CHICAGO—On the first home run, they roared, and on the second, she danced, the 102-year-old lady at Clark and Addison, her century-old bones swaying as 42,000 fans drunk on beer and baseball twirled her with their jumps and stomps.
For a half-inning, the magic was gone. You forgot about the dog with a Cubs uniform painted onto his fur that had walked down Sheffield earlier in the evening. You forgot that the night was so unseasonably warm, 72 degrees at first pitch, that for a solid seven innings you’d been able to sit placidly in your seat and chant “Let’s go, Cubbies,” and feel like Joe Maddon and company had this thing on lockdown. It took catastrophe—in the way of a two-run top of the eighth for the Dodgers, which tied the game and pulled Aroldis Chapman from the bullpen an inning early—to wake up Wrigley, but she woke with a start.
When the Cubs traded for Chapman at the deadline, it was a PR gamble—and the clearest way to shore up a near-perfect roster. Chicago sent pitcher Adam Warren and three prospects to the Yankees for moments exactly like Saturday night. Chapman entered the game with the bases loaded and no one out, and he threw fire. Strike out swinging, strike out swinging—and then Adrian Gonzalez lined a single through the infield into center field. The game was tied, Chapman potentially wasted, and when he recorded that third out, the fun began.
At that moment, Dodgers first-year manager Dave Roberts thought his team had won the game. But in the bottom of the eighth, he managed like someone doing everything he could not to lose, rather than scheming to win. Intentionally walking the offensively challenged Jason Heyward to bring up postseason darling Javy Baez at first looked to have worked. Baez flied out, setting up a scenario where, with two outs, the Dodgers could walk pinch hitter Chris Coghlan to bring up Chapman’s spot and, theoretically, remove their greatest obstacle to victory from the game.
It was perfect: Get two precious runs off a rare hit allowed by Chapman, and then force him from the game barely 10 minutes later. Too perfect. What happened next? They could probably hear the North Side crowd at the Willis Tower. Miguel Montero arced a grand slam, Dexter Fowler a solo shot, both to right field, where the breeze had been blowing toward Lake Michigan all night. “It seems like any time it’s like that, you don’t score,” Kris Bryant said after the game. “Maybe you’re trying too hard.” Or maybe, in this case, the Dodgers were.
After the game, an 8–4 Cubs win that was far closer than the score dictates, Roberts chalked up the inning’s turn from a gutsy gamble to a dumpter fire to bad luck. It’s “the beautiful thing about this game,” he said. Beauty in a loss—only at Wrigley this October, where the magic is just a little bit contagious.
For the first time since 1945—that’s 71 years—the Cubs have a 1–0 lead in a seven-game series. But in their clubhouse, the mood was subdued. Bryant and Fowler acknowledged the importance of starting the series on top—both recall too clearly being swept in this very series a year ago—but despite the heroics, the celebrations were left in the dugout. Clayton Kershaw looms, and a flight to Los Angeles, and as the clock crept toward midnight, the only swagger left underneath Wrigley belonged to Baez.
His name has become a chant here over the past week. Ja-vy, Ja-vy. And what Ja-vy has done is the epitome of Cubs baseball this October: spontaneous, risky, and somehow at the same time nonchalant. Take the botched safety squeeze in the bottom of the second, when Baez broke for home and made it. You can’t script that, just like you can’t script the two balls that somehow—who knows how, are you sure they didn’t bounce?—wound up in Fowler’s glove in center or the line drive that went straight off Gonzalez’s bat and into Addison Russell’s glove in the fifth. You can’t teach it, and it’s one part luck, but there’s an element of just playing loose and calm under the lights that defines this prime-time team.
Asked about the steal after the game, Baez couldn’t help himself. He beamed. His breakdown of the play involves gesturing forward, then at the floor, simulating how close the ball came to his head and speculating about what might have happened had the throw hit him. But it didn’t, and he scored, and it was the first time he’s ever stolen home at any level.
Cubs starter Jon Lester stood at the plate during the theatrics. (He’d eventually walk.) When Baez made his grand entrance to the batter’s box, Lester asked if it was a safety squeeze, wondering if his teammate had actually set out to steal home. “I went too early,” Baez told him. “My bad.”
When he got to the dugout, most of his teammates just laughed. “You can’t do anything else about it,” Baez said. After a pause, he considered the alternative. “You can get mad,” he adds. “But I wasn’t out.”
And that is the Cubs these past few days: almost out, but not quite. So don’t get mad, not with Chapman ousted or the Dodgers rallying, not when the wind is blowing out toward Sheffield and Wrigley starts to dance.