This is the kind of thing that used to be done to the Cubs, not by them. The Giants went to the bullpen in Game Four of the division series Tuesday night. Leading by three runs. Their mission: save it and force the set to a Game Five in Wrigley Field.
Mission aborted by four Cub runs in the ninth with only one out on the board. Season aborted by a bullpen that began to look like it was finding itself in the postseason until they lost each other, the plot, and the ball game.
Not since the 1986 Mets had any team come back from a three-run deficit in the ninth to bag a postseason set, and those Mets had to play seven more innings after that before they finally put the Astros away and went to the World Series. These Cubs only had half an inning to go after their three-run-deficit comeback. Much less draining.
Recall if you will the immortal words of fictitious, prima-donna Indians third baseman Roger Dorn to pitcher Wild Thing Vaughn: “I just got one thing to say to you—strike this motherf@cker out!” You could hear Cub Country sending Aroldis Chapman telepathic messages as he went to work in the bottom of the ninth: Strike these motherf@ckers out!!
Chapman atoned for his horrific Game Three eighth by doing exactly that. And just like that, the Giants’ even-number year magic vapourised, ending a season in which they were probably lucky to get to the postseason in the first place.
Just like that, Chapman punched out the Cubs’ ticket to the National League Championship Series, against a team with the best record in baseball entering the All-Star break but with the worst in the game in the entire second half, almost missing out on even the second league wild card.
After Matt Moore pitched so magnificently for eight innings, he seemed only a pleasant memory as the AT&T park audience—turned into that of a mortuary in the top of the ninth—lingered in the ballpark just to give their vanquished Giants a collective hug of thanks just for getting as far as they got.
After the Giants chased Cubs starter John Lackey with back-to-back runs in the bottom of the fourth and compelled the Cubs to just about empty their bullpen the rest of the way, that seemed like a distant sweet spot in time after Chapman blew away Gorkys Hernandez, Denard Span, and Brandon Belt on thirteen pitches.
The Cubs got tested hard enough by the tenacious Giants in the first three games, even as the Cubs won the first two, but then came Game Four’s top of the ninth. They’d have to fight the law—Derek Law, that is, the first of the men Giants manager Bruce Bochy called upon to finish what Moore started so brilliantly.
They fought the Law and the law lost when Kris Bryant dumped a leadoff single to left center. In came Javier Lopez to spell Law, and up to first on the full count walk went Anthony Rizzo. In came closer Sergio Romo. And way into the right field corner went Ben Zobrist’s double, home came Bryant, and the Cubs were down a measly two.
Out went Romo, in came Will Smith, Bochy emptying his bullpen desperately seeking to save the series and the season. And right into center field went pinch hitter Willson Contreras’s two-run, tying-at-five single. Down went Jason Heyward’s none-too-graceful bunt, out went Contreras on a throw to second from Smith, and around to second went Heyward when Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford threw wild.
Out went Smith. In came Hunter Strickland, arguably the hardest thrower in the Giants’ pen. The only thing he threw now, though, was a too-good pitch on an 0-2 count that Javier Baez could and did slap into center field, sending Heyward home with the tiebreaker and eventual winner. Getting David Ross to end the inning dialing Area Code 4-6-3 now seemed like rushing the inevitable.
Not that the Cubs minded. It was Grandpa Rossy who accounted for their first two runs in the first place. He measured up Moore in the top of the third and sent the second pitch of the sequence into the left field seats—the oldest Cub ever to go long in postseason play at 39.
Two innings later—after Moore himself broke a one-all tie with an RBI single scoring Conor Gillaspie, followed at once by Joe Panik scoring on an infield ground out—Gramps lofted a sacrifice fly to right, scoring Baez.
It kind of seemed fitting for Baez to score the game and set-winner. It was Baez who started the Cubs’ division series ball rolling in the first place, thanking Jon Lester for his magnificent Game One pitching by measuring Giants starter Johnny Cueto in the eighth and parking one in the net at the left field wall in Wrigley Field for that game’s only run.
Gillaspie (what a surprise) continued his lack of knowledge of just how big a kid’s supposed to know these games are in the bottom of the fifth Tuesday, avenging Ross’s sacrifice fly by singling Hunter Pence home off Justin Grimm, the first of five Cub relievers on the night, after which Panik sent Crawford home on his own sacrifice fly.
This was a game the Cubs should be proud of and the ghosts of Cubs past should marvel over. Nobody among the Cubs’ brain trust from manager Joe Maddon on down made any moves that would scramble the brains or befuddle the gods.
Not one Cub fielder made a life-altering mistake in the field. Not one Cub pitcher threw a truly terrible pitch; the Giants earned what they got over the first eight.
These Cubs looked into the face of Chapman’s unholy surrender of Gillaspie’s two-run triple in the eighth in Game Three—hit with the Cubs a mere five outs from the NLCS, leading to the extra inning loss that set the table for Game Four—and effectively channeled their inner Jack Benny: “There will now be a slight pause while you all say, ‘Who cares?’”
So Lackey could be dismantled methodically enough by the Giants’ hunt-peck-and-prick approach? No problem. The Cubs knew their own bullpen could stanch the bleeding for the most part. The Giants probably prayed every time Bochy went to the pen after Moore’s evening ended.
And with three pounding strikeouts Chapman put paid to the Giants’ ten-game postseason elimination-game winning streak, with even more deadly precision than that with which Jake Arrieta, the Cubs’ Game Three starting pitcher, smashed Madison Bumgarner’s postseason scoreless inning streak with a parabolic three-run homer in the top of the second Monday.
Who did these Cubs think they were—the 2004 Red Sox? OK, they have the mastermind of that Red Sox team, Theo Epstein, running the front office show for them now. Even Epstein couldn’t have figured these Cubs to produce such dramatics as Tuesday night’s ninth. Or could he?
Right now anything seems possible in Cub Country. Including the impossible.