The Death of the Loveable Loser – A Tale of Three Clinchers
The postseason is a roller-coaster, no fan of any team in any sport will disagree. It’s why the players play the game and make the big bucks. These “big boy games”, as John Lackey has referred to them, are not only a testament to each team’s strengths, but how well they can avoid showing their soft underbelly. Baseball is unique due to is enduring season. Unless you’ve experienced it, you really can’t speak to what it’s like to play 162 games in 180 days. Try working your 9-5 that often, plus travel and not seeing your family, and you’ll see why these players demand the money they do (but I’ve digressed). After successfully navigating 162 games, you’re probably really tired (I know I am just watching from my couch or listening at my desk), but now its October so go win 11 more games. Among the twists and turns of the roller coaster, there are lessons to be learned and glory for those who prevail. No game teaches us these lessons better than a clincher, and the Cubs won the necessary three it takes to deem themselves champions of baseball. Here’s a look into those three series clinching games, how I felt during certain moments, and what I learned when it was all said and done.
NLDS Game 4
This one came with a bit of a hangover from the previous 13 inning night, which made the early one run deficit (which turned to three by the 6th) all the more unsettling. I won’t even lie; I was toeing the edge of the cliff. If we had to see Cueto again, it was over. It didn’t matter that we were going back to Wrigley, and in hindsight I’m an idiot for doubting Jon Lester, but what’s a Cub fan to do? This is baseball, and at this point in 2016, the Chicago Cubs are still loveable losers.
Up to this point I’ve dealt with ’03, ’08, ’09, and ’15. Anyone who was around knows how those went, ‘08 and ‘09 are a footnote in the history of Cub playoff woes, while ‘03 and ‘15 built us up just to break our hearts. But now it’s 2016, the This Year-iest year of any “This Year is Here” in baseball history, and the Cubs are up 2-1 on the Giants. But now it’s 2016, and everyone who follows the game knows what this dynasty does during even years. Go back to 2012 and you’ll even catch a comeback from a 2-0 deficit over the Reds (boy how times have changed). The playoffs are funny, just get in, play your brand of baseball, and you’ll find yourself in a good position. Easier said than done, of course, but it isn’t a long shot by any means. Ask the 2004 Red Sox, 2011 St. Louis Cardinals, and 2014 Giants, among plenty of other storied wild card teams. Case in point, my doubts had merit, and I’m hoping I’m not the only one who felt that sinking feeling. We were up in the series and still had the chance of going back home for a game five if necessary, but to that point the offense as a unit was struggling (and being carried by the pitching staff) and our pitching depth was in question as well. The soft underbelly was beginning to expose itself and we needed to get back on all fours, pronto.
The top of the 9th started with a single and a walk from a struggling Bryzzo, still not enough to lift the scowl from my face. At this point in the game, I was so sick of Matt Vasgersian (whom I don’t hate) and the entire FS1/MLBN broadcast, that I was listening to the game on The Score. I didn’t even care that it was two pitches ahead. Something about Pat really calms me down and I’m sure I’m not alone in this. Before Rizzo came to the plate, Bruce Bochy made a pitching change. Coming back into action, The Score played “This Town” by my favorite band, O.A.R. In hindsight I’m taking that as their way of saying, “cheer up dude, this team is fine” but I was stone cold pissed and the only thing that was going to bring me back was flying that W.
Enter Ben Zobrist, arguably the best eye for the strike zone in the game today. He takes the count to 3-1 and my ears perk up like a dog that just heard you say C-A-R. “Zobrist lines one down the right field line, that’s a fair ball! It bounces all the way into the corner, Bryant scores, Rizzo to third on a double by Zobrist” (Pat Hughes). I had to contain myself, since I was two pitches ahead of my dad who was still watching the TV broadcast. Alright, so we have some life. Two runners in scoring position, nobody out, what could go wrong? Well actually, he mansplained, quite a bit could still go wrong. After all this is still baseball and to this point in 2016, the Chicago Cubs are still loveable losers. A quick game of chess between Maddon and Bochy, and in steps Willson Contreras. A small sample sized stud in his own right, he was one of the team’s more consistent hitters at this point in October, collecting three hits in five chances. His base hit up the middle didn’t break any exit velocity equipment, but he hit it where they weren’t and the score was tied at five. I think this was the first point in the game I had smiled. Holy S**T, the tides are turning in the Cubs favor, still nobody out and a man on, but here comes Heyward. For the 400th time in 2016 I caught myself saying “This is the at-bat he turns it around and we all forget his regular season”. Instead, he drops the most infuriating bunt in the history of bad bunts, right back to the pitcher and hard. “Heyward bunts, back toward the mound. Smith has it, they get one, and the return throw goes into the dugout! And Heyward goes to second” (Hughes). An unbelievable break for the Cubs, and I mean literally, unbelievable. The sure-handed, went-on-to-beat-Addison-Russell-for-the-gold glove-at-shortstop, perennial playoff stud, Brandon Crawford commits a throwing error, his second of the game. Twists like that only happen to teams playing the Cubs, never in their favor! So here we are, leading run on second with game 1 hero Javy Baez, the polar opposite of Ben Zobrist, coming to the plate. It’s no secret that you don’t have to pitch Javy well to get him out. It’s also no secret that he will make you pay for a mistake, and thanks to whomever called for an 0-2 fastball, Javy got his mistake and put it right back where it came from for a go ahead single. Pandemonium. I’m bouncing off the walls, screaming out of my mind, like some kind of delirious 22-year-old.
After a blown save the night before, Aroldis Champan takes the mound. He retires pinch hitter Gorkys Hernandez on four pitches, and based on the radar gun, he’s feeling good. But this is still baseball and to this point in 2016 the Cubs are still loveable losers. Denard Span goes down swinging through a 102 mph fastball for another four pitch strikeout. But this is still baseball and… okay I’ve said it enough you get the idea, bring on Brandon Belt. After getting ahead 1-0, the Baby Giraffe fouls off three consecutive, pitches at 102 mph. As we learned from the night before from Connor Gillespie, if they see enough pitches, major league hitters can get around anything. Before I even have time to create any doubt in my mind, Pat Hughes uttered the words that 8 innings ago I wasn’t sure we would hear at all. “Swing and a miss! Cubs Win! The Cubs beat the Giants.” For the first time in 11 post season series, the Giants and their even year voodoo are defeated, and the Cubs await the winner of the Dodgers/Nationals series. Holy Cow!
Lesson learned: They never quit! Now I know what you may be thinking, I should have learned that from the regular season. The July 31st Mariners game, the final game of the season, and many more games should have taught me this lesson. It’s the team’s rallying cry and their huddle breakout chant, but like I have been saying, the playoffs are a totally different animal. This team has fight, they don’t roll over and wait to be pet. They snap at you if you touch their belly and claw their way back to assert their dominance over you, so you best keep your hands to yourself.
NLCS Game 6
This game was a gift, and not just because I had the opportunity to attend. No this game was a gift from the baseball gods. After beating the Giants, I was informed that I had the opportunity for a rooftop ticket to game 6, if necessary. My initial reaction was that I did not want it to be necessary. Fast forward to game 4, and the Cubs are on the verge of going belly up. Now I’m begging anyone that’s listening for a game 6, whatever we have to do to bring it back to Wrigley. A Ben Zobrist bunt (man that guy is good huh) puts the spark back in the offense and they go on to win games four and five to force that trip to Chicago. The nerves start to set in. I have the chance to see history, and only calling it history still feels like an understatement. Seventy-one years in the making, the plan was to at least be in Wrigleyville, but my first rooftop experience gave me the opportunity for a view of 75% of the playing surface.
The day started off like most Cubs games I’ve attended. I was ready to leave the house around 11:00 am, I was getting antsy around noon, and by 1:00 pm I was probably so annoying my parents were ready to ditch me for someone else. We got in the car and headed to the train, making it to the Belmont brown line station by 3:45pm. To say Wrigleyville was electric would not do it justice. The lines outside of bars were longer than Rapunzel’s hair, flooding the sidewalks and pushing pedestrians to the street. People were paying hundreds just to stand in front of a TV at a crowded bar, let along try and get to the bar for a drink. We were within the first 5 people in line for our rooftop, and after an hour and a half wait, we claimed our spot in the top row. This is where the panic started to sink in. I try to avoid superstition as much as possible, but baseball is so crazy that it’s hard not to get caught up in it from time to time. I’m sure most of us feel the same way when it comes to attending games; It seems like the team always loses when I’m in attendance. Forget that the Cubs were facing the universe’s best in Clayton Kershaw. Forget the Dodgers were up against one of 2016’s best in Kyle Hendricks. When the Cubs inevitably lost, because this is still baseball and at this point in 2016 they were still loveable losers, it was my fault because I was in attendance.
Except that’s not how this game went. This game was the most non-Cubs game in the history of the franchise. The first pitch single from Andrew Toles didn’t help the nerves, but the double play just one pitch later was rather exciting. Eight pitches later, Kershaw and the Dodgers were taking the field to try and quiet a newly awaken Cubs offense. Ask any manager of any team in any sport at any age, they will tell you that scoring first is a priority. I’m not sure you will find a broadcast in which “Score first” wasn’t listed under either team’s “keys to the game”. The Cubs wasted no time with this, thanks to a Dexter Fowler double and a Kris Bryant single, both to the opposite field. An error by left fielder, Toles, and a sac fly by Ben Zobrist (there he is again), propelled the Cubs into the second with a 2-0 lead. Que the chorus of this article, but in case you forgot: This is still baseball, and at this point in 2016, the Cubs are still loveable losers.
Except this game was different, and the Cubs never looked back. Adding runs in innings two, four and five of Clayton, including homeruns from Contreras and Rizzo. Things were certainly playing into Chicago’s favor. Seven and a third innings of two-hit dominance was just what the class needed from their Professor. Cy-le Hendricks followed his textbook for changing speeds and hitting spots word for word, only surrendering hits to the first and last batters he faced. Add in a pick off of his only walk, and you have the formula for nobody reaching second base. As listed in Joe Maddon’s syllabus, the ball was given to Aroldis Chapman for the last handful of outs (five to be exact). Not even the omen of a 9th inning, Carlos Ruiz, foul ball near the Bartman seat could dig the dodgers from a 5-0 deficit. After a walk to Chooch, Pat Hughes uttered the words I was worried fans would not hear, for no reason other than I was in the stadium. “And he [Puig] will hit a ground ball towards short. Russell goes to Baez, one. Over to first. The Cubs are going to the World Series! The Cubs Win the pennant! The National League Champion, Chicago Cubs, will play the Cleveland Indians in the World Series.”
Lesson learned: Suck it, Murphy’s law. The Chicago Cubs’ are capable of playing clean baseball when it counts. Regardless of history, regardless of their “lack of experience”, regardless of how many times you mention goats, Bartman, or 1908. It doesn’t matter where I watch the game, what jersey I wear, if I go to the bathroom during certain players at-bats or not. Good baseball teams find a way to win, good baseball teams award their faithful fans with drama free pennant clinching games. For this I am forever grateful to the 2016 team. For the experience of seeing it with my own eyes, without the help of a television, I am forever in debt to my dad.
World Series Game 7
World Series Game Seven. That pretty much says enough in itself, but this game took on a life of its own from the beginning and didn’t slow down until the last out in the 10th. Cubs fans have to go as far back as 2015 to find their last win or go home scenario, however, the differences between a wildcard game and World Series Game 7 are as cut and dry as differences come. Survive-and-advance versus Winner-Take-All, need I say more. Up until this point in my baseball fandom, I have enjoyed game seven from a neutral perspective. No matter the two teams involved, I wanted every series to go as long as possible so the season would never end. This time around, I was still wishing for a game seven but for my own selfish reasons, and I know for a fact I was not alone. I had a dog in the fight, and winning that fight would make them Champions.
The game in itself embodied the roller-coaster that is the playoffs, all in just 10 innings. Excitement, anxiety, anger, confusion, shame, even defeat all in the span of mere hours. Anthony Rizzo was caught saying it on TV, and I still can’t imagine what it would be like to play in a game like that. The Cubs were finally in the World Series, and I was wishing to be watching it through neutral eyes, as I had every world series until this year. There are so many angles through which I was trying to see it. I thought back to how I felt in 2005 when the White Sox were plowing through teams on their way to a championship, and what those fans might be thinking now. I watched the game at school, in Cardinal country, which made me think of the trash talk I would receive if they blew it, when they blew it. Because after all, this is still baseball, and at this point in 2016, the Cubs are still loveable losers. I even fell into the trap of making a way-to-early guess as to who might win MVP (I think I said Rizzo or Lester), right before it all hit the fan. And then it happened, I don’t think I need to say more. The only way to describe my state at the time would be catatonic.
In hindsight, that was the most fitting game seven of any series. An early lead, a late collapse, eight runs driven in by eight different players including a homerun by a 39-year-old back-up catcher. It even had a rain delay before the beginning of extra innings, a 23-million-dollar motivational speaker, and a 10th inning rally started by a guy with no hits in the regular season. Thankfully, the delay was relatively short. I’m not sure how I would have handled anything beyond 17 minutes. We come full circle, with Ben Zobrist at the plate and a runner in scoring position. At this point I haven’t spoken or flashed a facial expression since the 9th, and then Pat said, “Ground ball to third, base hit down the left field line! The go ahead run will score… Cubs lead 7-6”. Another walk to load the bases, and a key insurance run by Miguel Montero, and the game heads to the bottom of the 10th. In the beginning of the game, it seemed as if the lesson I learned against the Dodgers would grace us once again. Unfortunately, that was not the case and when the going got tough, I forgot the lessons I had learned from game 4 against the Giants. My friends and I stood arm in arm on the verge of tears. Two quick outs from Edwards followed by a walk, defensive indifference and an RBI single. A pitching change made it difficult to hold back the anxiety of another blown lead, but enters Mike Montgomery to face Mike Martinez. And then, it happened. Pat Hughes said the words that generations of fans never thought they would hear, because this is still baseball, and at this point in 2016, the Chicago Cubs are STILL loveable losers. “A little bouncer, slowly, toward Bryant. He will glove it and throw to Rizzo, it’s in time! And the Chicago Cubs, win the World Series!”
Lesson learned: This is still baseball, but at this point in 2016, the Chicago Cubs are no longer loveable losers.