For the first time since 2003, the Chicago Cubs are in the National League Championship Series. The Wild Card Game winners booked their place in the NLCS after beating the St. Louis Cardinals 6-4 in Game 4 of the National League Division Series.
Surprisingly, this is the first postseason series the Cubs have won at Wrigley Field, per MLB on Twitter.
In Game 3, the Cubs hit a postseason-record six home runs. They only produced half that total Tuesday night, but it proved more than enough to eliminate their division rivals.
Javier Baez got the fun started in the bottom of the second with a three-run homer that gave Chicago a 4-2 lead.
After Stephen Piscotty had put the Cardinals ahead 2-0 with a home run of his own in the first inning, Cubs starting pitcher Jason Hammel halved the deficit with an RBI single in the second. Baez, batting ninth in the order, stepped up to the plate next and deposited a John Lackey fastball over the right field fence:
Baseball America's Ben Badler was impressed that Baez didn't try to do too much with the pitch:
According to ESPN Stats & Info, it was the first home run allowed by Lackey in his last 74.2 postseason innings. It was also the fifth time in 20 career playoff starts Lackey allowed four or more earned runs. The 36-year-old exited after three innings, which MLB.com's Phil Rogers saw as more evidence why pitchers should only start on full rest in the playoffs:
After failing to close the gap in the next three innings, the Cardinals tied the game in the top of the sixth. Tony Cruz doubled down the right field line with two outs to score Jason Heyward and move Jhonny Peralta to third. Brandon Moss came up next and picked up a base hit to right field that plated Peralta.
Cruz attempted to score from second, but Jorge Soler's throw to Miguel Montero was right on the money to nail Cruz at the plate. While some criticized the backup catcher for getting a bit too greedy, FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan took pity on him:
Failing to get the go-ahead run proved devastating for the Cardinals a half-inning later after a solo home run by Anthony Rizzo put the Cubs back into the lead, 5-4.
As Fox Sports noted, watching the ball land a few rows up in the bleachers was akin to seeing "Magnum" for the first time:
This Cubs fan picked the most opportune time to return to his seat, per ESPN's J.A. Adande:
Kyle Schwarber added another run in the bottom of the seventh with a majestic homer that nearly cleared the massive scoreboard in right field. Chandler Parrish, who was in attendance at the game, provided photographic evidence of the ball's final resting place:
The Cubs may know their NLCS opponents in just a few hours. The New York Mets have a 2-1 series lead on the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Game 4 of that series started at 8 p.m. ET Tuesday night.
Neither team provides a favorable matchup for Chicago. Both the Mets and Dodgers have strong pitching staffs, which is often a trump card in the postseason. New York has strength in depth, while Los Angeles' one-two punch of Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw is the best of the playoffs.
Cubs fans do have to feel good, however, about the fact so many of their team's young stars are playing well in October. Sometimes, the stage can be too big for hitters making their postseason debuts. But Schwarber, Soler, Baez, Addison Russell and Kris Bryant are all relishing the occasion.
The Cubs' continued slugging also goes against the notion that a reliance on home runs dooms teams in the playoffs.
You also have to love manager Joe Maddon's handling of his pitching staff. He isn't afraid to yank his starter at the slightest hint of trouble. Hammel pitched just three innings Tuesday, while Jake Arrieta went 5.2 innings in Game 3. Between the two games, Maddon made 12 pitching changes.
You can't argue with the results, judging by this tweet from ESPN Stats & Info:
The Cubs fanbase is a superstitious bunch, so it likely won't look ahead to the World Series. And the Mets or Dodgers won't go down easily in the NLCS.
But Chicago has a great chance of advancing to the Fall Classic for the first time since 1945 and possibly ending its over century-long title drought.
Despite the loss, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny remained satisfied with how everything played out, per JJ Stankevitz of CSN Chicago:
Lackey spoke about his start and how he wished he could have that three-run home run by Baez back, per Fox Sports Midwest:
Meanwhile, the positivity hovering around Chicago won't subside anytime soon. After the game, Maddon admitted he's letting his players savor this victory a little longer than normal, per ESPN's Gene Wojciechowski:
"The fans have been starving for a moment like this," he added in his postgame press conference, per Chris De Luca of the Chicago Sun-Times. "I never realized all the firsts we accomplished this year."