I can't let the day go by without mention, and more than a bit of relief, as well as awe at the Chicago Cubs winning its division series last night and moving on in the National League playoffs. To be clear, this is only one step, and there still two to go, and all the teams remaining are very good. So, there is no sense of finality here in the slightest. But the Cubs have only played for the League Championship once, ever, since the playoff system began, and haven't won a World Series in 108 years. They haven't even been in a World Series to have a chance in 71 years. So, any victory, any movement forward is a reason for cheering among Cubs fans.
And how they won last night -- well, that was stunning.
And so, being given a chance to celebrate, and such an amazing game, a Cub fan will take it, before things have a chance to turn to 109. They certainly have a good team this year -- the most wins in all of baseball -- but no serious Cubs fan takes that as anything remotely definitive, of anything. We hope. And take pleasure when we can.
I'm a bit reticent to be to write anything over-joyful about it here, though, not only because it's just one step, but also (and perhaps even more so) because I have a bunch of friends from San Francisco who are Giants fans. And it's not only that the Giants lost, but how. I went into this division series not terribly concerned about The Other Guys, since a) that whole "it's been 108 years" thing, and b) in this case, the San Francisco Giants have won three times in the past six years, so they have a lot of comfort to fall back on. But the way this series ended is probably the only way I could feel back for Giants fans. It was hellish. So, my joy is tempered with understanding. Mind you, when your team hasn't won in 108 years, your understanding takes you to a reasonable point, and after that, it's every man for himself.
In a best of five series, the Cubs were leading two games to one. In this fourth game, played in San Francisco, the Giants were leading by a score of 5-2, going into the final inning. If San Francisco won, the series would be tied, the teams would go back to Chicago for the deciding game, and momentum would be on the Giants' side, having won the last two games.
And that seemed likely. Not only were the Giants up by three runs, and it was the ninth inning, but the Cubs hadn't be able to hit all game, only managing two. The home crowd was going wild, sure the game -- and perhaps the series -- was on their side. History was, too: Their last two World Series wins came in even-numbered years, 2010, 2012 and 2014. And now it was 2016 -- their turn again. Moreover, the team had a string of 11 straight wins in "elimination games" -- games where if they lost, they were knocked out. That was an all-time record in baseball...and I believe for any major sport. And this was an elimination game.
But the ninth inning still had to be played. Giants fans will likely want to skip the rest of this, if they've even got this far. For those who prefer to jump past the specifics, I have video at the end. But setting it all up gives the video far more perspective, I think.
Because what happened next, is that the first Cub up in the ninth inning, Kris Bryant, got a single. The next batter walked. And he was followed by a double -- which knocked in a run (making the score 5-3), and putting runners on second and third base. And then rookie Willson Contreras -- who wasn't even on the team when the season began, but got brought up from the minors to fill in for for two weeks mid-season, but he was so good, he stayed -- got another single, bringing in two runs to tie the game, 5-5.
That brought up the most overlooked Big Play of the game. With a runner on first base, the Cubs had Jason Heyward try to bunt him to second base and be in scoring position. But it was a poor bunt, which could have been a double play, getting San Francisco out of a jam. The runner was out at second, but the throw to first was wild, and Heyward reached second...which was the intention of his lousy bunt. (Replays showed that Heyward might have been safe at first, even if the throw was good. It was close, but even if so, he wouldn't have been in scoring position.)
With only one one, and a runner in scoring position, Cubs manager showed why he was a gem. After a bit of gamesmanship, he replaced two batters and set one of my favorite young players to the plate, Javier Baez. (Attentive readers here might recall the piece I wrote about him hitting a game-winning home run in his very first game ever, last year.) When Baez started out, he was a notorious free-swinger and struck out an ungodly number of times. He worked on it in the off-season, and became far more disciplined. Still, the first two pitches were strikes, and he had an 0-2 count on him. But with the next pitch, Baez didn't strike out but hit the ball up the middle to score Heyward, and remarkably, bizarrely give the Cubs the lead 6-5.
And then in the bottom of the ninth inning, the team's new closer Aroldis Chapman stroke out the side, as all three Giants went down. And the Cubs miraculously won. Not just the game, but the series.
Afterwards, the team president Theo Epstein noted how the team had been so dismal up to the ninth inning, only having to base hits the whole game, and quipped that, "Hitting before the ninth inning is over-rated. Clearly we proved that…”
Here are two videos compressing that ninth inning to its highlights. The first is with the Cubs at bat, and the second with them in the field and Chapman at the mound. So, following some brief commercial interruptions, with the score San Francisco 5, Chicago 2, we take you to the ninth inning.
And here, with Cubs play-by-play announcer Pat Hughes (mostly) at the mic, is the the bottom of the ninth, and the end of the the remarkable game.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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