Remembering October: NLCS Game 6

October 22, 2016

2016 National League Championship Series Game 6: Cubs vs. Dodgers at Wrigley Field

Have you ever made big plans months in advance, only to find out later that it may conflict with a really important game you wanted to watch?

A few months prior to October 22, my family bought tickets to the University of Michigan football game against Illinois. I was excited to go, but as we neared the date I realized there was a chance it would be during a really important Cubs game in the National League Championship Series. Two days prior, on October 20, the Cubs beat the Dodgers in Game 5 to take a 3-2 lead going into Game 6, which was scheduled for the 22nd. Ah, the stress of being a sports fan.

Thankfully for me, the football game started at 3:30 and Game 6 didn’t start until 8:00. I had a great time at the football game, but all day I was really excited about the possibility of the Cubs winning their first pennant in 71 years later that evening. We were on the road, driving back when the game started. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I was able to watch the beginning of the game on my phone in the car, something I wouldn’t have been able to do just a few years ago. What an age we’re living in.

The pitching matchup would be a tough one for the Cubs. In this rematch of Game 2, they were sending Kyle Hendricks to the mound. He was solid in his last start, going 5.1 innings, but an Adrian Gonzalez home run was the difference in the 1-0 loss. Hendricks and the Cubs would get another chance against Clayton Kershaw, who dominated Cubs hitters in Game 2. A lot of Cubs fans were annoyed at how much praise the announcers, Joe Buck and John Smoltz, gave Kershaw throughout this series. I’ll admit it was a little annoying, though there isn’t much doubt that he’s the best pitcher in the game and may go down as the greatest pitcher of his generation. To be the best, you have to beat the best, and there would be no more fitting way for the Cubs to be crowned NL Champions than to defeat Kershaw in the clinching game. If there was any reason to be hopeful, it was because the Cubs may have been able to learn from their struggles in Game 2, plus the fact that Kershaw has a history of struggling in the playoffs.

Javier Baez, a breakout star during this postseason, got the crowd revved up right away with another one of his great defensive plays. Andrew Toles singled for the Dodgers on the first pitch of the game, but on the second pitch of the game, Corey Seager hit a slow roller to Baez at second. Baez quickly lunged to tag Toles, then fired to first to complete the double play. Two pitches, two outs – and in exciting fashion. This was going to be a great night.

After Justin Turner flied out, the Cubs came up in the bottom half of the first. Dexter Fowler led off by dropping a fly ball into right field that hit the ground and bounced over the side wall in right for a double. Kris Bryant then hit a soft line drive to right that scored Fowler – right away, it was 1-0. The crowd was already making tons of noise. The TV cameras were rattling. Those watching from home could feel the intensity. Maybe the Dodgers were already feeling the pressure: Anthony Rizzo next hit a fly ball to left, but Andrew Toles clanked it. The cheers got even louder. Unfortunately, the Cubs could only manage one more run in the inning, a sacrifice fly by Ben Zobrist.

With one out in the top of the second, Josh Reddick reached when Javier Baez, otherwise having a great postseason, booted an easy ground ball to second. But after striking out Joc Pederson, Kyle Hendricks picked up his teammate when he picked Reddick off first base. The momentum continued to build for the home team, as Addison Russell led off the second with a double. Neither Albert Almora, Jr. nor Kyle Hendricks could advance him, but with two outs, Dexter Fowler drove him in with a single to left. Fowler got into a rundown between first and second that eventually ended the inning, but the damage was done. At 3-0, things felt in control.

Clayton Kershaw was able to put up a zero in the third, but he gave up solo home runs to Willson Contreras in the fourth and Anthony Rizzo in the fifth. It was now 5-0. It kept feeling more real with each passing moment. For all the hype around Kershaw – especially from the Fox announcers – he just didn’t look like he was comfortable on the mound before departing after five. Meanwhile, Hendricks continued to carve up the Dodgers’ lineup, putting up one scoreless inning after another. And they were quick innings too, as the Dodgers didn’t even get another base runner through seven innings.

I was able to watch the last several innings at my parents’ house, with my family. I don’t know how many fellow Cubs fans thought back to 13 years ago – Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS – when everything was going just right before the roof caved in during the eighth inning. I thought about it a little bit in the middle innings, but the game was moving so fast that there honestly wasn’t much time to think about it – certainly not to the extent that pessimistic thoughts would creep into my head. Also, the crowd was definitely generating some positive energy, and I really think that helped the players. I know it helped me.

When Adrian Gonzalez flied out to start the eighth, we had finally reached that infamous “five outs to go” point. After 13 years, I felt like it was finally a chance for redemption. Josh Reddick then singled – the first hit Hendricks had given up since Andrew Toles led off the game with a single – and that also signaled the end of the night for Hendricks. After 7.1 brilliant innings and just 88 pitches, Joe Maddon brought in the prized midseason acquisition Aroldis Chapman to get the final five outs. Hendricks left to Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion” playing at Wrigley Field, the crowd roaring their approval for the mild-mannered young pitcher who was on the verge of earning the victory that gets the Cubs to the World Series.

And Chapman was quickly able to squash any possibility of negative thoughts creeping in at this point. After getting two strikes on Howie Kendrick, Kendrick grounded into a double play to end the inning. Things were moving so fast, there was little time to reflect, and that was probably a good thing. Maybe, finally, this was the Cubs’ moment. The score was still 5-0 going into the top of the ninth. Chapman first faced Enrique Hernandez and struck him out. Carlos Ruiz, the veteran of many postseason runs with the Phillies, pinch hit for Chase Utley, his teammate during those runs, and was able to draw a walk on a close 3-2 pitch that also was a questionable check swing call.

Yasiel Puig was the next batter, pinch hitting for Kenley Jansen. On the first pitch, he hit a ground ball to Addison Russell at short. I realized there was a good chance it could be a double play. Suddenly, I knew the moment was here. Yes, I’ve been waiting for this my whole life. But I wasn’t ready for it quite yet. I felt like I needed it to take a few more pitches for Chapman to finish the inning, so I could have a little time to soak in this moment and reflect on what it means to me.

But whether I was ready or not, it was time. And it was probably good that it happened so fast, again, so as to not allow time for negative thoughts to creep in with just two outs to go. In the brief moment it took that ball to get to Russell, I quickly had to prepare myself for the celebration, and by the time he flipped to Javier Baez at second, I was ready. I leaped out of my seat and braced myself. Baez caught the ball on the bag, turned, and fired a bullet to Anthony Rizzo at first, and Puig was called out on a close play. Cubs teammates mobbed each other on the infield with “Go Cubs Go” playing in the background. The Wrigley Field crowd went crazier than perhaps they ever had before. It was really happening! The Cubs were going to the World Series.

I put my hands in the air and started jumping up and down cheering. It felt both planned and spontaneous at the same time. When you dream about something your whole life, and you finally get to see it happen, how do you respond? I felt joy, of course, that it happened. I felt relief that the long wait – and all the jokes and taunts that went with it – was over. And I also felt sadness that many folks lived so long and passed away without witnessing this.

It had been 71 years since the Cubs won the pennant. There aren’t many fans left who are old enough to remember very well the last time it happened. And even if they do remember it, could they have truly appreciated it, having no idea what fans would have to go through over the next seven decades? Could they have foreseen how long it would take to redeem that loss to the Tigers in Game 7 of the 1945 World Series?

I especially liked how the TV reporters interviewed Dorothy, an elderly lady who has been a fixture at Wrigley Field for many years, after the game. She talked about the Cubs fans in her family who had passed away and how she was the only one of her siblings left. How many other stories like that were there on this night? Though my grandparents are gone, I’m glad I had my wife and my parents there with me to watch this game. I’ll always cherish that.

I don’t know how many times I’ve gone back and watched that game-ending double play over the past few months; I’ll bet it’s been at least a few dozen times. When I was watching the game live, I was caught up in my own celebration and too busy cheering to listen to the announcers. I know a lot of Cubs fans don’t like Joe Buck – and I must admit he’s annoyed me more than a few times – but I really think he nailed this call. In speculating on what the call would be as the Cubs make the final out to win the pennant, I thought maybe Buck would give this big speech on how long it’s been since the Cubs last went to the World Series, perhaps in a condescending tone.

But I was pleasantly surprised with how well he captured the moment. He called, “Out!” as the Cubs got the first out at second, then he more enthusiastically shouted, “OUT!” when they got the second out at first base. With the roar of the crowd behind him, Buck cried, “The Cubs have won the pennant!” It was one of the most enthusiastic moments I can ever remember from him. For about three or four minutes after that, neither he nor John Smoltz said a word, letting the images of cheering fans and players do all the talking before describing how Cubs fans will never forget where they were on this night.

“The Cubs have won the pennant!” Does anything more really need to be said? Just six words, yet they mean so much. Virtually all Cubs fans watching understood the significance of this moment and what that phrase means, not just to Cubs fans but also to American culture in general. For decades, the idea of the Cubs winning the pennant was a joke to some, but to many it was a symbol of hope. Now that it happened, suddenly anything seemed possible.

Including, maybe, the Cubs winning the World Series. And they were now as close as they’ve been in three generations. I stayed up for about two hours after the game, talking to my family and sharing in the joy of this great moment. It was an important and incredible achievement to win the National League pennant. But as a fan, deep down, I wasn’t satisfied quite yet.

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.