CHICAGO — For once, luck was on the side of the Cubs. This might have been true in a couple of ways during Tuesday night’s NLCS Game 3, but definitively so in the top of the sixth inning, with the Mets clinging to a 3–2 lead.
With two outs and a man on first, Mets shortstop Wilmer Flores lined a 93-mph two-seamer from Trevor Cahill to right. The ball came off the bat with as much sink as it had come in, and was rapidly tumbling to the turf as it approached rightfielder Jorge Soler. He initially thought to dive at it to catch the ball in the air, but then thought better of it. Too late: The ball darted under his half-hearted backhand and rolled in the direction of the wall with what seemed like acres of grass separating it from either Soler or centerfielder Dexter Fowler. It would surely have given the Mets a 4–2 lead. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that Flores, though he is slow, might have come all the way around to score.
Then, Wrigley Field, the site of so much torment (the Billy Goat, Steve Bartman, mostly a lot of losses) over the decades, appeared as if it had finally come to the Cubs’ rescue. The ball rolled to the base of the wall and disappeared in its famous ivy. The outfielders put their hands up; it was lost. By the ground’s rules, Flores's was a double, and any runner aboard could only advance two bases. It was still 3–2, and that’s where it would turn out to stay, at least in the sixth. “I knew the rule,” Mets manager Terry Collins would say. “It kind of sucks when it happens to you.”
If fortune favored the Cubs, however, nothing else did in what turned out to be a 5–2 loss that put them one game away from elimination. Daniel Murphy homered again, of course, this time for the fifth straight game—this one a solo shot in the top of the third against soft-tossing Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks—but that’s nothing new. A Murphy postseason homer is now like a Key West sunset; remarkable and yet unremarkable at the same time, since it happens every night.
“From my perspective, it pretty much doesn’t matter who is pitching right now,” said Cubs skipper Joe Maddon. “Obviously, if you look at the line of pitchers that he’s hit home runs against, he’s just in one of those moments.”
The Cubs’ deficit, though, is mostly the work of Mets starter Jacob deGrom. The central question before the game was which deGrom was going to show up: The one who absolutely dominated the Dodgers in Game 1 of the NLDS, or the one who struggled against Los Angeles in Game 5 but won anyway?
It was the Game 5 version of deGrom in the first inning, and perhaps even worse. The Cubs made him throw 29 pitches in the frame alone, more than he’d had to deliver in any of Game 5’s consistently high-stress innings. Chicago’s first two batters, Fowler and Kyle Schwarber, made deGrom throw them 14 pitches combined. The powerful Schwarber deposited the last of them—even though it came in at 96 mph, and even though it was definitely outside and possibly high too—into the leftfield bleachers at Wrigley to answer the Mets’ first inning run and tie the game at 1–1.
“The last thing I want to do, like I’ve said before, when our guys go out there and put up a run is to give it right back up,” deGrom said. After the first inning, though, he transmogrified into the starter he was in the playoff opener, and perhaps even better. Remember the 14 pitches he threw to Fowler and Schwarber in the first inning? He required that same number of pitches to finish each of the second, third and fourth. The fifth called for just 11, and the sixth and seventh just nine apiece. When he departed, having thrown exactly 100 pitches, he’d allowed just one other run (on a Soler homer in the fourth) on four total hits with seven strikeouts. He retired the last 11 Cubs he faced.
“They pitched well,” Maddon said. “There is no other way to slice it, cut it, describe it. They have pitched well.”
DeGrom tied a major league record with his third victory on the road in a single postseason—he’s now in a class with Madison Bumgarner, Cliff Lee, Freddy Garcia and John Smoltz—and it now seems a near certainty that he will get a shot to own the record by himself in Game 1 of the World Series, to be played a week from today in Toronto or, more likely, Kansas City.
Nothing, of course, is set in stone quiet yet. There will be a lot of talk in Chicago on Wednesday about the 2004 Red Sox, the only team to come back from an 0–3 hole to win a playoff series, which they did against the Yankees.
“Of course you think about those things, you think about the parallels, think about the fact that that happened against a New York team,” Maddon said.
The commonalities between this season’s Mets and the Yankees of a dozen years ago, though, seem to extend only to their shared hometown. The starting pitchers against whom the Red Sox came back were, at best, mediocre: an allegedly 38-year-old Orlando Hernandez and a trio of similarly aging hurlers in Kevin Brown, Jon Lieber and Mike Mussina, who each finished the regular season with an ERA comfortably above four.
That staff couldn’t be more different from the one with which the Cubs must now not only contend, but also come back against. They’ll get Steven Matz on Wednesday, followed by the bigger three of Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard and, possibly, deGrom again.
“I think they’re all hitting on all cylinders right now, yes,” said Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen of a rotation that has so far limited the Cubs’ high-scoring offense to five runs in three games. “It’s always fun to watch Jacob pitch. Actually, it’s always fun to watch all of 'em pitch.”
It isn’t for the Cubs. Though they said the right things after Game 3—that they have four one-game series ahead—the fact is that a comeback now would mean going a perfect 4–0 against the Mets’ young quartet of big-armed starters, and that is a near impossibility.
In other words: Luck won’t be enough.