WASHINGTON -- Standing in the visitors' clubhouse at Nationals Park, soaked in beer and champagne as the club he assembled took part in a familiar celebration, Theo Epstein reeled off all the reasons the Cubs should have been heading home for the winter.
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Stephen Strasburg no-hit them into the sixth inning in Game 1 of the National League Division Series presented by T-Mobile. Max Scherzer carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning of Game 3. Their pitching plan for Game 5 fell apart as they gave up 14 hits and walked nine, and they managed exactly one hit with runners in scoring position in the 4-hour, 37-minute elimination-game slugfest.
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But there the Cubs were anyway, celebrating their third straight trip to the National League Championship Series presented by Camping World -- a rematch with the Dodgers that starts Saturday in Los Angeles -- after Thursday night gave way to Friday morning during their wild, harrowing 9-8 win over the Nationals.
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"It says a ton about our guys and their belief," Epstein said.
The Cubs believe their series of unlikely victories also says a lot about the way they reached the postseason and why this year's club is different than last year's World Series championship team.
Last year, the road to the World Series was relatively smooth. The 103-win Cubs of 2016 cruised to an NL Central title, lost once in the NLDS and beat the Dodgers, 4-2, in the NLCS. It was never so easy this season, when they found themselves below .500 at the All-Star break and fighting for the division lead in late September. They didn't expect this series to be easy, either.
"We don't really have a choice," outfielder Jason Heyward said. "We haven't had the luxury of being able to say, 'OK, you can dwell on what's happened.' This year's been different for us.
"In our eyes, this is what we've had to do all year. That helped us prepare for this moment, and we know there's more ahead."
The series seemed to shift in the Nationals' favor when Strasburg and Michael A. Taylor silenced Wrigley Field in their 5-0 Game 4 victory over the Cubs on Wednesday. And "different" doesn't do justice to what manager Joe Maddon described as a "bizarro world" clincher.
"Give the boys credit," Maddon said. "That's one of the most incredible victories I've ever been a part of."
Held to eight runs in the first 35 innings of the NLDS, the Cubs broke out for nine runs in Game 5. They did not hit a home run in any of their three victories. Particularly when Strasburg and Scherzer shut them down with what Maddon called "Gibson, Koufax kind of stuff," the Cubs had to find different ways to win.
Their starting pitching picked up the slack -- Kyle Hendricks in Game 1, Jose Quintana in Game 3. Kristopher Bryant and Anthony Rizzo led the way offensively in those victories, then Addison Russell stepped up with four RBIs in Game 5.
Down by three runs after two innings Thursday, they rallied against Giovany Gonzalez and Scherzer. Asked for a seven-out save, Wade Davis delivered. For all they overcame this season and in this series, the Cubs are nonetheless four wins away from another Fall Classic.
"We've been through it," Benjamin Zobrist said. "In those situations, we tend to start believing we're going to get the job done even if it doesn't look like we are. ... We've done it so many times in the past now that you start believing it's going to happen again."