48 hours, 13 years ago, and 24 hours from now. The Chicago Cubs set the stage for the biggest game in modern franchise history.
A punch to the gut.
That’s the lasting memories I have of the last time this franchise found themselves one win away.
13 years, seven days ago.
Now a mere 24 hours to go and here we are again. For a team that has been through so much in the last 13 years, so much in the last five years of the Theo regime, built upon newfound hope and promises, a team that has been through so much this season, winning 103 games, and for a team that has been through so much in just this past week, it comes down to one of the most important days in Chicago Cubs history.
The possible clinch.
I firmly believe in the storylines that present themselves in baseball. It’s hard not to get emotionally involved anyway, and then you look ahead to the possibility of Theo Epstein vs Terry Francona, Jon Lester and Anthony Rizzo too. All connected in some way. David Ross, trying to go out with a big bang. Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman. Both teammates just a few months ago. The Cleveland Indians and the Chicago Cubs. Two teams that have the longest droughts of the sport.
Some would say that the 2004 Boston Red Sox had to lose and learn how to win. The 2003 season ended in dramatic heartbreak, an 11th inning knuckleball floating into the Yankee Stadium deck. But nothing quite so crushing as to how the North Siders ended 2003, amidst a sudden 8-run outburst. Boston came back in dramatic fashion a year later. Now it’s the molecules of that team, the braintrust that broke one curse heading up the team that’s long been deemed the Lovable Losers. Epstein on the cusp of something special again.
Theo hired Francona in 2004, but not before interviewing Joe Maddon for the same gig. Knowing what we do with Boston in 2004, and then the Cubs of 2016 and all the storylines of yesteryear flowing into the present, how could it not end up this way?
As the Cubs found themselves shut out in back-to-back games this past week against the Los Angeles Dodgers, I wasn’t nervous anymore. I was mad. For the first time I doubted them. Because the hitting was so bad, why were they suddenly going to figure it out? 18 runs and 48 hours later, I’ve never been so glad to be wrong. As if it was a personal challenge, I dared the Cubs to prove they really were different from all the previous iterations.
48 hours later and 24 hours from a possible clinch, the Cubs can erase years of disappointment. As I look back, and have often wondered, how could it not end up a challenge? You thought the Cubs would make this easy? As nervous as I would get, I would be afraid to think aloud the ultimate possibility coming true.
But you know what?
This team has already proven they’re bigger than curses, black cats and goats. While 2003 and 2008 saw really good teams crumble when it mattered most, these 2016 Cubs have risen to the challenge. How easy would it have been to sink after Chapman relinquished the lead in Game 3 of the NLDS against the San Francisco Giants, and then found themselves trailing by three in the 9th inning 24 hours later?
How easy would it have been to lose hope after seeing a 3-0 lead get away last Saturday night during Game 1 against the Dodgers, only for Miguel Montero to become instant legend in Cubs-lore, hitting just the third pinch-hit grand slam in postseason history? And how easy would it have been to lose composure after getting blanked by two of the Dodgers best?
18 runs and 26 hits later.
48 hours ago the Cubs have proven they aren’t what the previous 107 years of Cubs teams were. When the Dodgers attempted to foil Lester and the Cubs by bunting and forcing Lester to rise to the challenge, mentally as much as physically, it was he who instead conquered, and the Cubs, who won the mind-game challenge.
Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez has been reduced to talking with his mouth instead of letting the bat do it for him. While he’s had some big hits this series, he’s been more caught up with the things he can’t control. From instant replay to how loud Wrigley may be to Dodger Stadium.
When so many fans doubted Maddon just this past week, he stayed the course with what ultimately got this team to where they are. While the bad stuff potentially always looms, because that’s the story that always sells, you can instead think of the unexplained good. Like Rizzo busting his slump with Matt Szczur‘s bat. I’ve always like Szczur, as he came up huge with so many big hits last season. When he wasn’t getting sent down, but then only coming back up to the big league club to prove himself again. Though he’s off the postseason roster, his bat still looms large.
From 48 hours ago, to 24 hours from now. The wild ride continues.