CHICAGO — With hours left before the most important game of the Cubs’ season to this point, leftfielder Kyle Schwarber pushed his way into the cluster of Latin American players eating lunch near second baseman Javy Báez’s locker.
The obituaries were nearly written. Chicago, 349 days removed from a curse-breaking title, couldn’t muster even a single win in the NLCS. The flashy Báez, a darling last October for his majestic tags and timely slugging, had opened the postseason 0-for-20. As the Dodgers filed toward the buses after Game 3, grinning at their 6–1 victory, MLB officials held the so-called clinch meeting in their batting cage, discussing where to hang the plastic sheeting and store the champagne.
“You know what I’m looking forward to today?” Schwarber announced. “The Javy Báez show. Today’s the day.”
Chicagoans hoped so. Imagine if the Cubs had not won the World Series last year. Picture it: Michael Martinez’s grounder gets through and the Indians win Game 7. The Chicago winter is long and cold. The Cubs enter their 109th—an ugly, jagged number; no cute analogue to the number of stitches on a baseball—straight attempt at the title as the favorite and promptly go 25–27 through May. As late as Sept. 10 they seem in danger of giving away the division to the Cardinals or even the Brewers.
They win a wild Game 5 of the NLDS over the Nationals when they benefited from a series of events—intentional walk, passed ball, error on the catcher, catcher’s interference—never before seen in history, but use seven pitchers to get there. They fall apart in Game 1 of the NLCS, letting a two-run lead slip away as the Dodgers seem to win every inch: the inches past the wall L.A. Yasiel Puig’s drive to left lands, the inches Chicago catcher Willson Contreras jabs his knee in front of the plate, illegally blocking the runner and eventually allowing him to score.
In Game 2 manager Joe Maddon inexplicably leaves his closer in the bullpen and instead brings in aging, longball-prone starter John Lackey—pitching on back-to-back days for the first time in his career—to face the Dodgers’ best hitter, third baseman Justin Turner, in the bottom of the ninth with the score tied at 1. Turner lofts the second pitch he sees into the centerfield stands. Chicago is utterly outplayed in Game 3. Wrigley Field falls so quiet you can almost hear the dugout conversations. This would be the most classic Cubs heartbreak imaginable. They’d be sacrificing goats on Clark Street. It would be time to think about next year.
But instead fans are doing the YMCA in between innings. No one is searching for signs from above, although they are there if you try hard enough: a 3–1 deficit, exactly what they overcame in the World Series last year. Forty-two thousand one hundred ninety-five fans in attendance for Game 4, the number of meters in a marathon, which the rest of the postseason will be if they can survive this series. Wednesday’s 3–2 win was the first step.
After all the crippling tension of last year’s run, Wrigleyville has been positively relaxed this October. According to ticket reseller TickPick, the average ticket to Game 5 is selling for $275. A day before NLCS Game 6 last season those seats were going for $1,065. In 2016 the Cubs knew from Day 1 of spring training that they were the favorite. “Embrace the target,” Maddon preached. Now for the first time they are the underdogs, facing a juggernaut Los Angeles group that was on pace for the major league wins record until mid-August.
“I feel like there’s no pressure on us,” says Cubs centerfielder Albert Almora. “There’s pressure on them to finish the job.”
Báez in particular has been the face of Chicago’s struggles recently. He looked lost at the plate, chasing pitches well outside the zone. Only one Cub had ever had such a brutal start to a postseason: Jimmy Sheckard went 0–21 in the 1906 World Series. But Báez tried to remain positive. His teammates were aware of the slump, of course, but he behaved so normally—greeting them exuberantly when they arrived, chirping in the clubhouse and in the dugout—that they almost forgot about it. Asked if he had gone out of his way to encourage Báez over the last few weeks, Almora looks quizzical. “Oh, because of what’s been happening?” he realizes at last. “No, not at all.”
Outfielder Jon Jay smiles. “Things can get blown out of proportion in the postseason,” he says. “It’s only been a few games.”
Báez did feel the pressure, though. “Since the series before I've been trying to get a base hit so hard,” he admits. “Tonight I just said to myself not to try too much, and I didn't, and there you have it.”
Indeed. L.A. starter Alex Wood, pitching on a three-week layoff because the Dodgers did not need him as they were sweeping the NLDS, struggled with his command early. In his first at bat, Báez reached for a curveball on the bottom edge of the strike zone and deposited it onto Waveland Avenue. In his second he put a Wood changeup a few yards in front of the first one. His third ended in a flyball to the deepest part of centerfield.
How did Schwarber know? “Javy loves the big moment,” he says simply.
This was only one win. Chicago is still three away from the World Series. The Cubs and their second baseman may no longer be left for dead, but they face a difficult challenge. L.A. is the superior team on paper, and it has played that way this October, dominating the Diamondbacks in the first round and taking that commanding 3–0 lead on the Cubs.
The last time the Dodgers lost a baseball game before Wednesday—back on Sept. 29—America had been introduced to but one Blade Runner movie. Tom Price over at Health and Human Services was booking his next flight. The Yankees were chasing the Red Sox for the division title. The Los Angeles bullpen has allowed three hits all series; Turner, Puig and second baseman Logan Forsythe have reached base more than half the time they have come to the plate this postseason. In Game 5 the Dodgers will start Clayton Kershaw, the best pitcher of his generation, on regular rest.
But Báez was not thinking about any of that when Schwarber interrupted his lunch. “I was like, O.K.!” he says delightedly. “Just let the game start.” He grins. “He better tell me that tomorrow, too!”
It’s not yet time to think about next year in Chicago. It’s not time to think about the next series, either. Javy Báez and his Cubs have bought themselves tomorrow.