TOP OF THE SEVENTH: CUBS 5 – (4) 5 NATIONALS
Dusty Baker is back to Wrigley, and I’m sprinting, huffing and puffing away from a pack of 2003 NLCS flashbacks—Mark Prior on the mound, Luis Castillo at the plate, Steve Bartman in the crowd. And the very same, toothpick-chewing Dusty Baker, manning the dugout. But I pinch myself and figure (or hope) I’m safe. This Cubs team is different, this Wrigley Field is different, thirteen years later. New ownership, new management, new coaching staff. New rosters of players, many times over. A new clubhouse, and a renovated, expanded bleachers. A massive jumbotron in left field.
And a team that’s 22-6. The very best in baseball.
But they’re up against a playoff-hungry Nationals team, with MVP Bryce Harper lurking in right-field, thinking of nothing but his likely return here in October for an NL-pennant battle, against a team he knows will be in his way, thinking—we’ve I’ve got to send a message here.
In the TV booth, alongside the regular pair, is Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald, talking off-season training camps and looking to atone for the disaster that was last week’s 7th-inning stretch from Warren G. How can he, a singer (rapper), and Ozzy Osbourne, another singer (snarler?), account for the two worst all-time stretches at Wrigley Field? Mike Ditka’s goofery gets just spared here, barely, with a narrow third-place ranking in this race to the embarrassing bottom.
On the mound is Travis Wood, the longest-tenured piece of this youthful Cub team, with a 5-4 lead and Ben Revere stepping up to the plate.
The pitch, and a double down the first-base line, bouncing along the dirt to the brick right-field corner wall, Heyward fielding it and throwing in to Zobrist as Revere charges like the British are coming, around second for a triple.
Joe Maddon trots out of the dugout, in his winter beanie, gesturing to the bullpen for Adam Warren to come on, and that’s that for Woody. The Cubs have won five in a row, having just swept the Pirates, and it’s been two straight against this Nationals team, with a cheeky two-out rally an inning earlier that’s putting the series sweep in sweet, tempting view—Arrieta on the mound for Sunday’s finale.
Warren comes in with a few warm-up pitches, readying for Danny Espinosa. Behind the catcher at home, just above the shallow brick wall, the seats at Wrigley are packed in tight, bucking the trend of every other stadium to install cushy, wide-armrested seating behind home in reserved VIP sections—leaving half-empty blemishes in the most TV-visible sections in sports. But Wrigley’s keeping it real, for now, same seats for all.
Espinosa strikes out, on an up-and-down curveball.
Then, at last, it’s Bryce Harper, who gets yet another intentional walk, sixth so far in the series. Reaching Barry Bonds levels of respect/fear from opposing managers. Update: He’s got six more on Sunday alone, to tie the single-game record.
So they opt for Ryan Zimmerman instead, no easy out himself. Check-swing strike, 1-2 count. A big at-bat here, as we’ll see whether the walk-one-slugger-for-another tactic works or falls flat on its face.
The count now 2-2, the fans whistling, jostling for space enough to holler, and Zimmerman bat-waggles in the box, then hits a soft bouncer to La Stella, who turns on a dime and whips out one to Zobrist for the 5-4-3. But the runner’s safe at first. Tie game.
Maddon challenges, the umps confer, the call stands. Just, just safe as the ball bounces in the dirt before Rizzo’s glove.
“How’s replay in college football, do you like it?” asks Len Kasper.
“Absolutely,” says Fitzgerald, “when the call goes your way!” Har har har.
Jason Werth lines out to Fowler for the third out. Fitzgerald’s 7th-inning stretch coming (it goes… solid: 7/10)
— #VoteCubs (@Cubs) May 7, 2016
BOTTOM OF THE SEVENTH: CUBS 7 (5) – 5 NATIONALS
Seagulls have started to assemble in right-center. For what purpose is anybody’s guess, but it doesn’t look friendly. Take notice, all ye who enter here (that’s looking at you, Bryce Harper).
Jason Heyward comes up first, striking out on a foul tip into the glove of Wilson Ramos.
And it’s quite windy now, with Sammy Solis’ jersey flapping in the breeze, as he delivers to Kris Bryant. Ball one. Then three more. So it’s with a man on first, when Anthony Rizzo comes up, set on playing spoiler to Bryce Harper’s 2016—coming for his MVP, coming for his pennant.
He hits one up in the air to shallow left, waiting on an outside pitch and drops it down the line. It bounces onto the dirt, spins wickedly and up into the Bartman seats, off the adam’s apple of an eager fan and into the lap of his date. The rare ground-rule double at Wrigley, keeping Bryant at third.
Now Ben Zobrist’s up, hotter than any other Cub at the moment, and it’s another intentional walk. David Ross then lines out to second.
But then, with the last chance of the inning, up steps Addison Russell, another two-out situation, sharpening his bat to mark another tally in the long row of big moments on the season.
A 2-2 count, two outs, two men on, tie game, and Russell flicks a defensive swing through the zone at a low outside fastball, and it’s up, trailing down the first-base line, going foul, right up along the wall, Harper tracking it down, the open-air bullpen scattering, the fans screaming and berating, as a flock of forty-plus gulls takes flight.
And the ball shoots down out of the sky, through a sea of feathers, flaps and squawks, and off the glove of Harper, bouncing down onto the chalk, as he slams into the padding and throws the recovered ball into the relay man. It’s too late, two runs have scored, Russell’s left his mark again. And the MVP, for all his influence, has come up short—and held to nothing on offense from a series of bold walks.
The seagulls went into distract mode, Harper missed the catch, Cubs score 2! #Cubs
— Drunk Cubs Fan (@Drunkhawksfan) May 7, 2016
Rizzo slides home with the pride of Cubs nation behind him, Harper walks back to his position, his shirt half-unbuttoned, ticked off, sunglasses and eye-black masking the inner battle between mouthing off at the fans or keeping quiet, keeping stoic, keeping the faith that his Nationals team won’t screw the pooch for another season.
— #VoteCubs (@Cubs) May 7, 2016
It’s that part of the year when it’s no longer the nervous starts of still-frozen April, nor the free-flowing windy battles of summer Chicago, but somewhere in between.
That in-between spot with the Cubs at 22-6 (now 24-6), and a whole city of fans wondering: Are we dreaming?