Pushed to the brink of a panic-inducing defeat, the Chicago Cubs turned Tuesday to Jason Heyward, a light-hitting, $184 million batter. They asked him to do something simple: Lay down a sacrifice bunt to move a runner to second base.
Continue Reading Below
Heyward botched that assignment badly enough to set up a potential double play. Yet somehow, after a Giants throwing error left him on second base, it was Heyward who crossed home plate as the winning run.
And therein lies the most striking thing about the way the Cubs rallied from three runs down to defeat the San Francisco Giants, 6-5, and advance to the National League Championship Series. The Cubs were already baseball's best team. Now, for once, it appears they are also a charmed team.
The combination is wholly unfamiliar to an allegedly cursed franchise that has gone 108 years since its last World Series title. And it may be the biggest reason to believe this really will be their year.
"You need everything to go your way," Heyward said. "You need luck on your side."
Down 5-2 entering the ninth inning at AT&T Park, the Cubs were three outs away from having to play a decisive fifth game of the division series at Wrigley Field on Thursday night. All they did next was stage one of the greatest comebacks in postseason history.
Ben Zobrist drove in one run with a double down the right-field line. Willson Contreras drove in two to tie the game with a ground ball up the middle. And Javier Báez smacked yet another grounder through the middle of the field to bring home Heyward.
"Hitting before the ninth inning is clearly overrated," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said during the clubhouse celebration afterward. "To go from a precarious position to champagne, it doesn't usually happen that quickly."
The Cubs became the second team in Major League history to rally from three runs down in the ninth inning to win a postseason clincher. The other team was the 1986 New York Mets, who staged a similar comeback in the NLCS and went on to win the World Series.
The Giants went through five pitchers in the ninth inning, exposing a weak bullpen that ended their streak of 10 consecutive victories in postseason elimination games. In the course of winning the World Series in 2010, 2012 and 2014, the Giants became the poster team for the unpredictability of playoff baseball. But what the Cubs did after leading the majors with 103 wins in the regular season was predictable, if hardly assured.
The team getting the breaks is the one that has earned them. "We really feel like they deserve good things," Epstein said.
The Cubs will open the NLCS at home on Saturday against either the Washington Nationals or the Los Angeles Dodgers, who will face each other in Game 5 of the division series in Washington on Thursday night. It will mark Chicago's second consecutive appearance in the NLCS, where they were swept last year by the New York Mets.
Back then, the Cubs were a revelation, reaching the playoffs for the first time under Epstein. By the time they arrived in San Francisco this week, ahead 2-0 in the division series, a return to the NLCS was all but taken for granted. That, coupled with the Cubs' tortuous history, is what made the possibility of a Game 5 fraught with tension.
"If you're a player on this particular team within the organization, it's getting to the point now you want to expect to get to the postseason and you want to expect to get deeply into the postseason," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said.
The Giants stayed alive by winning a 13-inning classic on Monday night and rode an eight-inning gem from starter Matt Moore on Tuesday. But the moment their bullpen got busy, everything changed. The Cubs tied the game before so much as making a single out in the ninth inning.
With Contreras on first base, Heyward lowered his bat to try to bunt him over. The ball came off too hard, straight to Giants pitcher Will Smith, who threw out Contreras at second. But the throw to first by shortstop Brandon Crawford sailed wide and into foul territory, allowing Heyward to advance.
Not only were the Cubs in the same position they would have been in had Heyward done what he was trying to do, but since Heyward is a faster runner than Contreras, they were better positioned to score a run off the kind of hit that came next: Baez's grounder up the middle.
It was the kind of sequence the Giants have made a habit of this time of year: putting the ball in play and watching the result work out in their favor, resilience meeting fortune, and not entirely by coincidence.
"Luck is a great thing," Heyward said, "but how you handle being down is a better thing."
Write to Brian Costa at firstname.lastname@example.org