October 11, 2016

2016 National League Division Series Game 4: Cubs vs. Giants at AT&T Park

Usually when a team in baseball – or in any sport – goes on a big championship run, there is at least one moment that we can point to as a “turning point”, a moment in which the team flips the script and turns a near certain defeat into a stunning victory. It almost is required for a team to win a championship.

I understand that as Cubs fans, we need to remain optimistic about our team – at least, we do if we want to keep our sanity. When we’re in the middle of a rough year, that might mean holding out hope that someday, the team will be good again. Or on the evening of October 11, 2016, it meant not giving up when it looked like a great opportunity to win it all might go to waste.

Still, in the late innings of Game 4 of this year’s NLDS against the Giants, we can’t blame even the most diehard of fans from feeling despair. 103 regular season wins. A two-games-to-none lead in the best-of-five series. Would it all be for nothing? For most of this evening, it looked like we were headed towards a Jon Lester vs. Johnny Cueto rematch in Game 5, and the Cubs would have to win just to get out of the first round of the playoffs.

The first eight innings of this game were really difficult to watch. John Lackey, the veteran right-hander the Cubs brought in largely to be the difference over last year in the playoffs, had a disappointing Cubs postseason debut, lasting only four innings and allowing three runs. The offensive struggles continued, as they were only able to scrape together two runs in eight innings. David Ross drove in both, as he hit a solo homer in the third and drove in a gift run in the fifth on a sacrifice fly after Javier Baez reached on a throwing error. Matt Moore, the Giants’ big midseason acquisition, baffled Cubs hitters all night.

Through 37 innings at the plate, the Cubs only had seven runs driven in by non-pitchers. In 2007 and 2008, the Cubs’ inability to get anything going on offense was the big story, and it happened last year in the NLCS against the Mets. It was happening again this year. And given the Giants’ recent postseason magic, things were going according to the script that the naysayers in the media had written before the series. The thought of having to play that Game 5 was unbearable.

Derek Law started the ninth inning pitching for the Giants, facing Kris Bryant. After working a 2-1 count, Bryant hit a ground ball to the left side that somehow found its way through the Giants’ infield, which was set up for the shift against Bryant’s pull-happy swing. The Giants’ bullpen, which had come through for them in past postseasons, was the team’s Achilles heel coming into this series. It was only the first batter, but the door was open.

Giants manager Bruce Bochy went to the bullpen, summoning the southpaw Javier Lopez to face the left-handed hitting Anthony Rizzo. The TV announcers made a big deal about Lopez’s past playoff success and how he now has the most World Series rings (four) of any active player. Rizzo ran the count full before Lopez threw one way off the plate, down and away, for ball four. Lopez was visibly upset. Now the first two runners were on. Watching on TV, it was easy to feel the tension at AT&T Park quickly build, especially after the home team’s bullpen had also blown a lead in Game 3.

Bochy made another move, this time bringing in Sergio Romo, who blew the save the night before. Ben Zobrist was the next batter. After running the count to 3-1, Zobrist lined one into the corner at right. Bryant scored, Rizzo made it to third, and Zobrist pulled into second with a double. Zobrist was one of the most visibly emotional Cubs during this playoff run, and he was pumped up looking back into the Cubs’ dugout from second base. It was the first hard-hit ball of the inning, but after the offense could do almost nothing after eight innings, suddenly now the tying runs were in scoring position with nobody out.

Joe Maddon is generally regarded as a good leader, but some of his in-game decisions came into question during this postseason. A lot of folks from home were probably scratching their heads when, at this point, Maddon decided to pull Addison Russell – and his 95 regular season RBIs – in favor of Chris Coghlan. Bochy brought in the southpaw Will Smith to face the left-handed hitting Coghlan, and Maddon countered by pulling Coghlan for right-handed hitting rookie Willson Contreras. It must have been the matchup that Maddon was trying to get all along.

Throughout the evening, I kept noticing the #BELIEVEN hashtag on the announcement board behind home plate at AT&T Park. It was as if the Giants were trying to will the magic that led them to World Series Championships in 2010, 2012, and 2014 to make its way into the ballpark on this night. For a while, it looked like the magic was there, but it was quickly leaving the stadium. And their fans could tell.

On the third pitch of the at-bat, Contreras did was he was supposed to do: put the ball in play and at least move the runners up. He hit a bouncer up the middle that made its way through the infield to tie the game. Just like Bryant’s hit, in the first eight innings that ball probably would have gone right to an infielder. But for the second night in a row, the Cubs had tied the game in the ninth, both times before an out was recorded. Contreras looked cool as a cucumber when the cameras showed him on first base, but replays later showed him pumped up as he was running towards the bag. He’d been with the team for only a few months but already had a signature moment.

Jason Heyward was up next, and Bochy actually left Smith in to face the left-handed Heyward instead of making yet another pitching change. Heyward’s struggles at the plate this year are well-documented, and he tried to help the team’s cause by bunting Contreras to second. Instead, he bunted it way too hard back to the pitcher, yet another frustrating at-bat for the Cubs’ prize free agent signing this past winter. It should have been an easy double play, but after getting the out at second the usually reliable shortstop Brandon Crawford threw the ball away, allowing Heyward to take second. Even though Heyward failed to execute, it still worked out.

I’ve never believed in supernatural forces when it comes to sports, but it’s amazing how quickly the momentum shifted in this game, and not necessarily because the Cubs were pounding the ball. To this point, only Zobrist had really hit the ball well in the inning. But winning a championship not only requires turning point moments, but also a little luck. Maybe this is meant to be our year after all.

Hunter Strickland came in to face Javier Baez next. We all were amazed at how quickly Baez grew up this year, and he already had one big moment in Game 1 when he hit the game-winning homer late. He had perhaps his most impressive at-bat yet here. After falling behind 0-2, he lined one up the middle to score Heyward. The camera showed some stunned Giants fans – with that face of disbelief I’ve seen on the faces of far too many Cubs fans over the years. They also showed several visiting Cubs fans celebrating, almost eerily in the (mostly) silent AT&T Park. The Cubs’ dugout was also going crazy. It was really fun to watch.

David Ross hit into a double play to end the inning, setting up another chance for Aroldis Chapman to hold a one-run lead in the ninth. We know that whether a closer has a good or bad outing, their next opportunity is never far away. Chapman had a chance to redeem himself one day after Game 3′s eighth inning disaster. He looked like a man on a mission, throwing nothing but fastballs all clocked at 99 MPH or over. He made quick and easy work of Gorkys Hernandez, Denard Span, and Brandon Belt to win the game – the second straight 6-5 decision in the series, this time in the visitors’ favor – and the series. Chapman’s teammates mobbed him on the mound. He was pumped up, but kept his feet on the ground while the others were leaping, looking like a team leader at that moment.

Given how intense the Cubs’ victory over the Cleveland Indians in the World Series was, over the years it will be easy to overlook what happened in the first round against the Giants. But I really hope this series is not quickly forgotten. For an objective baseball fan, it was a great series to watch, as it featured three late comebacks and three games decided by one run. I’ve personally watched a lot of highlights of this series over the past two months because it was such a great series (and I like how it ended).

Last year, after a long playoff drought, beating the rival Cardinals in the NLDS and advancing to the NLCS was a big deal and almost felt like a World Series victory. We wanted to beat the Mets, but it didn’t feel like a big disappointment when the Cubs lost because we felt like they were onto bigger and better things. This year, for Cubs fans, it may be easy to downplay what happened in the NLDS because the Cubs were expected to go much farther than this series. Still, players and fans alike seemed to celebrate this victory pretty hard, as they should have.

Winning this series was a huge accomplishment. This was the first real adversity that this still young team faced all year, and they came through when their backs were against the wall. And besides, the playoffs are hard. The majority of years, the best team loses at some point. Especially against a team as battle-tested as the Giants are, this Game 4 – and series – victory was a great accomplishment and something this team should be proud of. It will always be one of my favorite moments from this season.

Brian Johnston is the author of the book The Art of Being a Baseball Fan, his story of following the 2015 Chicago Cubs, available on Amazon. He lives in St. Joseph, Michigan with his wife and two children.