Remembering October: NLCS Game 1

October 15, 2016

2016 National League Championship Series Game 1: Dodgers vs. Cubs at Wrigley Field

For the second straight year, the National League Championship Series was back at Wrigley Field. But this year felt much different from 2015. Last year, the series came to Wrigley with the Cubs already down two games to none to the Mets, and after two pretty awful games the series – and the Cubs’ season – was over.

This year, the Cubs hosted Game 1 and it felt like a fresh start. The Dodgers provided the opposition after squeaking out a one-run Game 5 victory on the road against the Nationals to win that series. They defied all odds to get here, dealing with lots of injuries to win the NL West. But while they had Clayton Kershaw, who holds the unofficial title of best pitcher on the planet, the Cubs were the superior team in virtually all other areas of the game. If the Cubs played to the best of their ability, they were certain to win the series.

And I can’t speak for all Cubs fans, but I came into this series with more confidence that we would win than I had going into the Giants series. Unlike the Giants, the Dodgers were not a team that had proven that they could get the job done in the postseason over the past several years – amazingly, they haven’t won a pennant in 28 years. And I feel we got a lot of jitters out of the way after the team survived the Giants in the NLDS. It certainly felt like things were in the Cubs’ favor as the series began.

If the Cubs were to win this series, the depth of the starting rotation is what would have to be the difference. And they had wrapped up their series with the Giants four days earlier, meaning they got to reset the rotation – another reason why that Game 4 comeback against the Giants was so important. Jon Lester, coming off a dominant NLDS Game 1 performance, got the ball again on this night. With the Dodgers having used Kershaw and Rich Hill, their two best pitchers, for the final two games against Washington, they countered with Kenta Maeda, the 28-year-old former Japanese star who was a solid starter in his first year pitching in America.

As Lester faced Howie Kendrick to start the game, I could immediately tell a difference in the atmosphere in the stadium from 2008, the other time these two teams met in the playoffs. Like this year, the Cubs were the far superior team in the regular season, but the Dodgers swept the Cubs out of the NLDS that year. Even watching from home, I could tell that the crowd at Wrigley that year was really tense, and it’s easy to conclude that had an impact on the team’s play. In Game 2, for example, all four infielders committed an error.

This time, there was lots of excitement in the crowd, an anticipation that this would be a great series. Lester had a fairly uneventful first inning, and the Cubs’ offense came flying out of the gate in the first. Dexter Fowler led off with a single up the middle, and Kris Bryant followed with one of his signature towering fly balls to left field, this one bouncing off the wall for a run-scoring double. From home, I could feel a confidence in this Cubs crowd that was unlike anything I can ever remember.

The Cubs were unable to add on, and the Dodgers threatened in the second. They got first and second with two outs, and Maeda came to the plate and was able to sneak a ground ball through the left side of the infield. Ben Zobrist grabbed the ball and fired to home plate, nailing Adrian Gonzalez trying to score. Gonzalez didn’t even bother to slide. The crowd was revved up again.

The home team continued to hold the momentum in the top of the second when Jason Heyward, for one of the few times seemingly all season, squared up a ball and lined it down the right field line for a triple. Javier Baez, who was breaking out as a star this postseason, then hit a blooper into shallow left that somehow fell between all the Dodger defenders, scoring Heyward. Perhaps learning from his not running out of the box after hitting his Game 1 NLDS homer against the Giants, Baez hustled and got to second.

Remember back in July, when Jon Lester bunted home the game-winning run on a squeeze play in the 12th after a big comeback against the Mariners? Well, Lester came to the plate next here, and after Baez took third on a wild pitch, Lester showed bunt again. Baez wandered too far off third and catcher Carlos Ruiz threw to third to pick him off – but Baez broke for home and got in under the tag on the return throw. Now it’s 3-0. Even mistakes are turning to gold for the Cubs. It was yet another sign that perhaps this year will be different.

The next few innings were relatively uneventful. Andre Ethier homered for the Dodgers in the fifth, but other than that Lester was in command through six. The Cubs held a 3-1 lead going into the late innings, but they were unable to add on after quickly getting three runs early in the game and it left me with an uneasy feeling that they were unable to put the game away. And against Mike Montgomery and Pedro Strop, the Dodgers were able to load the bases with nobody out to start the eighth.

Out came Aroldis Chapman to try to bail the Cubs out of trouble, much like Game 3 of the NLDS against the Giants. Chapman was able to strike out the eventual Rookie of the Year, Corey Seager. Then he struck out Yasiel Puig. It looked like maybe Chapman could find his way out of this. But on a 1-1 count, the veteran Adrian Gonzalez came through with a clean single up the middle. The Cubs had seemingly been in control of this game all night, but suddenly it was tied.

Chapman got out of the inning without further damage, and we had a new ballgame. With all the hype around rookie Willson Contreras and all the love for veteran David Ross, Miguel Montero had become the forgotten man in the Cubs’ catching mix. But here, he had his chance to be the hero and help us forget a rough top of the eighth. After fouling off the first pitch, Montero swung through a very hittable slider that Dodgers pitcher Joe Blanton left over the heart of the plate. Montero should have been able to do some big damage but missed an opportunity.

Down 0-2, amazingly, Montero got another hittable pitch. And he didn’t miss it – he launched one far into the night, landing almost all the way up the bleachers in right. It felt similar to Javier Baez’s Game 1 blast against the Giants in the NLDS. It caused me to flash back to Game 1 of the 2008 NLDS, when the Cubs were on the other end of a grand slam from James Loney that gave the Dodgers the lead – and the Cubs would never recover. This was a little bit of redemption – and it felt pretty good. The crowd went crazy, and just like I expected, everyone seemed to forget Montero’s rough season.

Dexter Fowler then hit the next pitch over the wall in right – almost like the extra point after a touchdown. The damage had already been done, but it pumped up the crowd even more. Ironically, former closer Hector Rondon came in to finish the game in the ninth and, despite giving up a run, he got Chase Utley to line out to first with one out, and when Anthony Rizzo fired to second to double off Andrew Toles, the game was finally over. It felt like a big struggle, particularly in the later innings, but the Cubs won the Game 1 they needed to. We could celebrate – and breathe a sigh of relief.

This was only the second time – and the first time since 1984 – that the Cubs won an NLCS opener. Given the opponent, the pitching matchup, and the fact that they had homefield advantage, this felt like a must-win situation. It was a bit more dramatic than perhaps it should have been, but much like the series against the Giants, the Cubs pulled out a Game 1 win and passed another crucial “test” on the way to winning the pennant. There was still a long way to go, and the road to the World Series was about to get much more difficult.

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.