Right about the time Anthony Rizzo was ripping a single to right field to score another couple runs and extend the Cubs’ lead last night to 8-2 over the Dodgers in Game Four of the NLCS, I was thinking about how I probably wouldn’t have to wake up again and write an essay on doom boners and mental seesaws.
That’s when I realized I generally don’t write that kind of thing after a big Cubs win – only after a crushing Cubs loss. For me, it’s therapeutic, and I tend not to need that same kind of let’s-talk-it-through self-therapy after a Cubs win. In those cases, I just want to watch all the highlights again and talk about how the happy stats and odds have shifted.
We’ll do that today, of course, for last night’s big win, but I wanted to take a little time first thing this morning to put down in words the kind of joyful exhale we were all feeling last night in that 4th inning.
Until that inning, the Cubs – and Cubs fans – had endured 21 consecutive scoreless innings, a streak they’d not matched in years. It probably would have been worse if, embedded within, there were constant and repeated failures to get runners home in key scoring opportunities, the reality is, those were few and far between. For the most part, the Cubs’ bats went meekly, and fans leaned back each time the third out was gloved, tilting our heads to the sky and wondering how this could be happening now.
That feeling of helplessness is one of the pernicious tradeoffs of fandom. We do not dictate the course of events on the field, and instead can only watch as they bring us joy or despondence.
That fourth inning was sheer joy blended with relief. The Cubs scored four runs, capped by an Addison Russell homer, and they never looked back in the game.
And it started with a bunt.
As most of you know, I’m a fairly ardent opponent of the kind of bunt you most typically see in baseball – a sacrifice attempt to move a runner up a base. There are exceptions, of course (in late and potentially decisive situations with a great bunter at the plate who also happens to be an abysmal hitter, for the most prominent example), but, as a matter of course, I’m all, “STOP. BUNTING.”
However, a strategic bunt attempt for a base hit when the defense affords it, now that I can always get on board with.
To begin the fourth inning, the Cubs were working on that 21-inning scoreless streak when Ben Zobrist stepped to the plate to lead things off. There are elements of Zobrist’s value that are immediately apparent at all times – his versatility, his contact ability, his steady approach at the plate, his veteran leadership, etc. – but in that moment, I like to think he showed off another one: a keen understanding not only of the defensive situation (a bunt to the left side was ripe for the taking), but of the overall Cubs situation. Having failed to take advantage of a prime opportunity just the inning before, Zobrist understood that to light a fire, the Cubs were simply going to need as many flint strikes as possible. Getting a runner on base to start the fourth inning was simply another opportunity, and the Dodgers were offering it to the perceptive batter.
Zobrist took advantage with a perfectly placed bunt, and the Cubs’ bats were off to the races from there.
The NLCS is now tied at two, with a final game in Los Angeles tonight before the series shifts back to Chicago. It would be inaccurate to say that tonight’s game is even bigger for the Cubs than last night’s – had the Cubs lost last night, the series may very well have become a matter of playing out the string – but it is probably right up there. Consider that, after tonight’s game, Clayton Kershaw looms on regular rest. The Cubs can beat Kershaw, and they’ve got the NL ERA leader (who allowed just one run in his last match-up with Kershaw) lined up to face him in Game Six. But there can be no argument that tonight’s game will tilt this series in what will project to be a decisive way.
The good news is that the Cubs face a pitcher off of whom they did some damage in Game One, and they’ve got an excellent arm of their own going in Jon Lester.
Tonight is a new night, and the Cubs’ bats may well stay very much awake. And if they need the kickstart of a well-placed bunt, well, they can do that, too.