Coming into tonight's game, my biggest fear was that the Cubs would come out flat at the plate again, and shuffle away quietly after such a dominant season. Intellectually, I didn't think it would happen, but there was still this lurking fear that we would all see the season end that way. And, to be honest, when Jose Ramirez hit his solo home run in the 2nd inning, and the Cubs offense looked dormant again, I felt like I was watching a pet die slowly.
But instead, the Cubs were themselves again. They played solid defense, they strung hits together, and they flashed power when they needed it. But, of course, it wasn't all that simple. Aroldis Chapman pitched nearly three innings and even went to the plate in lieu of a pinch hitter in the 8th inning. Dexter Fowler took a pitch off of his foot and then somehow still stole a base. Jason Heyward lasered a single and then stole two bases. It was all the things that make baseball simple and great and all the things that make it wild and unpredictable.
The key tonight was just winning an inning. The last three games of the NLCS are not the norm in postseason baseball because more often than not, a run or two is the difference, like we saw tonight. That inning came for the Cubs in the 4th, when they'd score three runs and create enough of a cushion to hold off Cleveland and fight another day.
The 4th inning started with a home run from Kris Bryant and then a double off of the wall from Anthony Rizzo. Just like you want to see from this offense. These two can propel the rest of the team by themselves, and they did that tonight. Ben Zobrist kept the line moving with a single that moved Rizzo to third, and then Addison Russell's infield single scored Rizzo. Jason Heyward struck out for the first out of the inning, but Javier Baez kept the inning going with his bunt single to load the bases. With a now 2-1 lead, David Ross came up to bat in his final game at Wrigley and possibly his final game of his career, and he did not disappoint. He hit the ball deep to left field to score Zobrist on a sacrifice fly, and it's 3-1, Cubs.
Cleveland grabbed another run to narrow the lead in the 6th on a one out single from Rajai Davis, who would score on Francisco Lindor's two out single because he had been able to steal second base. But Lindor would ironically end that inning in the very next at bat when he got nabbed at second base on a steal attempt.
But the real story tonight might be the pitching. Jon Lester threw a phenomenal game. He struck out the side to begin things, worked out of a jam in the 5th inning, and then turned the game over the Carl Edwards, Jr. Edwards was only needed for an out, and then Aroldis Chapman took things from there. In the 7th inning with just one out recorded, it's Chapman's game to finish. Joe Maddon was plain in his postgame press conference that he had fully intended on letting Chapman get the eight out save, and he did it. Even when it meant he had to strap on a batting helmet and go to the plate against Cleveland's closer, he did it.
Cubs win and force Game Six.
Instrumental in winning a close World Series game like this one is making the hard defensive plays sometimes. That may have been the dagger last night, but in just tonight's game, we saw all of the following:
- Jason Heyward's catch against the wall in right field
- Anthony Rizzo's diving stop at first. Though Aroldis Chapman didn't remember to cover the bag, Rizzo still saved that from being a much more dangerous hit.
- Ben Zobrist's catch in left by the bullpen. An easy ball to misplay and extend a potentially key at bat.
- David Ross throwing out Lindor. For all the hubbub about Jon Lester's yips and the struggles with holding runners, Ross still always keeps 'em honest.
- David Ross/Anthony Rizzo juggling catch. On a night when that catch goes your way, you have to win.
- Javy Baez's quick tag. We've been seeing it all season, and even as he's struggled mightily at the plate and showing us flashes of his 2014 self, his defense is tantamount to the Cubs' success right now.
- Kris Bryant's diving stop and then throw to first. Credit Bryant's throw and credit Rizzo for getting the ball and then getting his foot back to the bag.
Hindsight makes it especially easy, but even after a win, there were a couple of spots where I wondered about Maddon's decision-making. I wondered at pinch hitting for David Ross and pulling Jon Lester as early as he did, and I wondered to at the decision to let Chapman bat with Heyward in scoring position and Kyle Schwarber just lurking there in the dugout.
But I'm reminded that sitting on my couch I have access to such a limited amount of the information that goes into these decisions. The Cubs won and these things fade in our memories, and maybe it's best to remember that a part of being a manager means committing to a plan and sticking with it. As fans, we are probably too often reactionary, especially in the moment.
"Don't let us win."
Coming back from being down three games to one is not without precedent, and for as easy as things look for Cleveland going into the game, the pressure is actually all on them. This is their series to lose. And while returning to Ohio for the final two games of the series might seem like a clear advantage, let's pause to remember who returns to the lineup for Game Six:
And let us pause and remember who will be pitching Game Six:
Don't let us win, Cleveland. It'd be a darned shame to have to go to Game Seven and have to try and beat this guy:
Rock on, Cubs. Rock on.
Three Stars of Game
Third Star- Jon Lester (6 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 0 BB, 5 K)
Lester did exactly what he needed to today. There are probably too many good players on this team for us to always get the chance to really appreciate some of the individuals. Lester is one of those for me. I'm not sure we're always aware of just how good he's been since coming to Chicago.
Second Star- Kris Bryant (1 for 3, BB, HR)
He made a pretty brilliant diving stop and throw from third base as well, and even his strikeouts tonight came on questionable calls.
First Star- Aroldis Chapman (2.2 IP, 1 H, 0 BB, 4 K)
And he batted. Again I say it: he went to the plate.