Analysis

Cubs Outlast the Nationals in Game 5, Clinch Third Straight NLCS Appearance

The Chicago Cubs defeated the Washington Nationals 9-8 in one of the craziest playoff games in recent memory. It was a game filled with oddities: sloppy plays, obscure reviews, strange MLB rules controversially surfacing, and, most notably, horrific bullpen management (by both sides.)

The beauty of this game is highlighted by its absurdity, resulting in a conclusion that is becoming more and more familiar. The Nationals continued to create ways to lose in the decisive NLDS Game 5, while the Cubs have paradoxically become the team that, despite the odds, figures out ways to win when they need to. I don’t know what’s going to happen the rest of these playoffs (or in the next three to five years) but this sure as hell feels like a dynasty might be a legitimate possibility.

The Cubs are headed to the NLCS for the third straight year. Not only is this the club’s first three consecutive playoff appearance streak since 1906-1908, it’s a year that, entering the playoffs, you could truly believe as a fan that the Cubs have a sincere chance to be the first repeat Champions since the Yankees won three straight from 1998-2000. It feels good to be a Cubs fan.

Game In Review

The Cubs struck early, scoring in the first inning. Jon Jay led-off with a double to right field, risking an easy single by hustling out the gate, never giving up on the chance of a double. Harper was shaded a little bit to right center, not anticipating Jay might be able to pull the ball against southpaw Gio Gonzalez. He did, and in the extra second it took Bryce to get to the ball, Jay decided he could make it to second. It was an incredibly close play, and Dusty Baker burned a Nationals challenge early to review the safe call. It was upheld, and as a fan, you were slapped in the face immediately that this was going to be an awkward, stressful, unpredictable game. After a Bryant strikeout (that involved a wild pitch by Gonzalez to advance Jay to third) Rizzo hit into an RBI-ground out on an 0-2 count, scoring Jay.

The bottom of the first started with an infield single by Trea Turner. He’d steal second, and advance to third, only to be gunned down at the plate by Javy Baez on a grounder by Bryce Harper (a fantastic change-up by Hendricks). Cubs hold serve, 1-0.

In the bottom of the second, Hendricks clearly lost his footing. Daniel Murphy homered on a first pitch fastball. A bloop single and a smart bunt-against-the-shift by Matt Wieters later, and two runners were on with no outs. Up to bat was Michael Taylor, who hit the decisive grand slam in the eighth inning of last night’s heart-breaker (against Wade Davis, no less.) On an 0-2 count, in which Kyle had thrown two fastballs, Taylor somehow guesses fastball up, and drills a pitch well above the zone for momentum-changing 4-1 lead.

Source: Win McNamee/Getty Images North America

As the Cubs clawed their way back to 4-3 ballgame in the top of the third, Hendricks went back out. After a quick third inning, Hendricks was allowed to hit for himself in the top of the fourth. And as he gave up two more hits in the bottom of the inning, he was allowed to remain to face Ryan Zimmerman with two outs, who flew out to left, leaving the score at 4-3.

The top of the fifth featured the expected relief appearance by Max Scherzer. What happened was impossible to predict. After two quick outs by Bryant and Rizzo, Willson Contreras hit an infield single, hustling upon contact. Ben Zobrist entered the game for Almora, and singled after a lengthy, tough at-bat. And then Addison Russell lined a ball down the third base line, scoring both with a double.

After Jason Heyward was intentionally walked, Javier Baez struck out on a wild pitch, inevitably resulting in a bad throw to first (after Javy hit his helmet in his back-swing). Russell scored, and then Tommy La Stella pinch-hit, reaching base on the all-too-rare Catcher’s Interference. Jon Jay was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded, adding another run. Somehow, the Cubs scored four runs with nobody on and two outs facing one of the best players of the planet. Suddenly, and impossibly, the Cubs were winning 7-4.

The Cubs added a run in the sixth, with Russell hitting a line drive that, sliding for, Jayson Werth completely misses, counting as an RBI “double” for Addison, scoring Zobrist (who drew a walk). Yet another sloppy play in this already insane game.

The Nationals struck again in the bottom of the sixth inning, chasing an effective Pedro Strop after a two out walk. Mike Montgomery replaced him, giving up a double to Harper, surrendering a run on a wild pitch, and then an RBI double by Daniel Murphy. Maddon stuck with Montgomery, and Wieters drove the ball to deep right field, only to be caught by Heyward to end the inning. Suddenly it’s 8-6.

Kyle Schwarber hit a missile to lead off the top of the seventh inning, and eventually scored on an RBI-force out by Rizzo. The Cubs add a run to make it 9-7. Carl Edwards Jr. enters the game in the bottom half, immediately walking Trea Turner. He was promptly replaced by Jose Quintana, who induced a few outs and allowed a few base-runners before exiting for Wade Davis, who struck out Zimmerman to end the inning.

In the bottom of the eighth, Davis walked back-to-back hitters, only to induce a 4-6-3 double play, before allowing an RBI single with two outs. Davis then allowed another single, and then Willson Contreras pulled off some postseason heroics, back-picking Jose Lobaton at first base – after a replay review that shows him being easily safe before popping off the bag – Rizzo is still tagging him. The Cubs escape the inning clinging to a 9-8 lead.

Davis returned for the bottom of the ninth inning, retiring the top of the Nationals’ order 1-2-3, including a dramatic 3-2 Curveball to Bryce Harper to end the game. Unbelievably, yet somehow expectedly, the Cubs prevailed 9-8 in absurd fashion.

What the hell was Maddon thinking?

Source: Win McNamee/Getty Images North America

Let’s put a microscope on Joe Maddon‘s ghastly bullpen management. After the three run home run by Michael Taylor, it was clear that Kyle did not have his best stuff. Yet Maddon remained inexplicably stubborn, almost as if to prove his newfound confidence in Hendricks when tonight – as opposed to, say, game seven of the World Series last year – he simply didn’t have “it”. I sincerely believed Kyle Hendricks would pitch like he did in game one. I also stated that, should he struggle, Maddon needed to have the appropriate hook. In an awkward twist, Maddon didn’t.

Pedro Strop was dealing, bailing out Brian Duensing in the bottom of the fifth before getting two quick outs in the sixth. But Maddon wouldn’t let him face Harper in a four run game with a runner on and two outs, electing instead to bring in Montgomery – who has, like others, been struggling these playoffs. Instead of instinctively riding the hot hand, Maddon again out thought himself. Montgomery quickly gave up two runs.

Somehow, Maddon decided it’d be a good idea to throw Edwards in the seventh, ensuring he’d pitch in ALL FIVE GAMES! That’d be fine if C.J. was dealing, but he was clearly struggling and lacked confidence. After a swift walk to lead off the inning, Maddon pulled C.J., bringing in Jose Quintana. Quintana, in the seventh, rather than, I don’t know, earlier in the game when a long reliever would’ve been a great option?!

Quintana proved effective, then Maddon brought in Davis for the rest of the game with two outs, and even as he struggled mightily in the eighth, ne’er was a soul active in the bullpen. It was as if Maddon forgot he had options should Davis struggle. Apparently the Aroldis Chapman episode of 2016 failed to make Joe flinch, and he found a way to once again guide the Cubs to victory in spite of impossibly bad bullpen management.

But, the NLCS!

I could go on and on about Maddon’s decision-making tonight, but the reality is that the Cubs somehow find themselves in the same situation as last year: an NLCS match-up with the Los Angeles Dodgers. And while they’re now the underdogs, you’ve got to feel good as a Cubs fan right now. We’re finding ways to win when we absolutely need to, the mark of a team that fully believes in itself. They believe in themselves fully.

For the NLCS Maddon must improve his bullpen management. And now it becomes critical who throws game one. Arrieta and Lester maxed themselves out on Wednesday, while Hendricks and Quintana each pitched in Game 5. There’s an ugly possibility that game one falls on John Lackey‘s shoulders, but my best guess is that Jose Quintana – he didn’t throw many pitches – gets the nod. That said, there’s reshuffling that needs to be done in the bullpen, and hopefully this crazy victory renews the bullpen’s spirit and confidence. That, and Maddon employing common sense with pitching decisions, just might give the Cubs a fighting chance.

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