In a way, it was fitting the Cubs secured the final out they needed to end a 71-year World Series drought on another spectacular play by Javier Baez.
With one out in the top of the ninth, Los Angeles Dodgers pinch hitter Yasiel Puig chopped a grounder to shortstop Addison Russell, who fielded it and threw to Baez at second base with Carlos Ruiz bearing down on the bag.
Baez played the pivot perfectly and fired a missile to first baseman Anthony Rizzo to earn the Cubs their first National League pennant since 1945.
“To be honest, we only want to get one man,” Russell said. “If we get two, that’s sweetening the pot. And we got two.”
Baez, along with starter Jon Lester, was named as a National League Championship Series co-MVP as Wrigley Field shook in a raucous celebration. His barrage of highlight-reel plays grew from stunning to expected with each one, like when he fielded a ground ball, hustled to tag out Andrew Toles and fired to first for a mesmerizing double play in the first inning.
The Cubs have always known Baez has the instincts and baseball I.Q. to be a defensive whiz no matter where he plays, but to do it on this stage as a 23-year-old who a year ago was a utility guy who struck out too much and only appeared in 28 regular season games makes it that much more impressive.
“This guy never faltered, he accepted his role as being a bench player and kind of a platoon guy, that’s hard to do at 20 or whatever he is,” Lester said. “You can ask (catcher David Ross) about that, he did that at an older age where he kind of had to accept the backup role. It’s a hard thing to do, it’s a hard thing to swallow your pride. This guy did it, he put the team first, and to be at where we’re at right now, to be a part with him and to be named that is very humbling for me, because I know where he was at, what he’s been through, and the struggle he’s gone through the last two years.”
Added Lester: “I know this is kind of the tip of the iceberg for him.”
Starter Kyle Hendricks, who dazzled over 7 1/3 innings of shutout, facing-the-minimum ball, said Baez’s first-inning double play helped calm things down and give the Cubs some momentum for what could’ve been a nervy evening at Wrigley Field.
“He's the most natural baseball player I've ever seen play the game,” Hendricks said. “His instincts in game are just top notch. And that was another play go today that was huge. The first guy getting on, to make that play and turn that double play set such a tone for the game.”
Baez did make an uncharacteristic error in the second inning, bobbling a rolling ground ball off the bat of Josh Roddick to allow the Dodgers right fielder to reach (he was picked off shortly thereafter). But that turned out to only be a blip on Baez’s evening, which started and ended with those impressive double plays.
“When he goes out there he's not afraid of making a mistake, and that's big thing when you get players that are en masse not concerned about making mistakes, really good stuff can happen,” manager Joe Maddon said. “That's, he leads the pack with that.”
While the Cubs marveled at Baez’s transcendent play in the National League Division Series and the NLCS, everyone on the team, and in Wrigley Field on Saturday and watching on TV, is waiting to see what he can do for a World Series encore.
“Everybody loves Javy. I love Javy,” catcher Willson Contreras said. “He’s an unbelievable player, and unbelievable athlete, and I know that it isn’t over yet. He will do it one more time.”