SAN FRANCISCO – The awful smell of beer mixed with champagne immediately hit you walking into AT&T Park’s visiting clubhouse late Tuesday night. Plastic covered the lockers as the Cubs sprayed and dumped bottles on each other, celebrating the giant leap that launched them back into the National League Championship Series.
The San Francisco Giants are supposed to have the nerves of steel, the iron will, or whatever other October voodoo you want to cling to now. But these Cubs are a confident, talented, relentless group that doesn’t at all care about even years or 1908 or billy goats or black cats.
It didn’t matter that San Francisco lefty Matt Moore had shut down this lineup through eight innings, or that the Giants had won each of their last 10 postseason elimination games, creating an aura around a franchise that captured World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014.
The Cubs always try to maintain a laser focus on the next pitch, and the cumulative effect led to a stunning ninth-inning comeback in a 6-5 victory that abruptly ended this NL Division Series after four delirious games.
“That’s just kind of what we do,” Kris Bryant said. “It’s nice knowing that there’s 27 outs in a game. And you got to get them all.”
This is all Bryant knows. The humble superstar followed up a Rookie of the Year campaign with a probable MVP season, starting the rally with a single off Derek Law, the first of five relievers San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy called while helplessly trying to preserve a three-run lead and get those final three outs in the ninth inning.
Bochy, a potential Hall of Famer, got stuck with a bullpen that led the majors with 30 blown saves during the regular season. Anthony Rizzo – who came into Game 4 with a conspicuous 0-for-13 – worked a six-pitch walk against Giants lefty Javier Lopez.
Up next: Ben Zobrist, the clutch switch-hitter who turned down a bigger guarantee from the Giants (and other contenders) to sign a four-year, $56 million deal with a Cubs team that wanted the steady presence he brought to the Kansas City Royals during last year’s World Series run.
Zobrist drove a Sergio Romo pitch into the right-field corner for an RBI double. Rookie pinch-hitter Willson Contreras bounced a game-tying, two-run single up the middle off Giants lefty Will Smith. After San Francisco’s normally steady defense couldn’t convert a double play, Javier Baez, the breakout star in this NLDS, smacked Hunter Strickland’s 100-mph fastball into center field to score Jason Heyward from second base.
“That says a lot about who we are,” said team president Theo Epstein, the architect of this American League-style lineup wearing shorts and sandals amid the frat party. “After not being ourselves for eight innings, we were able to come alive like that.
“That wasn’t us – we weren’t having championship-caliber at-bats for those eight innings. I knew we were going to snap out of it. I just wanted them to hurry up and snap out of it before it was Cueto and MadBum in a Game 5 with a big strike zone. Our boys showed up when it mattered most.”
[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]
Yes, the Cubs wanted nothing to do with Johnny Cueto and Madison Bumgarner on Thursday night at Wrigley Field. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only two other teams in the NBA, NFL or NHL have won at least 10 consecutive postseason games when facing elimination: the Boston Celtics (11 in a row, 1959-67) and New England Patriots (10, 2002-06). Snicker at the Cubbie occurrences all you want, but those are the types of dynasties this franchise aspires to be someday.
“Nobody really cares in there about a curse or a goat or anything else,” said Jon Lester, who can now start Game 1 of the NLCS against either the Washington Nationals or Los Angeles Dodgers on Saturday at Wrigley Field. “It is what it is. It’s what you make of it.
“If we make a mistake, we’re not going to blame it on a curse or anything else like that. We’re going to blame it on ourselves and be accountable for it and move on to the next play or the next moment.
“Plus, I think we got too many young guys in there that don’t even know what that stuff is, you know what I mean? So it’s almost better to play naive and just go out and worry about us – worry about the Cubs and not anything else in the past. Or, like I said, any animals.”
The night after a 13-inning loss and some second-guessing over how manager Joe Maddon handled his superstar closer, Aroldis Chapman slammed the door in the ninth inning, striking out Gorkys Hernandez, Denard Span and Brandon Belt swinging at 100-plus-mph fastballs.
“You can’t take it for granted,” said Rizzo, who remembers what the New York Mets and their power pitching did during that NLCS sweep. “You can’t take for granted what we’ve done, last year and this year. But we got one mission, one goal in mind. That’s eight more wins. We’ve all visualized it all year, since spring training. And we’re going to keep visualizing it.”
But even a team with an “Embrace The Target” attitude deserves some time to blow off steam and enjoy the moment. Still in uniform and cleats, veteran catcher David Ross walked through the clubhouse toward his locker after homering and driving in the other run during that eight-inning buildup. At the age of 39, the social-media sensation known as “Grandpa Rossy” yelled out across the room.
“Bus in 30!” Ross hollered. “Let’s take this party to the plane, people! It’s past my bedtime!”