By Shane Nicholson
If you told Redbird Nation™ that Jake Arrieta would be chased from Game 3 of the NLDS before the end of the 6th inning you can guarantee just about any one of them would take the odds.
What they couldn’t count on though was the Cubs bats coming to life in record fashion.
Six home runs, a postseason record, from the top six batters in the lineup saw the Cubs through Arrieta having far from his best stuff Monday night. The Cardinals scored six runs; the Cubs scored eight, every one of them on the end of a home run.
And the hammers stayed out Tuesday, with rookies Javier Baez and Kyle Schwarber and first baseman Anthony Rizzo providing the spark. Baez’s three run bomb to right-center came after starting pitcher Jason Hammel kept the Cubs’ half of the second alive with a two-out RBI single.
It was the first postseason home run Cardinals’ starter John Lackey had allowed since the 2008 ALDS when he was still a member of the Angels, over 67 innings of playoff baseball. And it set the Cubs on the way to a comprehensive downing of baseball’s only 100-win team for 2015.
While Rizzo’s 6th inning homer proved the game-winning run in the end, it was Schwarber’s second titanic blast within a week that ripped the heart out of the Cardinals.
On a 1-and-1 count against reliever Kevin Siegrist in the bottom of the 7th, Schwarber turned on a 92 mph fastball and deposited it onto Sheffield Avenue. The ball sailed over the scoreboard in right field – over its Budweiser advertising hoard and all – and was left on the front door step of some lucky fan’s apartment.
It wasn’t perhaps as big of a blast as the one he sent into the Allegheny River last Wednesday in Pittsburgh, but the shell shock was far more traumatic. The Cardinals had been broken. The Cubs had won.
The emphatic turnaround out of the Cubs offence has been the story of the first round of the playoffs. Game 1 of this series, it appeared as though a team that had rattled off nine wins in a row–and scored 42 more runs than their rivals during the regular season–suddenly forgot their purpose at the plate. Lackey dominated the Cubs over 7.1 innings before handing it off to one of the best bullpens in baseball.
Joe Maddon came out with clear intent in Game 2: get runners on any way possible, and get them home in any fashion necessary. The Cardinals sudden defensive woes coupled with a suicide squeeze-happy ideology undid the NL’s best team over 162 games. This Cubs lineup, for all season predicated by patience and the big hit, showed it could compete by whatever means necessary.
Which just made Game 3’s record-setting outbreak of bombs that much more unpredictable. Who could have thought that Jake Arrieta would become human again? That he would give up more than a single run in an outing for the first time since July 30 at Milwaukee? That a Cubs lineup that had been so easy undone in Game 1 could fire back with such authority upon the return home to the Friendly Confines?
Clearly confidence was not lacking in the home clubhouse at Wrigley Field. Schwarber went opposite field into the basket in the 2nd off Michael Wacha, a starter well beyond his career high of innings pitched this year, and one who’d been the polar opposite of the other-worldly Arrieta down the stretch.
Jason Heyward, one of a very exclusive club of players who can claim to have Arrieta’s number, drew St. Louis back to within a run with a two-run shot in the 6th.
But the Cubs youngsters would not be out shown on this night: Jorge Soler and Dexter Fowler–he having just missed the bleachers on three occasions earlier in the night–added their name to the record setting evening.
Over the two games at Wrigley, the Cubs bashed the Cardinals to a pulp. Over the series, they outplayed them in nearly aspect of the game. The Cubs were the best team in the NL Central this year, even if the final standings didn’t show it, and even if it took them six months to get there.
Up next comes the quest to undo 2003, to finally put Steve Bartman and Alex Gonzalez out of the minds of a fanbase so collectively shunted it still seems difficult for parts of it to grasp what’s in front of them.
This is a team that will be deserved National League champions should they get there. This is a team that is brilliant to watch–that has been brilliant to watch for most of the season. If you haven’t caught onto that yet then you’re running out of time.
After the beating they laid on the Cardinals these past three games there’s no more sneaking up on anyone. This team–this youth-laden lineup–is here for your soul, whether you’re ready or not.
They are good. They are fun. And in a short time, they just may be headed to a World Series for the first time since 1945.
Fly the W, Cubs fans, because after over a century of waiting it looks like you may not have to take it down all winter.