Remembering October: NLDS Game 3

October 10, 2016

2016 National League Division Series Game 3: Cubs vs. Giants at AT&T Park

The Cubs were the better team coming into this series. I think virtually all observers, including the most diehard of Giants fans, would agree. After all, the Cubs won 16 more games than the Giants did during the regular season. But none of that matters when you just have to win three out of five to advance in the first round of the playoffs. Sure, the Cubs took care of business at Wrigley Field, winning the first two games despite a less than inspiring performance from the offense. But the series now shifted to San Francisco, and though Cubs fans had plenty of reason to be confident, we also had to know that this series was far from over.

Oh, and by the way, the Cubs would be facing the seemingly invincible Madison Bumgarner, who came into this series with a reputation of being one of the all-time great postseason hurlers. The Cubs were countering with Jake Arrieta, the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner who seemed to come back to earth during the second half of this season. At the beginning of the year, many fans probably would have predicted that he would start Game 1 of a playoff series, but the great years of Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks, combined with Arrieta’s recent struggles, bumped him back to the #3 slot.

I was expecting a tight game and thought the Cubs had a chance, but there was little room for error. Arrieta would need to find some of that magic from last year, the defense would have to be flawless, and we’d have to hope that Bumgarner would make a couple of mistakes and the Cubs’ hitters would make him pay. At the start of the game, the atmosphere felt much different from the first two games, as to be expected. From home, Giants fans’ cheering sounded similar to what I’ve come to expect from Cardinals fans: confidence that their team would get the job done, even when they’re on the ropes.

Both teams had a hit in the first but otherwise went quietly. But in the second, Cubs hitters put together some nice at-bats against Bumgarner. Ben Zobrist grounded out after a seven-pitch at-bat. Addison Russell then got hit on the eighth pitch of his at-bat, right after fouling off three straight. Javier Baez, in another defining moment that showed how far he has come the past couple of years, came back from 0-2 to run a full count before hitting a rocket to third. Conor Gillaspie knocked it down, but Baez reached, putting two runners on. Miguel Montero lined out, giving Arrieta a chance to help himself with two outs.

We know that Arrieta can hold his own with the bat. If you’ll recall, he hit a monster home run in Arizona against the Diamondbacks back in April. But he seemed to shock everyone with what he did here. After falling behind 1-2, Arrieta hit a laser to left field that cleared the wall. Arrieta seemed pretty calm going around the bases, but the other players in the Cubs’ dugout were going crazy. Announcer Matt Vasgersian put a ton of emotion into his call on TV; he also seemed to be taken off-guard. The Cubs got to Bumgarner! Maybe they really could close this thing out tonight.

But the home run proved to be an aberration, as those are the only runs the Cubs would score against Bumgarner. However, Giants manager Bruce Bochy decided to pull him after five innings, as the Cubs had put together some good at-bats and ran his pitch count up to 101. Meanwhile, Arrieta gave up single runs in the third and fifth but overall pitched six solid innings and left the game with the lead he provided still intact.

It was still 3-2 going into the bottom of the eighth. Travis Wood started the inning by giving up a single to Brandon Belt. Hector Rondon then came in and walked Buster Posey. Joe Maddon then made the move that would foreshadow the Cubs’ biggest controversy throughout the playoffs – he brought in Aroldis Chapman to get a save of more than three outs. Would this gamble pay off?

Chapman was able to strike out Hunter Pence to get the first out, but he then left a pitch over the plate for Conor Gillaspie to pull deep to right. Albert Almora, Jr., just into the game, dove for the ball but narrowly missed. Two runs were in and just like that, the Giants led for the first time in the series. Chapman then gave up a run-scoring hit to Brandon Crawford and walked Joe Panik. Chapman was chased from the game, the lead the team had held almost the whole game suddenly gone. Unlike the first two games, this isn’t what we envisioned when the Cubs traded for Chapman back in July.

Justin Grimm came in and got the final two outs of the inning, and that proved to be important. Against Sergio Romo, Dexter Fowler led off the ninth and fell behind 0-2 before coming back to draw a nine-pitch walk. Then Kris Bryant, who would be elected MVP after the season, came up and showed why he deserved the award. After falling behind 0-1, he hit a towering fly ball to left field, which has become his signature swing. The ball seemed to stay in the air forever. Gregor Blanco leaned up against the wall, waiting for the ball to come down and hoping to make a play. But the ball bounced off the top of the wall – which was carved in the shape of a car for an advertisement – and went into the stands right to a happy Cubs fan sitting in a sea of mostly orange. “AND IT’S GONE!” yelled Matt Vasgersian, as the Cubs tied the game. Still disgruntled from the previous half-inning and exhausted from a long day (and a long game), I raised my hands in excitement without even thinking about it.

The Cubs didn’t score again that inning, and Mike Montgomery came in to pitch the ninth. After Brandon Belt drew a one-out walk, Buster Posey hit a line drive towards the line in right. Albert Almora, Jr. made another diving attempt – and this time was able to make a tremendous catch. He then threw to first to complete an easy double play, as Belt hand wandered to far off the bag. It was on to extra innings, with the Cubs trying to move on and the Giants fighting to keep their season alive. In a way, it felt like the game, and even the series, was just beginning.

The game ended up becoming an instant classic, though it wasn’t exactly the most fun game to watch at the time. Inning by inning went by – 10th, 11th, 12th – with neither team scoring and not a lot happening on the field. Watching in the Eastern Time Zone, the game dragged on well past 2:00 a.m. I would be happy to stay up until dawn if it meant seeing the Cubs win. But I also had been up for 21 hours and wanted the game to end so I could just go to bed (though I’d likely be too excited to go right to sleep if the Cubs did pull it out). I wasn’t struggling at all to stay awake – I was too invested in this game to give up now.

In the top of the 13th, with one out, Javier Baez and Willson Contreras hit back-to-back singles. David Ross came to the plate; I don’t know if I ever wanted a Cubs batter to get a base hit more in my life. But instead, after working a 2-2 count, he grounded into a double play to end any chance of scoring. Ugh, I’d have to wait at least another inning to see a victory. That next inning never came, as Brandon Crawford led off the bottom of the 13th with a double off Mike Montgomery – in his fourth inning of work – and Joe Panik promptly drove him in with another double to right. As the Giants celebrated the walkoff victory, I quickly turned off the TV and went to sleep, already putting this one behind me.

The Cubs still had the upper hand in the series, up two games to one. And we have to admire the fact that they fought so hard and didn’t quit, even after losing their lead in the eighth inning. But it felt like they missed a huge opportunity to close out the series and left the door open for the always dangerous Giants to get back into it. All of a sudden, the Cubs had to win Game 4 the following evening or they’d have to go back to Wrigley Field facing elimination. But there would be plenty of time to worry about that tomorrow. At this point, I just wanted to get some sleep.

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.