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Is this The Year? Cubs rally in 9th to eliminate 3-time champs

SAN FRANCSISCO — Bring on Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy. Or Corey Seager and Clayton Kershaw.

Doesn’t seem to matter to these Cubs who’s next. Or when, or where, or how long it takes.

If they can make quick work of Madison Bumgarner one night and rally in the ninth on the next to eliminate the Giants in an even-numbered year, maybe next year really is here for the star-crossed franchise.

They’re still eight victories away from their pot of gold, but Tuesday night’s 6-5 win over the Giants at AT&T Park gave the Cubs a 3-1 series victory over the every-other-year champs in the National League Division Series.

The Cubs celebrate after scoring four in the ninth to beat the Giants 6-5 to win the NLDS.

The Cubs celebrate after scoring four in the ninth to beat the Giants 6-5 to win the NLDS.

“It’s a validation. It’s everything that I believe that we are,” manager Joe Maddon said after his club rallied for four ninth-inning runs against five different Giants relievers – with Javy Baez driving in the game winner with a single up the middle on an 0-2 pitch with one out.

“It was a tough game [Monday] night,” said Maddon of a 13-inning loss that included a blown save. “Things weren’t going our way tonight. But we played nine innings hard and came out on top in a really difficult environment against a team that hasn’t lost a closeout game in a while.”

The Cubs snapped the Giants’ 10-game winning streak in postseason elimination games, dating to 2012.

“All that stuff matters,” Maddon said. “All that matters as we continue to move forward and establish an identity as an annual postseason team.”

Up next is a Game 1 date Saturday with either the Dodgers or the Nationals in the National League Championship Series. Those teams play their decisive NLDS Game 5 Thursday.

It’s the second consecutive trip to the NLCS for the Cubs who have won postseason series in back-to-back seasons for the first time since their World Series titles in 1907 and 1908.

“We’re excited for it,” said Kris Bryant, whose leadoff single started the ninth-inning rally. “A lot of us have a sour taste in our mouth from last year. We’ll be ready for it and can’t wait.”

The Cubs were swept by the Mets in the NLCS last season. Since then, they signed postseason veterans Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward and John Lackey as free agents and traded for 100-mph closer Aroldis Chapman to turn a contender into a 103-win team and this year’s World Series favorites.

On Tuesday night, they didn’t get the kind of shutdown postseason performance the signing of Lackey promised.

One night after the closer acquired for October blew a save chance, the big-game starting pitcher acquired for October trailed three batters into his start and never led – putting the Cubs on the brink of a return trip to Wrigley Field for a decisive Game 5 in a series they led 2-0.

“It’s never a good feeling when we’re not ourselves,” said team president Theo Epstein, who was shown at times on the game broadcast not appearing to enjoy himself as the Cubs as Giants lefty Matt Moore held the Cubs to two hits through eight innings to hand off a 5-2 lead.

“I knew we were going to snap out of it,” Epstein said. “I just wanted to hurry up and snap out of it before it was [Johnny] Cueto and MadBum in a Game 5 with a big strike zone. We wanted to get it done here, and our boys showed up when it mattered most.”

After Bryant’s single in the ninth and a pitching change, Anthony Rizzo walked. After another pitching change, Ben Zobrist doubled home a run. Then another pitching change, and pinch hitter Willson Contreras tied it with a single up the middle.

One out and another pitching change later, Baez drove his hit up the middle. And the young infielder who had been a conspicuous, celebrating thorn in the Giants’ side the whole series celebrated again with an exaggerated clapping that seemed directed at the crowd.

“I wanted it really bad,” said Baez, who stole the national spotlight during the series. “I now what I can do, and what I do. I’ll do it for my team, for my fans, for Chicago, to bring the ‘W’ home.”

If there was a NLDS MVP Baez would get it. “Absolutely,” Maddon said. “How could he not be? He should get the Corvette.”

And now the Dodgers. Or the Nationals.

Which might not seem nearly the task this was.

“It’s hard to finish any team in a postseason series, let alone one that has their kind of pedigree and character,” Epstein said. “That says a lot about who we are.”

They’ve already shed one postseason albatross Tuesday: winning for the first time in 10 playoff games in the Pacific time zone over five different Octobers (counting a pair of losses in Arizona, which is the same time zone in the summer).

It’s the franchise’s fourth appearance in the NLCS (also 1984, 2003 and last year).

For now, on this night, it was about soaking in champagne and a hard-to-believe finish.

“Top. Best win ever. Best game I’ve ever played in,” Bryant said. “I thought [Monday] was one of the best games. This was even better.”

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