Fly the W: Cubs clinch NLCS berth
Thanks to their epic ninth-inning comeback on Tuesday, the Chicago Cubs earned the franchise's sixth-ever postseason series victory. - John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

Fly the W: Cubs clinch NLCS berth

by - Senior Writer -

SAN FRANCISCO -- In Major League Baseball, legends are born in October, and Chicago Cubs second baseman Javier Baez is well on his way to becoming a legend after his heroics in the NLDS. With the game-winning home run in Game 1 and the game-winning hit in the series-clinching Game 4, Baez was the hero of the series for Chicago, leading the charge for the Cubs as they defeated the San Francisco Giants by a final score of 6-5 on Tuesday night. Thanks in large part to an epic ninth-inning comeback on Tuesday night, the Cubs won the series 3-1 and advanced to the NLCS as a result.

The situation was grim for the Cubs early on at AT&T Park, though. Giants third baseman Conor Gillaspie, who had an excellent postseason debut this October and went 4-4 at the plate in Game 4, was one of several Giant hitters to torment Cubs starting pitcher John Lackey in his lackluster outing tonight, as the 37-year-old right-hander lasted only four innings on the mound. Lackey made his 21st career postseason start in Game 4, the most of any active pitcher, but the two-time World Series champion looked far from experienced on the night.

Giants center fielder Denard Span led off the bottom of the second with a double to right, one of two hits for him in the game. Later in the inning, San Francisco catcher Buster Posey brought Span home via a sacrifice fly to right, putting the Giants up 1-0. Thereafter, Lackey settled into a rhythm before imploding in the bottom of the fourth.

Gillaspie reached base on a one-out single in the fourth and was then advanced to third due to a single off the bat of the hero of Game 3 for the Giants, second baseman Joe Panik. Panik was 2-2 with an RBI and a run scored in the game. Following a walk to load the bases, Giants pitcher Matt Moore, who entered tonight’s game with three career hits, collected what will likely be the most important hit of his career. With a single to right, Moore drove in Gillaspie, thus making the score 2-1. The next at-bat saw Span accrue his first RBI of the playoffs, as a groundout brought home Panik and increased the Giants' lead to 3-1.

Earlier in the game, 39-year-old Cubs catcher David Ross hit a 382-foot homer to left that knotted the game up at one run apiece, thereby making Ross the oldest Cub to ever hit a playoff home run, but, for most of the latter half of the game, it appeared that Ross's feat would be wasted. The Cubs were impotent at the plate for the vast majority of the game, going hitless from the fifth inning through the eighth inning. And Moore was the primary reason why.

Not only was Moore effective with the bat, but the lefty was incredible on the hill, pitching an eight-inning two-hitter with 10 strikeouts to show for it. Ross, the only competent Chicago hitter prior to the ninth inning, was directly responsible for both of the runs that Moore allowed. In addition to his aforementioned long ball, Ross, who is retiring at season’s end, scored Cubs second baseman Javier Baez with a sacrifice fly to right field in the fifth. The speedy Baez had previously reached third base because of a throwing error by Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford.

Trailing 3-2 after Baez crossed home plate, the Cubs’ deficit grew in the bottom of that same inning. Chicago reliever Justin Grimm replaced Lackey on the bump and was quickly chased from the game. Although he picked up an out in the first at-bat, Grimm next allowed Giants right fielder Hunter Pence to take first on a single to center, which was followed by a double in the gap between right and center from Crawford.

Chicago relief pitcher Travis Wood was then called upon to clean up Grimm’s mess, but he was unable to do so without enabling two San Francisco runs to score. First, Gillaspie hit an RBI single to center, and, soon after, Panik skied a sacrifice fly to left. Leading 5-2 at the end of the fifth, the Giants saw their three-run lead rapidly dissipate in the top of the ninth.

Giants manager Bruce Bochy opted to pull Moore from the game, and the decision proved costly. With a murky closer situation, the Giants underwent four different pitching changes during the course of the inning, but none prevented the Cubs from taking a 6-5 lead. For the second straight game, Chicago third baseman Kris Bryant came up big in the ninth, this time leading off with a single, his lone hit of the game. After a pitching change, Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo was walked, sparking another switch on the mound. Proven Giants reliever Sergio Romo then entered the game, but he fared no better than his predecessors, giving up an RBI double to Cubs left fielder Ben Zobrist.

After that, with the score 5-3 in favor of the Giants, another pitching change commenced, and pinch hitter Willson Contreras stepped up to the plate for the Cubs. The rookie catcher proceeded to produce the most crucial hit of his young career, hitting a game-tying, two-run single up the middle. Thereafter, Baez came through with his game-winning hit, a single to center that scored right fielder Jason Heyward, who was in scoring position only because of another Crawford throwing error on a failed attempt at converting a double play in the previous at-bat.

With the Cubs leading 6-5 upon entering the bottom of the ninth, Chicago closer Aroldis Chapman, a day removed from blowing a Cubs lead late in Game 3, struck out the side in the bottom of the ninth, sending the Cubs to the NLCS for the second straight year. Cubs manager Joe Maddon received a bit of flak from the media for opting to send Chapman into the game during a non-save situation in the previous game, as Chapman did not fare well, but the fireballer was poised and on top of his game with a save on the line at the end of Tuesday's matchup.

Scoring four runs in the top of the ninth to defeat the Giants 6-5, the "Comeback Cubs" won their NLDS series 3-1, the franchise's sixth-ever playoff series victory, and avoided having to play a decisive Game 5 at Wrigley Field. Instead, the next time that the Cubs take the field inside of the Friendly Confines, it will be for the opening game of the NLCS.

With Tuesday's triumph, the Chicago Cubs joined the world champion 1986 New York Mets as the only teams to ever overcome a three-run deficit in the ninth inning to win a postseason series-clinching game. The game marked only the second time in the history of the Giants franchise that the team lost in the playoffs when leading after eight innings. Cubs reliever Hector Rondon, who made quick work of the San Francisco hitters in the bottom of the eighth, earned the win, while Giants reliever Will Smith took the loss, and, as mentioned, Chapman garnered the save.

Following the game's final out, Cubs players mobbed Chapman on the infield grass, and a bevy of celebrating ensued, including the traditional spraying of the champagne in the locker room. Postgame, Zobrist, however, was quick to draw attention to the reality of the situation, clarifying that the Cubs are on a mission to win the whole thing, not just a divisional series. The veteran infielder, who won the World Series with the Kansas City Royals last season, was quoted as saying, "We never quit, and we aren't stopping now." The Cubs will now await the outcome of the series between the Washington Nationals and the Los Angeles Dodgers to learn of their NLCS opponent, but, for the time being, the North Siders can relish in knowing that they advanced one step closer to their first World Series title in 108 years by pulling off one of the most epic playoff comebacks in MLB history.

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