By Dan McGrath
I’m sure I’ll type “Nationals” a few times as I write this. It’s not that I expected them to oppose the Cubs in the National League Championship Series, but in this line of work, you root for the story, and the prospect of Dusty Baker returning to try to right what had gone so terribly wrong for him in Chicago was surely an enticing plot line.
Dusty, though, just can’t get the hang of those elimination games, so it’s Dave Roberts who’s here, in his first year as a big-league skipper with the Los Angeles Dodgers and not one to shrink from a moment. While the Premier Division among major-league managers —Buck Showalter, Bruce Bochy, even sainted Joe Maddon — drew criticism for some questionable bullpen decisions in the last week, Roberts pulled off the most brazen move of the postseason and got away with it.
With the Dodgers holding a 4-3 lead in the seventh inning of their series-deciding game with the Nationals, Roberts went to bringer-of-heat Kenley Jansen for 2 ⅓ scoreless innings requiring 51 pitches — an unheard-of workload for a modern-day closer. His choice to get the final two outs was staff ace Clayton Kershaw, who’d thrown 110 pitches over seven innings of the Dodgers’ Game 4 victory one day earlier.
“Using a closer early is really not outside the box,” Roberts said Friday. “It makes sense.”
And it’s one reason the Dodgers moved on to face a Cubs team that is better than even money to end a 108-year stretch of well-documented futility. The Cubs are the dominant narrative of the postseason thus far, with every one of their games drawing a prime-time TV slot.
“I went through that with the Red Sox in ’04,” Roberts said. “It seemed like the whole country was rooting for us. It doesn’t affect us.”
Curse enthusiasts and others inclined to see the hand of the occult at work on Cub fortunes should note one essential difference this year: Things that used to happen to the Cubs are now happening for the Cubs.
Two examples from the recent series against the San Francisco Giants: Kris Bryant’s game-tying homer in the ninth inning of Game 3 left the ballpark by roughly a fingernail. Brandon Crawford’s blast in the fifth inning of Game 4 stayed in the yard by approximately the same margin. The hit went for a double, and Crawford eventually scored, as did Hunter Pence after going first to third on the play. The inning ended with the Giants ahead 5-2, as they would have been if Crawford’s ball had reached the seats. But late homers in big games carry a special cachet. The Cubs would have felt more damaged, the Giants more defiant, as Crawford circled the bases.
The next day brought a vivid flashback to Oct. 14, 2003. Eighth inning, one out, Game 6, National League Championship Series, Cubs 3, Marlins 0 at Wrigley Field. We all know the story: Between the time that luckless fan made an ill-advised lunge for a foul ball and notorious Luis Castillo popped out to the end the inning, the Marlins parlayed two singles, two doubles, three walks, a wild pitch and a botched double-play grounder into eight runs. Five outs away from the World Series, the Cubs’ season effectively ended. That’s as close as they’ve been to the Series in the 71 years since they played in it.
They were perpetrators rather than victims in a similar scenario this year, thanks to a truly bad Giants bullpen. Bruce Bochy decided 120 pitches over eight sparkling innings was enough for Game 4 starter Matt Moore, who had handcuffed the Cubs on two hits. They matched that total three batters into the ninth and surpassed it after four as each of the five relievers Bochy tried failed him — they couldn’t get three outs. Three singles, a double, a walk and a throwing error later, the Cubs were NLCS-bound.
Their celebration was as much about relief as jubilation. They did not want to face Johnny Cueto in a Game 5, with Madison Bumgarner and the Giants’ postseason pedigree behind him.
The Dodgers, though, were better than their NL West rivals in the regular season. And they’re old hands at this, in the postseason for the fourth straight year. Their lefty-leaning lineup leaves them vulnerable to left-handed pitching, but they usually scratch out enough runs to win, and Roberts’ handling of his bullpen has been flawless.
Yet there’s something in the air around Wrigley. Cubs in five.