By Nate Johnson
Hall-of-Famer Bob Lemon once said that the two most important things in life are good friends and a good bullpen. This year’s Cubs seem like an amiable enough bunch, but it’s the latter that showed up as the biggest surprise of their National League Divisional Series meeting with the St. Louis Cardinals, clinching a postseason series at home for the first time with a 6-4 win in front of 42,411 rabid faithful.
After a season (and a Wild Card Game victory) that saw ace Jake Arrieta write history on the mound almost every time out over the last three months, it was the relief corps that sealed the 3-1 ousting of their archrivals in the first-ever postseason meeting between the two NL Central clubs. Getting only 13 1/3 innings from Kyle Hendricks, Arrieta, and Jason Hammel in the three Chicago wins, every man in the bullpen made a parade of home runs hold up.
The poetic and chaotic nature of baseball showed up in the final frame of Game 4 as closer Hector Rondon, on the mound for his second save of the series, got the first two outs before giving up a single to third baseman Matt Carpenter. Rookie Stephen Piscotty, already with three home runs and six RBI in the series, stepped to the plate representing the tying run. Rondon would mow the youngster down, however, quickly quelling any Wrigley angst and sending the Cubs to their first League Championship Series since 2003.
In the series opener at Busch Stadium, the Cubs offense had gone dormant against Cardinals starter John Lackey, putting together only three hits in a shutout loss. From there, things would change. Chicago sluggers would go deep ten times over the next three games, including an MLB record-setting six times in Game 3.
Returning home on Monday after splitting the first two games in St. Louis, the Cubs took the field behind Arrieta in his first start since shutting down the Pittsburgh Pirates last Wednesday. Despite suffering his worst outing in months, the right-hander rode home runs from every batter in the first six slots of the lineup.
While clips of Kyle Schwarber’s Game 4 seventh-inning moonshot will be impossible to avoid over the coming days, it was two less-heralded players who took as big a spot in the offense as anyone.
Outfielder Jorge Soler started off the NLDS reaching base nine straight times and launching two roundtrippers. He would end up going 0-3 in Game 4, but still managed to contribute with a timely throw, catching St. Louis catcher Tony Cruz at home with the game tied to end the sixth inning. Infielder Javier Baez, pressed into duty after shortstop Addison Russell left Game 3 with a hamstring injury, gave the Cubs the lead they would never fully relinquish in the second inning of the series clincher.
The four-game series win allows Chicago an extra day of rest as they prepare for the winner of the divisional series between the Dodgers and the Mets. The National League Championship Series will begin in either Los Angeles or New York on Saturday, and four more wins there will put the Cubs in their first World Series in 70 years.