Remembering October: NLCS Game 4

October 19, 2016

2016 National League Championship Series Game 4: Cubs vs. Dodgers at Dodger Stadium

After scoring five runs in the bottom of the eighth to seal their Game 1 victory, the Cubs suffered back-to-back shutout losses in Games 2 and 3 against the Dodgers. For the first time since the first week of the season, the Cubs were in a position where they would have to come from behind. Fans were in full panic mode, but the objective was not an impossible one: to win three games before the Dodgers could win two. The way the offense was going, being optimistic was a challenge. But it was far from over.

As this game was starting, the Cleveland Indians were celebrating their American League pennant by beating the Blue Jays in Toronto. They had to patiently await the winner of the National League series, as they were only three games in. Meanwhile in Los Angeles, Joe Maddon went back to his usual top four in the lineup of Dexter Fowler, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Ben Zobrist. But it looked like the same dormant offense early in the game against the promising 20-year-old southpaw Julio Urias. And after a 1-2-3 top of the first, the Dodgers threatened in the bottom half when John Lackey hit Corey Seager with a pitch. Justin Turner then hit a grounder to short that could have been a double play, but after getting the force at second, Javier Baez threw the ball away allowing the inning to continue and Turner to reach second.

For the second straight postseason game, Lackey looked less than impressive, falling behind Adrian Gonzalez 2-0. He then threw ball three – but Willson Contreras fired a bullet to second to pick off Turner. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts considered challenging the play but decided against it, and the hope was that this play might swing a little momentum back towards the Cubs. But it didn’t happen in the second either, as the Cubs again failed to score despite getting two runners on.

In the bottom of the second, Adrian Gonzalez, the Cubs’ hitting nemesis in the first two games of the series, led off with a single. Four batters later, he was on second with two outs when Andrew Toles came up. Toles singled to right, and Jason Heyward, at this point playing merely for his defense, fielded the ball. Perhaps knowing that Gonzalez is not a fast runner, Heyward was a little casual fielding the ball and made a lofty throw to home. Gonzalez dove into the plate head first, and as he reached his hand for the plate, catcher Willson Contreras fielded the throw, quickly turned, and tagged Gonzalez on the chin. Home plate umpire Angel Hernandez called him out.

Gonzalez immediately looked to his dugout and wagged his finger, thinking he was safe. It was a very close play, and this time Dave Roberts challenged the call. While the umpires were reviewing the play, the TV announcers thought it would be overturned. The cameras picked up Gonzalez yelling at the umpires, telling “New York” (where plays are reviewed) to “get it right” while saying that “Fox says” he was safe. I’d had just about enough of Gonzalez at this point. However, I was expecting the call to be reversed, especially given the way things were going. But to my surprise, the call was upheld. Another break.

Despite another play that could have swung momentum towards the Cubs, the bats again failed to do anything in the third, making it 21 consecutive innings without a run. Despite struggling with command, Lackey was able to match zeroes with Urias through the first three frames. But the urgency to score some runs was getting stronger by the minute. Time was running out. They needed to figure Urias out, and fast.

The veteran Ben Zobrist led off the fourth and must have decided that it was time for him to get the offense going. On the first pitch, he caught the Dodgers by surprise and put down a perfect bunt down the third base line. “Whatever it takes,” said color analyst John Smoltz. Javier Baez then followed with a fly ball to short left that fell in. Willson Contreras was next, and he hit a soft liner to left. Zobrist tried to score, and my heart sank a little because I thought he was going to be out. Third base coach Gary Jones must have thought he had to be aggressive at this point, but a good throw from Andrew Toles would have gotten him easily. Instead, the throw was way up the first base line, allowing Zobrist to score and the other two runners to move up.

This was the third point in this game when I thought maybe things were starting to turn in the Cubs’ favor. Jason Heyward was up next – which in many cases this season caused fans to groan. But in this case, he at least made a productive out, hitting a grounder to second that scored Baez and got Contreras to third. It was now 2-0, and even getting those two runs seemed like a major uphill battle.

Then, it was Addison Russell, with his 95 RBIs in the regular season but batting in the eight hole in this game. After working a 2-0 count, he launched a long fly ball just to the right of dead center that cleared the wall. It was the the first truly hard-hit ball of the inning, but suddenly the Cubs had a 4-0 lead. Russell was ecstatic going around the bases, as was the Cubs’ dugout. FINALLY! We could all let out a major sigh of relief. I thought back to the final game before the All-Star Break, when the Cubs were in the middle of their only real tough stretch of the year and they barely squeaked out a victory against the Pirates. It didn’t feel like the Cubs just won the pennant, but Cubs fans almost celebrated that way.

After the big four-run inning, it was important to keep the Dodgers off the scoreboard in the bottom half, and despite allowing a couple of base runners, John Lackey did exactly that. Anthony Rizzo homered in the top of the fifth to make it 5-0, which was helpful because the Dodgers rallied in the bottom half. Lackey was pulled after walking the first two batters. Mike Montgomery came on in relief and, with the bases loaded and one out, Justin Turner hit a bouncer that went off Montgomery’s glove and allowed two runs to score. We were again subjected to that annoying “JUSTIN” chant from Animal from The Muppets.

But that’s as close as the Dodgers would get for the rest of the night. Montgomery got out of the inning without further damage, and the Cubs doubled their run total with a five-run rally in the top of the sixth that included run-scoring hits from Dexter Fowler and Anthony Rizzo. Any momentum the Dodgers had gained back in the previous inning was gone.

The Cubs’ bullpen was excellent the rest of the night. Mike Montgomery, Travis Wood, Carl Edwards, Jr., Pedro Strop, and Hector Rondon combined to keep the Dodgers off the scoreboard and seal the 10-2 win. We know that Joe Maddon was overly aggressive using Aroldis Chapman throughout the postseason, but he was able to stay away from him on this night thanks to the good work from the rest of the bullpen.

The panic, at least temporarily, went away, but there was still work to do. This best-of-seven series was now a best-of-three, and just when it looked like things were falling apart, the Cubs got up off the mat and found a way to hang in there. Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill would be looming for Games 6 and 7 at Wrigley Field, but the Cubs would have Jon Lester and a rested Aroldis Chapman ready for Game 5, the final game of the series at Dodger Stadium. That’s the nature of the postseason: Things looked much different than they did just 24 hours ago.

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.