CHICAGO — They scratched. They clawed. They flipped. They nearly flopped.
So close to expiration, the 2016 Chicago Cubs were, that sometimes it seemed literal.
"It was hard, man," David Ross, Grandpa Rossy, the retiring and most beloved figure of all those wearing a Cubs uniform, said. "I kept running in here [the clubhouse] between innings and telling the security guard I don't know how much more of this I can take.
"[Anthony] Rizzo was telling me, 'I don't know how your old you-know-what can take this, because I can barely take it.'"
The Cubs survived, nudging the Indians back to Cleveland for Game 6 on Tuesday with a thrilling, chilling and ultimately fulfilling 3-2 Game 5 win. Times were so desperate that Chicago manager Joe Maddon called on closer Aroldis Chapman in the seventh inning. He responded with a career-high 2.2 innings, danced the high wire and lived to tell about it.
So did the Cubs.
And as Ross talked, there were tears of joy running down his face.
As the words tumbled forth, so did the water. Several times, he reached up, wiped his right eye, and continued. Then he'd wipe his left eye.
What a night. What a scene.
They sweated. They grunted. They swung, finally they swung, stringing together three hits for the first time in this World Series in a three-run, fourth-inning outburst that the Cubs think maybe can turn this thing around for them.
"Four in a row, right?" observed veteran Ben Zobrist, who doesn't miss a thing.
How could he? The Cubs came into Game 5 hitting .204 as a team. Two Oh Four.
Through Game 5, the Cubs had collected two hits in a row exactly three times, all in their Game 2 win in Cleveland. Three in a row? Pffft. Forget it.
"We've got to do that more and more," Zobrist said after Kris Bryant cracked a leadoff homer in the fourth to tie the game at 1-1, Rizzo doubled and then Zobrist and Addison Russell singled. "That's such a key to our offense. K.B. had the big hit, but for Riz to back that up with a double, and then the bunt hit was huge."
That was Javier Baez, whose one-out drag bunt down the third-base line in the fourth sent Zobrist scooting to third, positioning him to score. It was the only time the struggling Baez put the bat on the ball; he whiffed in his other three plate appearances.
"Sometimes our greatest strength is our youth," Ross said. "And sometimes our greatest weakness is our youth."
Kid Cubbies, take note, this is how you do it: After Baez's bunt single loaded the bases with one out, and with the Cubs paddling for runs like a man in the deep end of the pool desperately trying to stay afloat, up stepped Ross. He immediately fell behind 1-2 before battling through a six-pitch at-bat that ended with him launching a sacrifice fly to left field that scored the Cubs' third run.
"Fantastic at-bat," Zobrist praised. "You can't say enough about it."
"Big, big at-bat," Rizzo said. "Down 1-2, he chokes up and puts the ball in play."
"Two-strike approach," Ross said of his battle with Cleveland starter Trevor Bauer. "He threw me a backup slider and I fouled it back."
That was the first pitch Ross saw, and it was the one Ross wanted back. He felt like that was his pitch. But persistence and grit carried the moment.
Truthfully, persistence and grit carried the night for the Cubs. Facing elimination, they bird-dogged outs so desperately that, surely, a DVD of Cubs Catching Foul Balls in Game 5 would sell like a Bill Murray film.
Second inning, Ross tracked a Carlos Santana foul ball into the little alcove at the mouth of the Indians dugout, came back as the wind blew the ball back, tipped over a railing, caught it, and as he went rear end over teacup, the ball popped out…only to be caught by Rizzo. Your basic foul-pop 2-3 out.
"Tip drill," Ross quipped.
Third inning, right fielder Jason Heyward looked like Spiderman racing over to the right field wall, climbing it and then spring-boarding off it back toward the field to catch a Bauer foul pop.
You will not see a more amazing play in foul territory.
"Off the bat I saw the ball going like I would have a chance to catch it," Heyward said. "But it was going toward the stands, and I was going to have a reach up into the stands to get it.
"I was prepared to do that, but having the ability to get to the wall early enough allowed me to make the adjustment. It was tough to tell if it was the wind or the way the ball was cutting."
Fourth inning, Mike Napoli skied a high foul pop-up behind the plate, Ross was under it and then caught it…just as Rizzo, also tracking the ball, slammed into him.
It was that kind of night. There was little to no margin for error, and the Cubs climbed all over themselves to make sure their magical season didn't end.
How badly did each team want this game? Both had their closers in by the seventh inning. Cleveland's Cody Allen kept the Cubs scoreless, giving the Indians a chance. And after everyone's gotten a load of what Cleveland's Andrew Miller can do over multiple innings this fall, Maddon summoned Chapman after six solid Jon Lester innings and an out from Carl Edwards Jr.
Despite the fact that he's never entered a game that early for the Cubs, they believed.
"Unbelievable," Rizzo said of Chapman, who recorded the first eight-out save in a World Series elimination game since another dominant left-hander, Madison Bumgarner, did so for San Francisco in Game 7 of the 2014 World Series in Kansas City.
"He came up big, man," outfielder Dexter Fowler said.
Fowler didn't see Chapman warming up early, but he knew.
"Anytime you've got a power arm like that, you can hear him warming up," Fowler quipped.
Chapman made everyone sweat even more by failing to cover first base in the eighth when Rajai Davis drilled a one-out smash down the first-base line that Rizzo grabbed with a diving stop. But when he looked toward first, no Chapman.
"Especially with a guy like Davis, that's the last guy you want on base in the situation," Zobrist said.
But as he stole second and then third, the tying run threatening and the 41,711 in Wrigley Field agonizing, Chapman induced a harmless fly to left field from Jason Kipnis and then blew 102 mph heat past Francisco Lindor for a called third strike.
Now, Game 6.
And with Jake Arrieta facing Josh Tomlin, though they still need to play from behind, the Cubs like the way things are setting up.
"We feel like the momentum is on our side now," Zobrist said. "This would have been a really tough one to take home.
"For them to celebrate on our field would be terrible.
"For us to go back to Cleveland and snuff out Game 6 and then get a third chance at [Corey] Kluber, that's why we're excited to go back to Cleveland."
They will change nothing. On the clubhouse information board was the message: "7 p.m. Bus Departure" for Cleveland on Monday night.
Under that was another message: "Halloween Costumes are Encouraged on the Plane."
For the Cubs, it is not yet the night of the living dead. Having survived Sunday, they believe there are still some treats up ahead.
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.
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