Dexter Fowler played Saturday night like a man who returned to handle unfinished business.
The center fielder and leadoff man not only turned in a pair of spectacular diving grabs in an 8-4 Cubs win over the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series, Fowler also homered and scored twice as he finished 2-for-5. If that weren’t enough, the second of Fowler’s highlight-reel grabs resulted in a broken belt loop and he had the perfect view from the on-deck circle of Miguel Montero’s pinch-hit, grand slam that put the Cubs ahead for good.
“It was unbelievable,” Fowler said. “I actually dropped my bat when (Montero) swung. It kind of slowed down, I feel like. I hope it was as big for him as it was for me.”
Make no mistake about it: October is exactly why Fowler returned to the Cubs.
The 30-year-old bypassed more lucrative opportunities when he opted to sign a one-year contract worth $13 million with the Cubs in March. The most public of those was a three-year, $35-million offer from the Baltimore Orioles, a deal many believed was already done when Fowler surprised his teammates during a spring training workout.
[MORE GAME 1 COVERAGE: Miggy Magic: Montero's grand slam lifts Cubs to win over Dodgers]
Impressed with the team’s offseason additions and still pained by its 2015 NLCS defeat — “we took those losses hard,” he said — Fowler said the Cubs were where his “heart is.”
“Dex is a phenomenal teammate and he makes everybody better,” catcher David Ross said. “It says a lot about what he thought of the group in here and this city and this organization. For him to want to come back and be a part of this — I think he knew what was going on here and how special it was and the fact that he’s a phenomenal player, it was a win-win for everybody.”
Fowler displayed several facets of his game in Saturday’s victory.
A table-setter by trade, Fowler got his offense started quickly in the first inning when he ripped a 1-2 fastball from Dodgers starting pitcher Kenta Maeda for a line drive single to center. Four pitches later, Fowler’s speed allowed him to easily score from first on Kris Bryant’s RBI double to left field.
But Fowler made an even bigger impact with his glove as he eliminated several outs for starting pitcher Jon Lester. First, Fowler laid out to rob Justin Turner of a single in the third inning. An inning later, he raced 67 feet back and to his right to making a diving catch to rob Carlos Ruiz of extra bases. According to MLB.com, Fowler’s route was 95.6 percent efficient as he made a play on ball that is normally caught about 43 percent of the time. He also broke his belt upon impact with the ground and needed a quick repair once back in the dugout.
“When Dex makes those two diving plays in the outfield, obviously those are huge, huge momentum changes for us,” Lester said. “I didn’t expect that (Ruiz) ball to be caught at all, and Dex came out of nowhere.”
The Cubs know exactly where they’d be without Fowler after his hamstring injury this summer provided them with sneak preview. The club was 85-40 with the first-time All-Star in the lineup and 18-19 when he didn’t play.
“We were struggling when he was out,” Ross said. “Dex is hugely important.”
Being in this moment carries equal weight with Fowler, who followed Montero’s grand slam off Joe Blanton with a solo shot of his own to extend the Cubs’ lead to five. Fowler very much wanted to return for another October chase with the Cubs and remembers thinking how easily it could have been them against Kansas City Royals in the 2015 World Series were it not for a quick exit against the New York Mets.
He’s hopeful this ride lasts a little longer.
“It’s my first NLCS win over here,” Fowler said. “We came back to finish what we had started last year. It ended too quickly. But we’ve got another shot and hopefully we take advantage of it.”