By Chris Emma–
CHICAGO (CBS) — Fabled Wrigley Field has stood for more than a century, and it has never seen a Cubs moment quite like this.
The old ballpark shook as Miguel Montero’s pinch-hit, two-out, tiebreaking grand slam soared into the autumn Saturday night. It was checkmate to the chess match that was Game 1 — a Cubs reminder just how damn good they really are. The tension of a unique battle that played out was unleashed with one sweet swing of the bat, giving the Cubs an 8-4 win against the Dodgers in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series.
“That was pretty special,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said after the game.
The NLCS opener produced one of those moments Cubs fans will cherish forever. Montero’s drive in the eighth inning went 402 feet, into the right field bleachers and left no doubt in coming off the bat at 105 miles per hour. Yes, the man who a year ago trademarked #WeAreGoood — then a beacon of hope — who reminded this team is now great.
Prior to Montero’s heroics, Maddon and Dodgers skipper Dave Roberts had taken center stage. It started in the bottom of the sixth inning with a rather bold decision by Maddon with his team leading 3-1. With two outs and Javier Baez standing on second, Maddon called starter Jon Lester back to the dugout after just 77 pitches. He had allowed one run and seemed zoned in.
Maddon felt Lester wasn’t at his best. He instead put faith in that versatile bullpen to finish the final three frames. This is the move a manager can make with a well-oiled machine like the Cubs. They were built for this type of gamble.
Travis Wood, Carl Edwards Jr. and Mike Montgomery each recorded an out to get through the seventh with the two-run lead still intact. An anxious Wrigley crowd exhaled, but this game would be decided in the eighth, when everyone held their breath. Nobody could’ve seen what was coming.
Roberts called upon left-handed hitter Andrew Toles to pinch-hit to open the inning. Maddon kept the southpaw Montgomery in the game. Toles lined a base hit to left field. To borrow a phrase from the great Pat Hughes, fasten those seat belts.
Then, Maddon brought in Pedro Strop to face right-handed bat Howie Kendrick. Roberts countered with lefty-swinging Chase Utley, who promptly walked. Toles then beat Kris Bryant to third on a Justin Turner infield single that loaded the bases with no one out.
Maddon can be questioned for pulling Lester early, but it’s fair to trust his deep bullpen. In this instance, he was let down.
Facing desperation, Maddon brought in flamethrower closer Aroldis Chapman. He struck out rookie Corey Seager with a 102-mph fastball, then did fanned Yasiel Puig at 103. Adrian Gonzalez came up with two outs. He tied it with a base hit up the middle, sucking the air out of Wrigley.
But that’s all the Dodgers would get.
“It’s my fault for putting him in a tough position,” Maddon said. “He threw the ball great.
“What are you going to do? You have to move on.”
Prior to the postseason, Maddon spoke of how adversity would most certainly strike before adding that teams are defined by how they respond. He was quite proud of what came next.
With the score tied 3-3, Ben Zobrist started the eighth-inning rally with a lead-off double. The winning run was aboard. After Addison Russell grounded out, Roberts faced a daunting decision. He elected to walk Jason Heyward, he of the inconsistent bat, and instead face Javier Baez.
“Obviously, in that situation, you got to walk Heyward,” Roberts said.
With two runners aboard, Baez swung hard at the first pitch and flied out. Two gone, and the Dodgers seemed poised to escape.
“I thought we were going to win that game,” Roberts said of that moment.
When Maddon played his move and called back David Ross for Chris Coghlan, Roberts chose to load the bases with a free pass and instead force the Cubs’ hand by getting to the pitcher’s spot and removing Chapman from the game. Maddon brought out Montero, who has reportedly been battling a bad back.
Los Angeles lefty Grant Dayton was throwing in the bullpen, but Roberts stuck with veteran Joe Blanton. In the NLDS clincher over the Giants, Maddon had used left-handed bat Coghlan as a decoy and forced Bruce Bochy to bring in southpaw Will Smith. Maddon then called back Coghlan for Willson Contreras, who took advantage of his preferred matchup with a crucial game-tying single up the middle.
Rookie manager Roberts was wary. He stayed with Blanton, not wanting a lefty of his to have to face Contreras.
“I don’t think Joe was expecting that to happen,” Montero candidly said of the move that left him at the plate.
He was fooled, too.
“I thought they were going to bring in the lefty,” he added. “They didn’t.”
Blanton came with a first-pitch slider that Montero missed on. He swung like a hero and whiffed. He wanted that back. In his head, Montero asked Blanton for one more slider just like that.
It came with two strikes. He got all of it. Oh, what a moment it was.
“I thought the roof was coming down from the fans jumping,” Baez said.
Added Bryant: “That was some of the best television you’ll ever see”
Fans were sent into quite the frenzy. Strangers hugged each other in the aisles. Pandemonium overtook the park.
They hardly noticed that Dexter Fowler followed with a homer of his own just moments after Montero’s curtain call. Hector Rondon finished the ninth inning and fans poured into Clark Street to celebrate the victory.
After the game, Roberts could hardly hear questions in the makeshift media room as reporters questioned his decisions. The cheers of fans poured through the walls.
“I’d do it all over again,” Roberts said.
Maddon agreed, both with Roberts’ calls and his own. There were no regrets from either dugout. It was a classic chess match that brought a momentous ending.
The Friendly Confines can only hope it sees a moment this October greater than when Montero called checkmate.