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Cubs offense wakes up against Dodgers in Game 4
0:44 | MLB
Cubs offense wakes up against Dodgers in Game 4
Thursday October 20th, 2016

LOS ANGELES—It began with a bunt single by the cleanup hitter. Well, it had to begin somewhere. These Cubs had gone 21 innings without scoring and three innings of Game 4 of this series against the Dodgers without a hit, so why not? These Cubs proudly defy convention. Before this game, with the whole baseball world wondering why the Cubs weren’t hitting, most of them skipped batting practice. Manager Joe Maddon thinks batting practice is overrated at best and counterproductive at worst. If the Cubs were going down, they would go down their way.

And so there was Ben Zobrist, bunting to lead off the fourth inning. Maddon said afterward: “How about the bunt (that) gets the whole thing rolling, by your No. 4 hitter? How unlikely is that?” But it was like so much of what the Cubs do. It seemed crazy until you think about it. Then it seems crazy to do anything else.

When Zobrist squared up against Julio Urias, he had bunted 41 times in his career. He had 28 hits. That .683 batting average says as much about Zobrist’s opportunism as his bunting ability. He sees when the defense is aligned in such a way to give him a chance to lay one down, and he takes advantage.

And with that bunt, the Cubs seemed to remember who they are. They did not win 103 games because they slug like the ‘27 Yankees; they did it because they can beat you in every which way, including a few you never even considered.

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Javier Baez hit a gentle dove of a fly ball that dropped into leftfield. Willson Contreras singled. The Cubs’ struggling $184 million rightfielder, Jason Heyward, drove in a run on a sacrifice chopper to second base.

And Addison Russell, the shortstop who has been a black hole in the lineup all month, stepped to the plate, thinking sacrifice fly. It was all fly and no sacrifice: a home run to right-centerfield.

“Saw a fastball down and away, stuck with it and hit it out the other way,” Russell said afterward.

The Cubs would finish with a 10–2 win on Wednesday to tie the NLCS at two games apiece. They also regained their sense of self. They played like they knew that, over nine innings, their overall superiority will come through in some way. And it did.

Meanwhile, the Dodgers put on an evening-long comedy routine in the field. Who’s on first? Who cares? You just missed the cutoff man. That wasn’t the Cubs’ doing, but it was quite a contrast to the team Maddon put out there, which was the best defensive team in baseball. He resisted the urge to sit Heyward and Russell for more offense; Heyward and (especially) Russell are part of who the Cubs are.

Russell has slumped before; he is the kind of high-power, low-average hitter who will always be prone to slumps. From May 17 to June 18 this season, he hit .189 and struck out 38 times over 106 plate appearances—a strikeout rate so awful that it’s almost hard to believe.

But he is a terrific fielder who hit 21 home runs and had 95 RBIs this year. As catcher Miguel Montero said, “This guy got 90-some RBIs, 20-some homers. That means he can hit, because they don’t sell those at Walgreen’s.”

Russell said he lowered his hands a little, a minor adjustment. The bigger one was clearing his mind.

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So much of postseason baseball is about trust. Players must believe their skill will overcome their slumps. Virtually every game provides evidence that a team will not win; the team must continue to believe that it will. The Cubs seemed to lose that somewhere in the middle of Game 3. They have it back now. This doesn’t mean they will win the series—they must win two of the final three, and Clayton Kershaw looms in Game 6—but it should reassure Cubs fans. Of the three teams left in the playoffs, the Cubs have the best rotation, the hardest-throwing closer, the best defense and the deepest, most versatile lineup.

And as Anthony Rizzo said after his own breakout game: “What makes our team so great is everyone has each other’s back and everyone’s rooting for everyone. We’re so close. It’s more friendships than anything else.”

After the Cubs lost Game 3, Rizzo declined to talk to the media. Personally, I wasn’t all that bothered, but it did make you wonder if he had reached A-Rod levels of self-consciousness about his slump. He clearly had not. First the Cubs got a bunt single from their cleanup hitter, then they scored, then they tied the series and now we can say: The Cubs are themselves again. And that’s been more than good enough, all year long.

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