Chicago – All that stands between the Chicago Cubs and their first World Series appearance in 71 years is Clayton Kershaw.
No big deal, right?
That’s the situation as the Cubs take a three-victories-to-two lead into Game 6 of the National League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers in what promises to be an electric atmosphere at Wrigley Field on Saturday evening.
Chicago has all the momentum after finally breaking loose with the bats to clobber the Dodgers by scores of 10-2 and 8-4 in Games 4 and 5 in Los Angeles. But one of the oldest adages in baseball is that momentum starts and ends 60 feet, 6 inches from the plate, where the pitcher stands on the mound.
The Dodgers hope Kershaw, who blanked the Cubs over seven innings in Game 2 at Wrigley, comes through again to force a decisive Game 7 on Sunday night. Chicago again will counter with NL earned-run average leader Kyle Hendricks, the 1-0 loser in Game 2.
“If he’s on top of his game, it’s going to be another very close, low-scoring game,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said of Kershaw. “We just have to do our best to eke out as many runs as we can. And, on the other side, you have to pitch better than good pitching to win. Kyle has been outstanding, also.”
Anyone who has paid any attention to baseball history knows what’s at stake for Chicago. No World Series appearance since 1945. No World Series crown since 1908. With one more victory over the Dodgers, all of the blather about curses, goats, black cats and Steve Bartman finally can be exorcised.
One more victory. The last time the Cubs needed just one more victory in the NLCS was 2003, when they had a 3-1 lead and dropped three in a row to the Florida Marlins, who went on to win the World Series.
But this is a different group, a confident bunch that won 103 games in the regular season and believes there is no stopping them now.
“I’m not a big history guy,” Cubs catcher David Ross said after the crucial Game 5 victory at Dodger Stadium. “I don’t care. The history thing is lost on me. I didn’t make good grades as a kid in history, either.”
As for what surely will be a crazed environment in and around Wrigleyville leading up to the first pitch, Ross said, “We can’t focus on the atmosphere outside or what’s going on down on Clark Street. We’ve got to worry about Clayton Kershaw and how to attack him and stay pitch to pitch in our own little cocoon here.”
Pitching on short rest, Kershaw was magnificent in Game 2, silencing the Cubs on two hits during his seven-inning stint despite not having command of one of his best pitches, the curveball. This time, the three-time Cy Young Award winner will be working on an extra day of rest in an elimination game for the Dodgers.
Well aware of what’s at stake and the expected raucous atmosphere, Kershaw said, “I think you do everything you can to try and keep it just like another start at the beginning. Then, obviously the magnitude and the situation of the game kind of raises everybody’s adrenaline and things like that.
“The fans are pretty excited about their team this year, and rightfully so. They’ve been waiting a long time for them to win. D.C. (during the NL Division Series against the Washington Nationals) was one of the louder environments I’ve pitched in. So, I guess I’m as prepared as I’ll ever be for that.”
As for any advantage the Cubs might have seeing him a second time, Kershaw said, “There’s no secrets in the game right now. There’s so much information. They know every pitch I throw and every count and situation.
“You maybe have less margin for error facing them the second time. Just be better, I guess.”
After being shut out in Games 2 and 3 to fall into a 2-1 hole in the series, the Cubs broke loose and swung the bats as they did during the regular season. In particular, shortstop Addison Russell and first baseman Anthony Rizzo snapped out of postseason slumps to propel an offense that roughed up the Dodgers’ bullpen to break open the games.
It would be asking a lot to have a similar outburst against Kershaw but the Cubs can taste it now. They have two cracks at finally making it back to the World Series but are not looking toward a possible Game 7 as a safety net.
The Cubs want to win it now and avoid that drama and the associated angst of a long-suffering fan base. According to Maddon, the key will be not getting caught up in the moment or looking beyond Game 6.
“Now that we’re very close to it, I want us to go out and play the same game,” he said. “We’re not going to run away from anything. It’s within our reach right now. You want to get it done as quickly as possible.
“Our guys will be ready for the moment. I promise you that. I want to go after it like, ‘Let’s just go play our Saturday game and see how it falls.'"
It’s time for it to finally fall the Cubs’ way.