It took three tries – and nearly three innings from their closer – but the Cubs won a World Series game at Wrigley Field for the first time in 71 years Sunday night.
Just in time to win an all-expenses-paid return trip to Cleveland with their season alive, if not kicking, after a 3-2 nail-biter over the Indians in Game 5.
Cubs postseason ace Jon Lester started this must-win game, but the pitching story of survival on this night was the biggest – and longest – save of Aroldis Chapman’s career.
The left-hander acquired from the Yankees at the trade deadline for the Cubs’ top prospect retired eight of the final 10 Indians batters of the game, four on strikeouts, to nurse a one-run lead all the way to the shores of Lake Erie.
“Gutsy,” teammate Anthony Rizzo called it. “He told me it’s big cajones.”
The only thing bigger might have been the magnitude of the Cubs first actual must-win game of the year an elimination game created by back-to-back, low-wattage losses to the Indians Friday and Saturday.
It set up perhaps the most fitting way for manager Joe Maddon’s team to head out of town for the final time this year – their final road trip starting on Halloween with a late flight to allow players to trick-or-treat with their kids.
The posted schedule in the clubhouse for Monday’s trip included the words: “Halloween costumes are encouraged.”
As if that needed to be said to these guys.
Not that it matters what they wear anyway.
For the first time since the weekend began, they’ll all be dressed up like players with a chance again to win their team’s first World Series title since 1908.
“It’s awesome. But we’ve still got some work to do,” leadoff man Dexter Fowler said. “We’ve got two more games. This is a step in the right direction.”
Last year’s National League Cy Young winner, Jake Arrieta, starts for the Cubs in Game 6 on Tuesday going after his second victory in Cleveland this series, with right-hander Josh Tomlin starting for the Indians on short rest.
If the Cubs win, it all comes down to Game 7 on Wednesday with MLB’s ERA leader, Kyle Hendricks, against the best starter for any team this postseason, Corey Kluber.
“Why not us?” said MVP favorite Kris Bryant, whose leadoff homer in the fourth tied the game Sunday and opened the decisive, three-run rally. “I feel like we play our best with our backs up against the wall.
“Hopefully, we can get out there and win Game 6, because you never know what can happen in Game 7,” Bryant added. “But we’re all about writing our own history. This team is a special one, and we look at so many times throughout the year where we haven’t been playing good, but I feel like we turn that around.”
The Cubs scored only once in their final game of the year at Wrigley Field, but the three runs in the fourth were enough for this win – and more than they had scored in the previous two games combined.
After the Indians closed to within a run on Francsico Lindor’s two-out RBI single in the sixth, Maddon got as aggressive as he has in two years managing the Cubs.
He pinch-hit lefty hitting catcher Miguel Montero for starter David Ross with two out and nobody on in the bottom of the sixth.
And after Montero struck out to end the inning, he emptied his bench of able-bodied catchers by sending rookie Willson Contreras into the game to catch rookie Carl Edwards Jr. on a double switch to start the top of the seventh – pulling Lester at 90 pitches with a 3-2 lead in his last game of the season, win or lose.
Edwards immediately gave up a leadoff single to Mike Napoli, followed by a passed ball by Contreras to put the potential tying run in scoring position with nobody out.
Then as soon as Edwards got Carlos Santana to fly to left for the first out, Maddon pulled a Terry Francona and went to closer Aroldis Chapman for the would-be eight-out save.
It was the first time Chapman had been used as early as the seventh inning since he became a regular closer in May 2012. It turned into the longest outing of his career by a third of an inning.
The only runners he allowed were on a two-out hit batter in the seventh and a one-out single in the eighth that would have been an out if he had covered first on Rizzo’s diving stop.
Instead Rajai Davis stole second and third, threatening to tie the game – before Chapman struck out Lindor with a 101-mph fastball to leave him there.
We’ve got to go on another one-game win streak,” Rizzo said. “We’ve got to sell out and do whatever it takes to win. We feel good. We’re obviously happy right now, but we’ve got to gear it up for Tuesday.”
Fowler even suggested they’d make a team trip back to Wrigley just for one last celebration.
“We’ve still got some work to do,” he said. “But I think the [clubhouse] party room will be utilized when we win a World Series.”