CHICAGO — The Chicago Cubs' season could end Thursday night, right here at Wrigley Field, or over the weekend in Los Angeles. The odds say that's what will happen. History says that's what will happen. They entered the fourth game of the National League Championship Series having lost the previous three. They had as much wiggle room as a worm squished between the "M" and "N" sections in an unabridged dictionary.
There is an easy version of how the Cubs handled that situation, sanitized to make Chicago feel all went smoothly. It would say that second baseman Javier Baez broke out of a postseason-long slump to club two massive homers, that free-agent-to-be right-hander Jake Arrieta responded to what could be his final start as a Cub with 6⅔ innings of one-run ball, and that the Cubs staved off winter by forging a 3-2 victory over the Dodgers on Wednesday night at Wrigley.
Simple, right? Only one team in major league history has come back from a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven series. The Cubs' attitude: Let's be the second.
"We've won four in a row plenty of times this year," Arrieta said. "There's no reason we can't do it again."
But there are some stark realities about how difficult that task is — not just those proven over the course of time, but that might make it tough for this particular Cubs team. Start with the fact that the Dodgers will send ace lefty Clayton Kershaw to the mound Thursday night, and at some point Kershaw's postseason misfortune has to change.
But beyond Kershaw — who will be discussed all day Thursday, in the hours leading up to Game 5 — consider, too, the guy who should join Baez and Arrieta as Wednesday night's heroes, Cubs closer Wade Davis. His task was to protect a two-run lead by getting the final six outs. He got those outs before the Dodgers pushed across two runs. No problem, right?
"That guy doesn't get fazed by anything," slugger Kyle Schwarber said. "That's exactly what you want in your closer."
If Davis was the type to get fazed, he would have fallen over or hyperventilated given what he dealt with in the eighth and ninth innings.
"Man, just the walks," Davis said. "So many walks."
Well, wait. We'll get to those. But before that, Davis faced Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner — their best hitter — to lead off the eighth, with Chicago holding a 3-1 lead on Baez's two homers and a solo shot from Willson Contreras. This was Davis's first appearance of the series, a product of the fact that, in two of the first three games, the Dodgers held the lead in the late innings, and when Game 2 was tied in the ninth at Dodger Stadium, Cubs Manager Joe Maddon selected veteran starter John Lackey to face Turner over Davis. The result: Turner's walk-off, three-run bomb — and second-guessing of Maddon from Hollywood to Wrigleyville.
So the last pitch Davis had thrown in competition: the 44th pitch of his seven-out outing last Thursday in Washington, the pitch that dove down and in on Nationals superstar Bryce Harper, striking him out and ending the Cubs' decisive Game 5 victory in the division series.
"I was definitely tired after that for a day or two," Davis said. "Definitely been doing everything we can to recover and keep staying the course."
The course, in Davis's first appearance since, involved watching Turner obliterate a 3-1 fastball, sending it out to left-center. "Felt pretty comfortable challenging him right there," Davis said. Turner was up to the challenge.
Thus, Davis's odyssey began. He still had six outs to get. The Cubs' lead was down to 3-2. When he walked Yasiel Puig, the next hitter, a mess seemed to be developing. Davis had been a starter back in his days with Tampa Bay and in the early part of a stint in Kansas City. But he had since transformed into an all-star closer with a World Series-winning pedigree. The most pitches he threw in an outing during the regular season was 34. He blew past that in the series-clinching save against the Nationals. And those numbers were coming into sight as the Dodgers hung in there.
"Wade doesn't care about anything," first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. "That's the right guy to have on the mound."
Yet Davis's ability to remain unflustered was sorely tested as the eighth wore on. With one out, one on and a 2-2 count on Curtis Granderson, Davis delivered a knuckle-curve down in the strike zone. Granderson swung through it. Home plate umpire Jim Wolf ruled that he did.
But Granderson contended he ticked the pitch foul, if only slightly.
"Curtis said he tipped it," Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts said. So the Dodgers asked for a review. Astonishingly — to Maddon, to the 42,195 biased denizens of Wrigley — the replay shown on the videoboard confirmed Wolf's call. No contact. Strike three.
And then the replay officials in New York reversed the call.
"That can't happen," Maddon said. "The process was horrible."
Maddon protested, and vigorously. He was tossed. Granderson got back in the box.
"If Granderson hits the next pitch out," Maddon said, "I might come running out of the clubhouse in my jockstrap."
The nation, thankfully, was spared that fate. But Davis had to execute the pitch.
"I was trying not to get involved with it too much emotionally," Davis said. He went with a cut fastball down and in, and Granderson — overmatched all night, with four strikeouts — swung through it. Finally, Davis had two outs.
But that fiasco was emblematic of what Davis was dealing with in the moment. After he walked catcher Yasmani Grandal to put the winning run on base, he looked up at the giant scoreboard and saw his pitch count. Might he run out of pitches before he got those six outs?
"When I looked up and saw '30' there in the middle of it," he said, "I was really trying to hone it in and get control of the strike zone and get some quicker outs."
Perhaps the biggest pitch of the game: a 95-mph, 1-2 fastball that blew away Chase Utley and got the Cubs back to the dugout. The ninth, by comparison, was a rocking chair. Yes, there was a one-out walk to Chris Taylor, then the problem of facing Cody Bellinger — who had already homered — and Turner looming on deck.
But with his 48th pitch, Davis delivered a fastball to Bellinger where he wanted it, and the rookie grounded it sharply toward Baez at second base. Wrigley tensed up.
"Just turn it," Rizzo thought. "Don't drop the ball at first. It was as routine as you can get."
So they turned it, and for the first time this series, they celebrated. "Go Cubs Go!" belted through the stands, and the Cubs themselves retreated to their pristine clubhouse beneath the stands along the left-field line. There, as they showered and headed home, the video board at the center of the room showed Thursday's schedule: position players stretch, optional batting practice, a time for relievers to throw, Game 5 at 7:08 p.m.
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