MORRISSEY: A wild, improbable inning helps propel Cubs into the NLCS
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WASHINGTON — So this is what preposterous looks like.
I had seen bad before with the Cubs, lots of it, decades of the stuff. And then I had watched a World Series arrive in 2016, a stunning, beautiful thing. And, really, what was left?
I can tell you in unequivocal terms that there was plenty of room left for crazy. And silly. And, especially, the aforementioned preposterous.
One inning, one ridiculous inning, helped push the Cubs into the National League Championship Series and the Washington Nationals into heavy duty counseling. But it was only one shove.
The rest of the innings were a ride on a winding mountain road inside a bus with no brakes. Finally, after four hours, 37 minutes, a fever dream of a baseball game was over. The Cubs beat the Nationals 9-8 in Game 5 of their first-round series Thursday night for reasons that aren’t entirely clear at this moment. Because. Just because.
A four-run fifth inning, powered by a passed ball, an error, a catcher’s interference call and a hit batter, all of it with Nationals ace Max Scherzer standing on the mound as a reliever, pretty much summed up the evening. It’s exactly how Picasso would have drawn it up.
It’s a big reason why two hours later, Cubs players were celebrating like children late Thursday night, first on the grass at Nationals Park and then in their champagne-soaked clubhouse.
“It’s one of those will-to-win situations,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “Our guys were not going to be denied.” Said shortstop Addison Russell: “Just to see the energy flow within the dugout was just — I get chills just talking about it. It was awesome.”
That fifth inning. That absurd inning. It was a scorer’s nightmare, a weird, happy lark for the Cubs and a reminder that one of the best pitchers around isn’t a guarantee of anything in postseason baseball.
His team leading 4-3, Scherzer got through the first two hitters in the inning, and Nationals Park was a happy place. Willson Conteras got an infield single, but what was that to the likes of Scherzer? A dust particle. Pinch hitter Ben Zobrist followed with a bloop single to left. Again, a paper cut for Scherzer.
That’s where it went all very right for the Cubs and all very wrong for the Nationals. Russell doubled down the left-field line, scoring two. An intentional walk of Jason Heyward (odd), was followed by a passed ball on a strikeout of Javy Baez (strange), which also included an error by Washington catcher Matt Wieters on the throw to first (are you kidding?), scoring Russell, sending Heyward to third and Baez to second.
A catcher’s interference call sent Tommy La Stella to first loaded the bases. Scherzer hit Jon Jay with a pitch, bringing in Heyward.
Ten batters, three measly hits, four runs.
Who would have conceived of such a thing? Nobody in his or her right mind.
The fifth inning was only most obvious manifestation of the insanity. There was more — actually too much more. There was the seventh inning, when the Cubs brought in starter Jose Quintana, and he proceeded to give up a single to Trea Turner and a walk to Jayson Werth. Bryce Harper’s sacrifice fly scored a run, making it 9-7. Out came Quintana, in came closer Wade Davis to face Ryan Zimmerman. To repeat: This was the seventh inning, and the closer was in. Davis struck out Zimmerman to end the inning.
At that point, the only pitchers left in the Cubs bullpen who hadn’t seen recent action were John Lackey and Justin Wilson. There was desperation in every thing each team did. It was fascinating. It was torturous.
In the eighth, with two men on and no out for the Nationals, Davis got Adam Lind to hit into a double play. But Michael Taylor, the Cubs slayer, knocked in Daniel Murphy to cut the lead to 9-8.
And then, seemingly out of nowhere, Conteras fired a pickoff attempt to first base, but umpire Will Little called Jose Lobaton safe. Not so fast. Replay showed Lobaton’s foot had come off the bag during Rizzo’s tag. Maddon challenged the call, and in the mad spirit of the night, won. Soccer has its Hand of God goal. The Cubs have their Foot of God pickoff.
Neither team budged. Even in the face of evidence that they might want to pack it in, they kept at it, refusing to give in.
In the ninth, with the crowd on its feet, Davis got Turner to fly out to center, then struck out Werth. And here came Harper, one of the best players of his era. A game down to its last drop, Davis vs. Harper, as it should be. On his 44th pitch of the night, Davis struck out Harper swinging.
Mostly quiet here. Bedlam surely in Chicago.
The Cubs have done crazy before and done it well. They won two playoff series last season that could have gone the other way. They came back in dramatic fashion to win Game 7 of the World Series.
But this was more up and down. More twisty, more turny.
“I would say this is the most fun I’ve had playing in a baseball game, and it ranks right up there with winning the World Series, being down 3-1 in the World Series,” Russell said.
The Cubs have traveled far and wide in their long history, mostly across the Land of Bad, a vast territory of deserts and valleys. But finally, at long last, they arrived at the Promised Land in 2016.
On Thursday, they ventured into the preposterous. A strange, wonderful, nerve-wracking place indeed.