Cubs recaptured their magic with one swing of Anthony Rizzo’s bat


LOS ANGELES—The Los Angeles Dodgers had the Chicago Cubs right where they wanted them Wednesday: down two games to one in the National League Championship Series and, based on 18 consecutive scoreless turns at bat, witness to the construction of a national narrative that the Team of the Century was about to spiral down the drain of irrelevance. The Cubs looked tight, and the whiteboard inside the Dodgers’ clubhouse seemed to confirm the diagnosis.

In red marker, a Dodger wrote, “If We Keep Having Fun, They Won’t.”

In the last hours of golden Southern California daylight Wednesday, as the Cubs practiced their batting and their insouciance in the face of their own twilight, Chicago general manager Jed Hoyer was asked where the offense might come from on this dormant team.

“I think it starts with [Dexter] Fowler, because he’s our leadoff guy,” Hoyer said. “But Anthony Rizzo is big. He’s a home run hitter and he means so much to us. You need your stars to play well.”

By the end of a long night that saw the Cubs win 10-2, Chicago had plastered 13 hits around Dodger Stadium and the Dodgers had played so poorly that their final linescore on the mid-Century scoreboard was the same as the area code of a small Caribbean nation: Aguilla, to be exact (reppin’ the 2-6-4).

Fowler did contribute two of the Cubs’ hits. But no hit was bigger than the home run Hoyer’s big guy provided: a blast by Rizzo off Pedro Baez in the fifth that had the effect of a defibrillator. It restored the Cubs’ heartbeat to its normal rhythm. It was just one run that pushed the Chicago lead to 5-0, but it meant that Rizzo was back, a truth he verified with a two-run single to right in the sixth and a single to left in the eighth. Until those three hits, Rizzo had been 2-for-28 in the postseason while stranding an entire Chicago voting precinct on the bases.

“That was big for Rizz," catcher David Ross said. "He was putting a ton of pressure on himself.”

It was a most productive night for Chicago. Today the Cubs are tied in the series, they have the Game 5 pitching matchup in their favor (their ace, Jon Lester, goes against Kenta Maeda), they have the home-field advantage for what is now a best-of-three series and their bats have returned. The Windy City is exactly that today because of an enormous collective exhale.

Don’t also discount another edge Game 4 provided the Cubs: They have Rizzo back. Rizzo is a grinder who rarely misses a game (just nine over the past two years) and has been incredibly consistent the past two years when it comes to runs (94 in 2015, 94 in ’16), homers (31, 32), RBI (101, 109), total bases (300, 317) and adjusted OPS (146, 146).

There’s more, however, to what makes Rizzo so important. The man is the fulcrum of the team, the organizer of team parties and dinners, a well-mannered gentleman and a cancer survivor who knows all about proper perspective when it comes to the stock market ride that is postseason baseball. The national television audience gained a window into Rizzo’s emotional ballast to the team when microphones captured a sweet chat between Rizzo and home plate umpire Angel Hernandez during Game 4.

Rizzo apologized to Hernandez for assuming a ball four call on his at-bat against Baez—he dropped his bat and began jogging to first—only to have Hernandez call it a strike. “No worries,” Hernandez said to him, and then complimented Rizzo on his deportment. In the heat of battle, the sportsmanship sold baseball better than any slick advertisement.

The bad news for Los Angeles is that Chicago’s lineup becomes much tougher to pitch to if Rizzo is raking. Both the Giants in the NLDS and the Dodgers in the NLCS had flustered Rizzo by not attacking him. Both teams liberally threw him off-speed pitches, especially curveballs, and especially in hitter’s counts. Rizzo, giving in to the want of October, often chased the pitches.

Rizzo was going so bad that in his final at-bat of Game 3, against the hard cutter of Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, teammate Matt Szczur (pronounced SEE-zur) told him, “Why don’t you use my bat?” It’s a running joke between the two of them. Both use Marucci bats of approximately the same size, but in different models.

“Every time he uses my bat,” Szczur said, “he gets a hit. I’m not kidding.”

So Rizzo took Szczur’s bat to the plate. He didn’t come back with it. Jansen exploded the bat in several pieces with his cutter, a barrage of kindling falling so numerously and dangerously from the sky that Jansen rose his arms to cover himself rather than chase the weak grounder that resulted from Rizzo’s contact. The ball rolled harmlessly, like a 90-foot putt on a slow green, allowing Rizzo to reach base with a hit.

For Game 4, Rizzo returned to his own model. He whiffed on a Julio Urias fastball in the first and struck out again on another Urias heater in the third. In the fifth, with Baez on the mound, Rizzo returned to a piece of Szczur’s lumber. Szczur, an outfielder who is not on the active roster, didn’t even know Rizzo picked his bat out of the bat rack until he heard it on television later.

Naturally, Rizzo found a deeper meaning in his choice of wood.

“Szcz came out today with a nice [television] feature on him about him giving his bone marrow, so all the things were just adding up,” said Rizzo, who as an 18-year-old was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. “I hit well with his bat, so he has hits in it. Same size, just different model and different name, and it worked.”

On Sept. 2, the eight-year anniversary of Rizzo learning his cancer was in remission, he hit a home run against the Giants while fellow cancer survivor Lester nearly threw a no-hitter—the same day Rizzo hosted cancer patients as part of the work of his foundation. So, yes, the man is entitled to believe in forces deeper than simple superstition.

In addition to using Szczur’s bat, Rizzo changed his two-strike approach to hit the home run. With two strikes, Rizzo goes into protection mode in which he chokes up on the bat, ditches his leg kick and shortens his swing. He does so because he hates striking out. But this time, with two strikes, Rizzo remained in full-throttle mode instead of downshifting. He kept his leg kick, kept his hands as far down the handle of the bat as possible and took a full, healthy swipe at the baseball.

“I just did something I felt was comfortable at the time,” he said. “It’s hard to explain but it just felt right.”

His eighth-inning single, though less prodigious, was built on the same dynamic: a rare full-throttle two-strike swing with a Matt Szczur model bat.

The bat switch just might take its place in historical annals of home runs like the one in 1978 by Yankees shortstop Bucky Dent, who used a Mickey Rivers bat to break the hearts of the Red Sox. Its place in perpetuity will depend on whether Chicago wins two more games in this series.

The series has played out as expected: The Cubs, because the Dodgers can’t hit lefthanded pitching, must win the games Lester starts (they did, in Game 1) and Los Angeles, because Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher in baseball, must win the games Kershaw starts (they did, in Game 2). That leaves three non-Lester, non-Kershaw games to decide the series. So far the teams have split the first two of those three toss-ups games; the third one would be Game 7.

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts toyed with the idea of starting Kershaw on short rest against Lester in Game 5, but after his team won Game 3 Roberts told Kershaw he was pitching Game 6. A start today by Kershaw would have meant five games for him in a span of 14 days.

“At some point,” Roberts said, “you have to understand that he’s human. Guys have got to pick up Kersh. He can’t do it all alone.”

Roberts’ perspective is to be applauded. And by being prudent, he will now have a fully rested Kershaw lined up for Game 6, either to clinch L.A.’s first pennant since 1988 or to stave off elimination to force a seventh game. Either way, it’s a wonderful security blanket.

Eighteen years ago, the 114-win Yankees, staring at the abyss on the wrong side of a two-games-to-one deficit on the road in Cleveland, found equilibrium in the ALCS by beating the Indians, 4-0. As it happened, the lefthanded-hitting first baseman for those Yankees was slumping and broke out in that game. Mired in an 0-for-19 spiral, Tino Martinez rapped a double and a sacrifice fly, the start to hitting .368 over the rest of the postseason. The Yankees never lost again that year, running the table with a 7-0 streak.

It remains to be seen whether Game 4 was the start of a similar stretch for Rizzo and the Cubs. But this much is true for now: With Rizzo back, Chicago, to the chagrin of the whiteboard author in the Dodgers clubhouse, is having fun again.

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