Chicago Cubs closer Wade Davis stood on the Nationals Park mound completely exhausted. While he earned some experience in September, the concept of multi-inning outings had become foreign to Davis. He wasn’t a starter anymore.
The last couple of outs had been a struggle. At 27 pitches, he was already laboring. Only seven times during the regular season did Davis exceed that total. He still had one more inning to go. The ninth loomed, as did an inevitable showdown with Washington Nationals superstar Bryce Harper.
With his tank on empty, Davis gutted through 17 more pitches, sitting down the top of the Nationals order, including a nasty game-winning 3-2 slider to strike out Harper that he conjured up his last ounce of strength to unleash.
A season-high seven outs and 44 pitches later, Davis improbably sent the Cubs back to the National League Championship Series for the third consecutive season. It wasn’t exactly pretty, it wasn’t conventional and it certainly wasn’t timid — but it got the job done.
The same can be said of the entire series for the Cubs. For about 95 percent of the National League Division Series, Chicago looked completely overmatched.
With the season on the line, the Cubs fell behind early. It took the Nationals’ annual colossal postseason meltdown to help them reclaim the lead. With Scherzer on the mound in relief, the Cubs managed two two-out singles, followed by a two-run double to take a one-run lead. They then tacked on two more runs, one on a dropped third strike and another on a hit-by-pitch with the bases loaded.
Even then, the game wasn’t safe. The Nationals clawed their way back, scoring two runs in the sixth and one in the seventh. With the Cubs up by just two runs now, Joe Maddon asked Davis to take it the rest of the way. It wasn’t easy. Davis surrendered a run, allowed two walks and had four other at-bats last at least five pitches. Just like in Games 1 and 3, the Cubs eked out a victory 9-8.
By all accounts, the Cubs had no right pulling out a win in Game 5.
Cubs are 1st team in postseason history to give up 14 hits and 9 walks and win. They last did it in reg season Apr 16 2004 vs CIN (W 11-10).
— Doug Kern (@dakern74) October 13, 2017
They shouldn’t have won Game 1 either, when Stephen Strasburg no-hit the Cubs for 5 2/3 innings. An error and a single brought two runs in, and the Cubs stole a 2-0 win after the Nationals failed to capitalize on Strasburg’s excellent outing. Three days later, it happened again. This time, it was Max Scherzer, who one-upped Strasburg by taking a no-hitter into the seventh inning. He gave up a double, was removed from the game and the Cubs scored immediately thereafter to tie things up. The game-winning run scored an inning later, when Anthony Rizzo blooped a weak fly ball that dropped between three charging Nationals defenders in center. The Cubs won 2-1.
There’s an argument to be made that the Nationals blew the series. The Nationals actually outscored the Cubs over the five-game set 20-16. They scored a total of one run in the first two losses before their eight-run outburst fell just short Thursday night.
The Nationals were sloppy. They committed five errors, saw a rally end on an awful replay review and somehow topped all their previous postseason failures with a ridiculous inning in which their best pitcher completely imploded.
And yes, part of that is true. At points, it appeared the Nationals tried to give the series away. But then you realize that the Cubs made seven errors, including four in their Game 3 win, and failed to hit a home run in their three wins, which is an actual first:
#Cubs: first team ever to win an LDS without homering in any of their wins.
— Christopher Kamka (@ckamka) October 13, 2017
The Nationals weren’t good. The Cubs were often worse. But they’re moving on to the next round.
None of this is meant to take anything away from Chicago. That’s baseball. A team can completely dominate a game for 26 outs, but falter before recording the 27th. The Cubs played spoiler to a lot of fantastic performances during this series.
It’s reasonable to wonder whether Chicago can keep that up. Game 5 seemed to push the team to its limits. Maddon used seven pitchers in the do-or-die contest, leaving just John Lackey and Justin Wilson available in the pen. They won the game, and the series, but the cost was immense.
Because as the Cubs were burning all their pitchers as the game stretched to the wee hours of the morning, the Los Angeles Dodgers were resting at home. The best team in baseball during the regular season punched their ticket to the NLCS three days ago. By the time the two teams meet for Game 1, every Dodgers pitcher will be on at least four days rest, and looming Game 1 starter Clayton Kershaw will not have pitched in more than a week.
Maybe the team’s magic finally runs out in the NLCS. Lackey could get shelled as the Game 1 starter, Davis could fail to recover from his Game 5 outing and the heart of the Cubs order could continue to struggle to hit their weight.
In the end, the only numbers that truly matter are the ones under the “R” column on the scoreboard when the game is over. As the Cubs proved against the Nationals in the NLDS, they’ll fight tooth and nail against insurmountable odds until that 27th out is recorded.
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