CHICAGO -- How good are the Cubs?They're so good that they can win even when it seems like they're outsmarting themselves.Missed sign on a squeeze bunt? Quick hook of Jon Lester, when it looks to everyone except Joe Maddon like he's cruising? Bullpen sequence that puts Aroldis Chapman on the
CHICAGO -- How good are the Cubs?
They're so good that they can win even when it seems like they're outsmarting themselves.
Missed sign on a squeeze bunt? Quick hook of Jon Lester, when it looks to everyone except Joe Maddon like he's cruising? Bullpen sequence that puts Aroldis Chapman on the mound with the bases loaded in the eighth inning and nobody out?
Details, details, details.
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In the end, after a 3-1 lead turns into a 3-3 tie, all that matters is that Dodgers manager Dave Roberts doesn't bring in a left-handed pitcher to face Miguel Montero, Joe Blanton hangs a slider, and the 10-year veteran blasts it into the right-field bleachers for a grand slam, capping a raucous Game 1 of the National League Championship Series at Wrigley Field.
Lester, who was surprised when Maddon pulled him back from the on-deck circle in the bottom of the sixth inning, spoke for the Cubs after this 8-4 victory, the team's first in the NLCS since 2003.
He said that the back-to-back home runs by Montero and Dexter Fowler in the eighth inning on Saturday night erased all the craziness that happened, "and it's just good to get the W.''
After a 103-win regular season and a four-game National League Division Series that ended the Giants' run of 11 consecutive winning series in October, there's little doubt that the Cubs are baseball's best team. The question is whether they can keep their cool in front of fans desperate for them to end the longest championship drought in sports.
But opposing teams know how strong they are -- and they must know that they have to beat the Cubs when they keep a game close. This game would qualify, just as Game 1 of the NLDS, a 1-0 victory for Lester and the Cubs, was decided on an eighth-inning homer by Javier Báez.
So much had gone right for the Dodgers -- and against the Cubs -- after Maddon pulled Lester that the visitors were feeling as though they just might steal another tight victory, like the 4-3 and 6-5 wins over the Nationals that got them to this stage.
Instead, the Dodgers have to look to Clayton Kershaw, pitching for the fourth time in 10 days, to keep them from heading home to Dodger Stadium in a 2-0 hole. They had a chance to strike a blow and didn't, and the Cubs are the team positioned to make this a short series.
"It stings a little bit, absolutely,'' said Roberts, who had his own set of bold decisions to dissect. But I think that just the way that we kept fighting and kept playing -- whether we lose by a run or four or five runs, it really doesn't matter -- but I thought that our at-bats all night long were quality. There was some very good defense played on both sides, some good pitching on both sides. Yeah, I thought we were going to win it, but we'll be ready to go tomorrow.''
While the crowd of 42,376 was focused on a bullpen meltdown after Adrián González lined a 102-mph fastball from Chapman into center field to tie the score, 3-3, in the eighth, the Cubs had caught some breaks early.
Because the Cubs had a 1-0 lead with Lester on the mound, Roberts played the Dodgers' infield in after Jason Heyward pulled a triple into the right-field corner to lead off the second inning. Baez hit a soft pop into shallow left. Corey Seager might have caught it playing at regular depth, but it fell in and Baez turned it into a hustle double. He then moved to third on a wild pitch and wound up stealing home after a botched squeeze bunt.
Lester squared to bunt, pulled his bat back and looked on in horror at the sight of Baez perhaps 30-40 feet down the third-base line. But rather than run down the line at him, catcher Carlos Ruiz fired to third baseman Justin Turner. Baez broke for home and somehow got to the plate just ahead of the ball and Ruiz's tag.
• Baez steal of home 109 years in the making
Maddon correctly credited Baez's instincts, saying maybe 1 percent of all Major Leaguers would have broken for the plate instead of trying to get back to third. But Roberts admits the Dodgers let the Cubs off the hook.
"It was kind of a miscue on their part,'' he said. "But obviously [it] benefited them.''
Frustrated that the Cubs had gone 1-for-6 with runners in scoring position, allowing the Dodgers to stay in the game, Maddon opted to pinch-hit Jorge Soler for Lester in the sixth inning. He was gambling on Soler lifting a fly ball into the winds blowing toward the bleachers, but he grounded out, stranding Baez on second after he delivered his second double of the game.
Maddon said he wanted "add-on runs,'' but he also felt Lester wasn't as good as his pitching line (6 innings, 4 hits, 1 run, 1 walk) suggested.
"I just thought that tonight Jon really wasn't on top of his game,'' he said.
Lester, who had thrown only 77 pitches, felt he could have gone another inning or more to get the lead to Chapman, as he had done in Game 1 against the Giants. But he respected Maddon's authority.
• Lester surprised, but gets why he was lifted
"It is what it is,'' he said. "I don't get paid to make decisions; I get paid to pitch. So that's his decision to make. … Would I have liked to have gone out for the seventh? Absolutely. But you got to understand the situation and put yourself kind of [into] what the manager's trying to do.''
Maddon wound up using six relievers to get the last nine outs. Pedro Strop and Mike Montgomery allowed the Dodgers to load the bases in the eighth with no outs, and Maddon played the Chapman card, knowing it was out of sequence.
He didn't know that Roberts would walk Heyward and Chris Coghlan intentionally in the bottom of the inning, trying successfully to get Maddon to pull Chapman from the game. Maddon took the bait, summoning Montero to hit for Chapman.
What was crazier? The sequence or Montero driving an 0-2 pitch from Blanton for the game-winner?
Maddon drew from Gene Mauch to explain how he'll process Game 1.
"Play the game three times -- before, during and after,'' Maddon said. "Gene told me that many, many years ago. I will tomorrow, with my cup of coffee, large, a large Americano. I'll sit there and go over this whole thing again and rehash it. But you have to play it before. You have to play it before it ever occurs. And then, of course, during the game, anything, anything goes. Your plans could get blown up.''
Sometimes you win anyway.
Phil Rogers is a national columnist for MLB.com.