NLCS Game 1 was a real nail biter … until it wasn’t. The Dodgers’ No. 1 by attrition, righty Kenta Maeda, who was bumped up when the three candidates ahead of him to start the game—Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill and Julio Urias—all pitched in the wild NLDS Game 5 on Thursday, kept his team in the game by allowing three runs over four innings. Cubs lefty Jon Lester was better, going six strong with the only blemish being an Andre Ethier solo home run, but after Pedro Strop and Mike Montgomery combined to load the bases with nobody out in the eighth, closer Aroldis Chapman came on and immediately surrendered the game-tying hit, a single by first baseman Adrian Gonzalez.
Just as the Wrigley faithful began to count the days until spring training, Chicago exploded for a five-run bottom of the inning and hung on for the 8–4 victory to put itself within 81 outs of the World Series.
The bases were loaded—two of them by intentional walk—when catcher Miguel Montero came to the plate in the eighth, cold and pinch-hitting for Chapman. Montero was facing righty Joe Blanton, who had the 29th lowest home-run-per-fly-ball rate among the 129 qualified major league relievers this year (7.5%). He was coming off a total of four at bats in the NLDS where, in keeping with a season in which he hit a career-worst .216, he was 0 for 4. But it’s the 2016 Cubs, so this time, he hit a grand slam. It was the third pinch-hit grand slam in postseason history, and it was followed on the next pitch by a Dexter Fowler home run to run the score to 8–3 and put the game away.
The beaten basepath
Perhaps the one place the Cubs seemed vulnerable as the postseason began was in the running game. Each of their five starters was among MLB’s top 30 in stolen bases allowed in the regular season, with Lester third and righty Jake Arrieta fifth, and Dodgers manager Dave Roberts acknowledged before the game that “there’s something to trying to challenge Lester and get him a little uncomfortable.” And Los Angeles did run, but it was Chicago that saw more success on the basepaths.
With two out and men on first and second in the second, Maeda threaded a grounder between the shortstop and the third baseman. As Ben Zobrist fielded the ball in shallow left, third base coach Chris Woodward gave the green light to first baseman Adrian Gonzalez—whom Indians manager Terry Francona called “the slowest player I’ve ever seen” when they were both with the Red Sox in 2011—chugging around third. Zobrist’s throw was right on line, and catcher David Ross nearly had time to exchange greetings with Gonzalez before tagging him out at home.
The Cubs, on the other hand, picked up a run in the second when second baseman Javier Baez got caught drifting off third and instead darted home under catcher Carlos Ruiz’s tag for the straight steal.
Don’t get defensive
Everyone knows by now that the Cubs are the best defensive team in baseball this year, but they’re actually also one of the best defensive teams of all time. They rank first in the percentage of balls in play converted to outs, when adjusted for ballpark, since at least 1950, as far back as Baseball Prospectus’s numbers go. That can’t be credited entirely to their pitching staff; in fact, a comparison of their 3.85 DRA (another BP stat that measures how many runs a pitcher deserved to give up) with their major league–leading 3.15 ERA suggests that the hurlers benefited from the fielders, not the other way around.
To be sure, they employ excellent defenders—rightfielder Jason Heyward was a three-time Gold Glover before signing with Chicago, second baseman–ish Zobrist can play any position other than the battery, shortstop Addison Russell and first baseman Anthony Rizzo both received multiple minor league fielding awards even before the Cubs got their hands on them—but Chicago is on a whole ‘nother level, switching players’ positions mid-game and seemingly having figured out defensive positioning a year or two ahead of the rest of the league.
Centerfielder Dexter Fowler, for instance, has consistently rated very poorly out there, despite his plus arm and plus speed—until this year, when he suddenly shot to average. MLB’s Statcast data suggests that the Cubs’ decision to play him deeper has been responsible for a lot of the change, and we saw it pay off Saturday, when he came from outside the camera frame to make a lunging, pinwheeling, belt-snapping catch of a Ruiz liner to end the fourth. His was just one of six line drives Chicago snagged, turning possible extra-base hits into outs. Expect to see more flashes of leather as the series continues.