The Chicago Cubs appeared to be in trouble after they dropped Game 3 of the NLCS, but they're now one win away from their first World Series appearance since 1945 thanks to an 8-4 road win over the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 5 on Thursday night.
Although both teams failed to generate loads of offense, the Cubs broke through in the sixth inning when shortstop Addison Russell snapped a 1-1 tie with a go-ahead two-run homer to center:
Chicago used a five-run eighth inning to seize control of the proceedings, and the sizable margin allowed the NL Central champions to breathe easy and take a commanding 3-2 series lead.
Cubs starter Jon Lester wasn't his sharpest, but he powered his way to a win by striking out six and scattering five hits over seven innings.
USA Today's Bob Nightengale took note of Lester's dominance against the Dodgers after he was pulled for a pinch hitter in the top of the eighth inning:
Fresh off a 10-2 drubbing of the Dodgers in Game 4, the Cubs came out and made Kenta Maeda work during a first inning in which he threw 26 pitches.
After Dexter Fowler led off with a single up the middle, Anthony Rizzo lined a double to right field that scored the center fielder and gave the Cubs a 1-0 lead.
Maeda struggled to find the plate as the first inning progressed—only 14 of his 26 pitches went for strikes—and Bleacher Report's Scott Miller took note of the 28-year-old's discouraging demeanor on the mound:
Lester similarly struggled with command in the first inning.
The 19-game winner threw nine strikes on 18 pitches in the opening frame and allowed one hit and a walk during that span. As a point of reference, Lester allowed four hits and one walk total over six innings in his Game 1 start against the Dodgers.
But for all of his command issues, Lester escaped the first inning without allowing a run.
Maeda, meanwhile, hit 57 pitches by the time the third inning was over. That said, he didn't let any additional runners cross the plate as the Cubs' bats fell silent following an encouraging opening statement.
Chicago threatened in the top of the fourth after Javier Baez smacked a leadoff double, and the Cubs ultimately chased Maeda before the top half of the stanza came to a close, as the New York Post's Joel Sherman noted:
Josh Fields entered and retired Lester to escape with the Dodgers down just one, and L.A. capitalized in the bottom half when Howie Kendrick doubled and stole third before Rizzo bobbled a one-out dribbler to first that allowed Kendrick to score.
However, the Cubs struck back in style in the top of the sixth.
Russell—who hit his first postseason home run in Game 4—slammed a two-run bomb to center off Joe Blanton to give Chicago a 3-1 lead.
As ESPN's Karl Ravech noted, Blanton was playing with fire when he delivered the fateful pitch to Russell:
Fox Sports 1 analyst Dontrelle Willis explained that Maeda's inability to put forth a quality start hampered L.A.'s ability to hang with the Cubs:
At that point, the Cubs leaned on their stable of strong arms to seal the deal after tacking on five insurance runs in the top of the eighth inning.
Lester powered through seven strong while throwing 108 pitches, and Pedro Strop entered in the bottom half of the eighth to serve as a bridge to Aroldis Chapman.
With the Cubs' stay in Hollywood a thing of the past, the scene will shift back to the Windy City for a decisive Game 6.
Taking the mound for the Dodgers will be Clayton Kershaw, who most recently captured a win in Game 2 thanks to a performance that saw him strike out six and allow two hits over seven innings.
Countering Kershaw will be Cubs ace Kyle Hendricks. The 26-year-old squared off against L.A.'s dynamite southpaw in Game 2 and was effective to the tune of five strikeouts and one earned run allowed over 5.1 innings, but he did give up four walks in the loss.
This time around, Hendricks will seek redemption with a trip to the Fall Classic on the line.
Based on historical outcomes, the Cubs should be feeling confident even though they're at a disadvantage on the bump.
Teams holding 3-2 leads in a best-of-seven format have gone on to win the series 70.4 percent of the time, per WhoWins.com, which puts the Cubs firmly in the driver's seat as they seek to snap their pennant-less drought on Saturday night at Wrigley Field.
"Our guys will be ready for the moment," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said of Game 6, per ESPN.com's Arash Markazi. "I'm sure Chicago is buzzing."
On the flip side, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts expressed optimism that his team would turn things around, according to MLB Network:
Adrian Gonzalez shared the same state of mind, per the Orange County Register's Bill Plunkett:
As for Thursday's win, Lester told reporters he won't apologize for his intense on-field demeanor.
"I play this game with emotion and if it rubs people the wrong way, oh well," he said, per Markazi.
Speaking of Russell's go-ahead jack, Baez noted the Cubs are unique in that they have a squad full of potential game-changers.
"Anybody in our lineup can turn the game our way," he said, according to 670 The Score on Twitter.