The Cubs changed the whole script with one exhilarating inning
SAN FRANCISCO — Game 5, couldn’t you just see it happening?
Johnny Cueto starting for the Giants, against a Cubs team that he dominates. Madison Bumgarner stomping out of the bullpen, the way he did in Game 7 of the 2014 World Series. The entire city of Chicago babbling about curses, staging a massive freakout at Wrigley Field.
“It would have been really tense, to put it mildly,” Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said.
But there will be no Game 5.
The Cubs slayed the giant. The Cubs slayed the Giants. The Cubs are riding their exhilarating 6-5 clinching victory to the National League Championship Series, to face either the Dodgers or Nationals, starting Saturday night on FS1.
Epstein, soaked with champagne, laughed and said, “Hitting before the ninth inning is overrated, anyway.” Well, Tuesday night, in Game 4, it certainly was. The Cubs barely hit before the ninth. They began the inning trailing, 5-2. And then, pretty much all hell broke loose.
Afterward, Giants manager Bruce Bochy sat in his office, dumbfounded and frustrated, his team’s streak of 10 straight wins in elimination games having come to a brutal, bitter end.
“It’s about as empty a feeling as I’ve ever had,” Bochy said.
Before the game, one of the Giants’ beat writers asked Bochy who would close, and he replied with a smile, “I’ll tell you in the ninth.”
The answer, it turned out, was no one.
Bochy tried everything, just as he tried everything with his bullpen the entire second half of the regular season. Over a span of six hitters, the future Hall of Fame manager used five different pitchers. And that’s all it took for a 5-2 lead to dissolve into a 6-5 nightmare.
Just as the inning was a microcosm of the Giants’ season, it also was a microcosm of the Cubs’. Veterans performed like champions. Youngsters performed like veterans. Manager Joe Maddon deployed his deep and talented roster to maximum effect.
Step by step, the team of the decade crumbled as the team of the present coalesced, two baseball ships passing in the city by the bay on a chilly, transformative baseball night.
“Believe it or not, it was all planned out,” Maddon said. “And that’s because of the versatility we have.”
The biggest heroes for the Cubs would be the youngsters, Willson Contreras, who delivered a pinch-hit, two-run, game-tying single, and Javier Baez, who completed his dominance of the series by driving in the go-ahead run.
Kris Bryant would call it “the best win I’ve ever been a part of,” choosing words similar to the ones that some of the Giants had used to describe their 13-inning victory in Game 3 the previous night.
Fittingly, it was Bryant — the likely National League MVP — who began the comeback with a single off Derek Law.
Anthony Rizzo followed with a walk off Javier Lopez, a turning point in Bochy’s view. Ben Zobrist then hit an RBI double off Sergio Romo, making it 5-3.
At that point, Maddon sprung into action.
He didn’t like the matchup of Addison Russell against Romo, even though Russell had 95 RBIs during the regular season and Romo had allowed a two-run, game-tying homer by Bryant the night before.
So, with runners on second and third, Maddon sent Chris Coghlan to the on-deck circle, forcing Bochy to counter with left-hander Will Smith. Maddon then replaced Coghlan with Contreras, a right-handed hitter who had hit a pinch-hit homer in his first major-league at-bat on June 20.
The thought crossed Maddon’s mind that Bochy might walk Contreras and pitch to Jason Heyward with the bases loaded, none out and a 5-3 lead. But no. Smith went after the rookie. And on 1-1, Contreras rolled a single up the middle, tying the score.
Afterward, David Ross would marvel at his fellow catcher, how he had sat on the bench the entire game cheering his teammates, only to deliver one of the biggest hits of the season.
But there was more to come.
Heyward bunted, and bunted poorly, creating the possibility of a 1-6-3 double play that would have left the bases empty with two outs. But no again. Gold Glove shortstop Brandon Crawford made his second error of the game with a wild throw, and Heyward wound up at second.
Baez was next — the transcendent, emergent Baez, the fearless prodigy who was an offensive, defensive and base-running wonder the entire series, evoking memories of another great Puerto Rican infielder, Roberto Alomar.
Maddon said afterward that he was ready to move Zobrist from left field to shortstop if for some reason he had decided to avoid a right-right matchup with Baez against Hunter Strickland.
Perish the thought.
Baez singled up the middle because of course he did. Aroldis Chapman recovered from his blown save the previous night by striking out the side on 13 pitches, and it was over.
There was no need to worry about Cueto. About the Giants continuing to win elimination games. About all of the ghosts and goblins that awaited in Chicago.
“We never quit,” Zobrist said. “And we aren’t stopping now.”