think about all that stuff, but it’s up to us to go out and play and execute.”
Execute or be executed. All of a sudden it became too simple to forget the Cubs had baseball’s third best 2015 record and entered the NLCS on a 12-1 run. Because all of a sudden it became too simple to remember that the Cubs have spent even more seasons in hell than those Red Sox, under just about the same cruel lashes.
“One New York team’s blown a 3-0 lead; let’s make it the other New York team,” said Anthony Rizzo after Tuesday’s game. “That’s the way we’re going to look at it.”
If only these Cubs had to launch their overthrow against such ancient men as Orlando Hernandez, Kevin Brown, Jon Lieber, and Mike Mussina, whose collective earned run averages in 2004 were 4.00+. Those Red Sox had it simple compared to these Cubs. Pinned by a trio of young turks named Harvey, Syndergaard, and deGrom, having to face one named Steven Matz in Game Four. Their collective 2015 ERA? 2.69.
These Cubs made a magnificent run of things to get to this League Championship Series in the first place. Up to and including battering their longtime rival St. Louis Cardinals in a division series. Wait till next year? Even those Cub fans wearing “Just One Before I Die” T-shirts may be thinking, “Ahhh, wait till last week.”
It may not comfort them to know that this time their heroes weren’t pushed to the brink, and may not be thrown over the cliff, by a billy goat, a black cat, an anxious fan, or even a movie. But unless these Cubs find a way to hit better than their .158 LCS average or pitch better than their 4.68 LCS ERA in Game Four, just for openers, it will be forward to the past.