The last time two starting pitchers with ERAs this low faced off in a postseason game, New Coke was still but a twinkle in Don Draper’s eye, and Bobby Kennedy had been dead less than four months. That matchup, as it turned out—St. Louis’ Bob Gibson (1.12) versus Detroit’s Denny McLain (1.96) in the 1968 World Series—wasn’t quite as good as the one we saw last night. Clayton Kershaw (1.69) and Kyle Hendricks (2.13) both acquitted themselves admirably under Wrigley Field’s bright October lights, allowing just a run between them, and together kept this joyful run of remarkable postseason games alive.
The difference in this one was, perhaps predictably, Clayton Kershaw. He was brilliant, mixing his pitches effectively, playing to his strengths on short rest, and taking full and fair advantage of strikes called liberally at the bottom of the zone. The Cubs’ hitters didn’t do themselves many favors, either, swinging early in counts—especially the first and second times through the order—and inexplicably watching hittable pitches sail by on at least two separate occasions. That approach wouldn’t have worked against a lesser pitcher, and it definitely didn’t work against Kershaw, who may have finally shed his (ill-deserved) reputation as a postseason choke artist.
Hendricks, for his part, was effectively wild through 5 â…“ innings, surrendering just a no-doubt-about-it home run to Adrián González, but missing his spots both up and down throughout the game, especially as he tired, and walking an uncharacteristic four batters. Had the Cubs come back and won this one, you’d probably see a few stories crediting him for keeping his team in the game, but as they lost, this performance will be largely forgotten. Probably better to just remember it as it was: fine, but nothing special. Could have been worse.
Could have been better, too. The Cubs could easily have won this game. Perhaps their best chance came in the fifth inning, when Javier Báez broke up what was then a perfect game by Kershaw with a single to center, swiftly followed by another one-base knock by Willson Contreras. That brought Jason Heyward’s spot to the plate with runners at first and second, and necessitated a decision by Joe Maddon.
Despite stating before the game that he’d put Heyward in for his defense, Maddon declined to pinch-hit for Heyward with Jorge Soler (or any of his other bench bats), and instead watched the struggling right fielder pop out to third baseman Justin Turner in foul territory. Once again: if Heyward comes through, you’d be reading a different story about this game today. But he didn’t, and so you’ll read a lot of takes lambasting Maddon for the decision. Let’s remember it as it was, instead: a little defensive, nonetheless defensible, and ultimately unsuccessful.
And the Dodgers nearly won this game by more than a run, too, as they followed the Cubs’ aborted threat in the fifth with a mini-rally of their own in the sixth. González and then Josh Reddick reached with one out against a tiring Hendricks, who was lifted immediately thereafter in favor of right-hander Carl Edwards Jr. That was a curious choice, with any number of lefties available out of the pen to face left-handed hitter Joc Pederson, who really struggles against southpaws, but hey. We’re not here to talk about that now, because what happened next was, probably, the most memorable moment of the game.
Pederson, who hasn’t looked particularly impressive at the plate in either of the series’ first two games, managed to hit a soft liner to second base, where Báez was playing, and apparently in perfect position to catch the ball on the fly for the out. He didn’t. Instead, he let the ball drop in front of him, and before anyone else on the field could work out what had happened, he flipped the ball to Addison Russell at second to record the first out, and then watched as Russell chased down González for the third out halfway between second and third.
Yes, the play might have violated the spirit of the infield-fly rule. But who the hell cares, it was amazing. And yes, Báez’s heroics these past few weeks will be remembered for less than what they are if the Cubs go on to lose this series, but let’s forget about that too. Let’s remember them as they were, instead: brilliant, joyful, and fully alive to life’s possibilities.
The game proceeded pretty much as it was expected to for the next two innings, with the Dodgers clinging increasingly tenuously onto their one-run lead. And then, the ninth, in which the stage seemed set for yet another tremendous Chicago comeback. Due up, the top of the Cubs’ order: Fowler. Bryant. Rizzo. They could have done it. They might have done it. But they didn’t. Fowler and Bryant struck out after some beautiful pitching by Kenley Jansen, and Anthony Rizzo—a little eager, perhaps, to get his postseason on the road already—lined out to Chase Utley on the first pitch of his plate appearance, ending the game and sending the series to Los Angeles tied at 1-1.
So much of how this series will be remembered rides on its outcome. That’s the way it is, but it’s a shame, too, because this series has been so much better than who’s won and who’s lost. It’s been instead baseball at its best: taut, tense, dramatic, and full to the bursting with prayer and deliverance alike. So let’s remember it as it was: Baseball, bold and beautiful.
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