Remembering October: NLCS Game 5

October 20, 2016

2016 National League Championship Series Game 5: Cubs vs. Dodgers at Dodger Stadium

The Dodgers appeared to have the momentum heading into Game 4 of this series, but a sudden ten run outburst by the Cubs offense in the middle innings of that game turned the series around. Now, with Jon Lester taking the ball in Game 5, the Cubs were in great position to take a 3-2 series lead before heading back to Chicago for Game 6 (and 7 if necessary).

Before the game, I felt like the Dodgers were making some lame attempts to get under the skin of Cubs players and fans. They had two interesting choices to throw out the first pitch: Eric Karros, a longtime Dodger but also a member of the 2003 Cubs who seemed to enjoy his time in Chicago, and Steve Garvey, who many older Cubs fans still can’t stand to this day thanks to his heroics for the Padres against the Cubs in the 1984 NLCS. Then they had Vin Scully announce, “It’s time for Dodger baseball!” I like Vin Scully (Who doesn’t?), but it looked like their own attempt to channel the past and get the crowd excited before this critical game.

The Dodgers’ attempt to utilize their homefield advantage in this way didn’t work, at least in the first inning. Just like in Game 1, Kenta Maeda would take the ball for L.A. And also like in Game 1, Dexter Fowler led off the first with a single to center. Maeda got Kris Bryant to fly out, but Anthony Rizzo then lined one down the right field line to score Fowler. The momentum from the previous night continued.

Maeda otherwise kept the Cubs off the board before departing with two outs in the fourth. The Dodgers tied it in the bottom of the fourth; unlike Game 4, instant replay wasn’t kind to the Cubs this time. Howie Kendrick scored on an Adrian Gonzalez groundout; Kendrick was initially called out trying to steal third, but that call was overturned.

But Lester otherwise was again strong. Meanwhile, Kris Bryant doubled in the fifth but was stranded when Ben Zobrist lined out to right to end the inning. Then, for the second straight night, the young Addison Russell stepped up. With Javier Baez on second with one out, Russell faced Joe Blanton, who had a rough night in Game 1 when he gave up the five runs the Cubs scored in the eighth. This time, Russell launched a two-run shot just to the left of dead center, a little further up the stands but otherwise a mirror image of his critical Game 4 homer. With Lester on the mound, a tight game suddenly felt like it was in control.

Lester made it through seven innings without giving up any more runs, so the Cubs took a 3-1 lead into the eighth inning. If you believe in teams of destiny – if you believed that the Cubs were simply meant to win it all this year – perhaps the best sign yet came in the top of that eighth inning. Addison Russell led off with an “excuse me” swing and hit a slow roller to first. Adrian Gonzalez flipped it to the pitcher, Pedro Baez, who dropped the ball. Willson Contreras, pinch-hitting for David Ross, singled to right, Albert Almora, Jr. bunted the runners over, then Dexter Fowler hit a grounder to first, beating Adrian Gonzalez to the bag. A run was in.

Kris Bryant was the next to get a lucky break when he broke his bat grounding it to third. A run was in, and Bryant beat the throw. Now it’s 5-1. Ironically, Anthony Rizzo may have hit the hardest ball of the inning to this point, but it was right at second for an out. But after Ben Zobrist walked, another one of the kids came through. Javier Baez continued his breakout postseason by hitting a fly ball to deep right that fell in for a double and cleared the bases. With each passing moment, it looked more and more like we’d be going back to Chicago with a chance to win the pennant on Saturday night.

With the game well in hand, Pedro Strop, who Joe Maddon seemed to hesitate to use during his normal seventh or eighth inning role during the postseason, came into the game for the bottom of the eighth. He did give up an RBI double to Carlos Ruiz but did what he needed to by not letting the Dodgers get back into the game. Aroldis Chapman, who we didn’t see in Games 3 and 4, then came in for the ninth. He was less than sharp, as he walked Adrian Gonzalez to spark a Dodger rally. Josh Reddick had an RBI single and Andrew Toles drove in a run with a sacrifice fly, but Chapman eventually got Justin Turner to ground out to end it. The 8-4 final matched the score of Game 1, and for the first time since Game 1, the Cubs again had the lead in the series.

For the first time since 2003, the Cubs were now just one win away from the pennant. We all know what happened the last time the Cubs were in this position, so we won’t discuss it here. But after 13 years, they were finally getting another chance. The man standing in their way? None other than the great Clayton Kershaw. But it was only fitting; to be the best, you have to beat the best. The Cubs were getting the chance to truly show that they deserve the National League pennant.

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.