The Chicago Cubs return home Saturday night to play Game 6 of the NLCS with a 3-2 lead, just as they did in 2003.
We all know what happened then, from Steve Bartman to Alex Gonzalez to an 88-win team which was fortunate to be a win away from the World Series playing like one, giving up an eight-run inning and nine runs in Game 7.
It’s been 71 years since the Cubs were in the World Series; to put that in perspective it was just five years before Vin Scully began broadcasting Dodgers games. It’s been 108 years since they won a World Series, or not since Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were killed in Bolivia and buried in unmarked graves.
Like the Cubs winning the World Series, maybe some things aren’t meant to be seen.
A 3-2 lead offers no assurances: 12 times in the regular season the Cubs lost two games in a row, every time to pitchers not as good as Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill. And once in the postseason they’ve lost two games in a row, to Kershaw and Hill, who they’ll face Saturday and Sunday, if necessary.
(In August, the Cubs lost consecutive games, started by Julio Urias and Brock Stewart, to the Dodgers.)
But if there’s been one constant in the 2016 season it’s this: the Cubs have been the best team in baseball. Rest assured no one said that in 2003, even with a 3-2 lead in the NLCS.
After five games of the NLCS, there shouldn’t be much doubt about it. The Cubs have been abler in the field, faster (despite the Dodgers’ 8-3 advantage in steals) on the bases and more powerful at bat. They’ve outscored the Dodgers 26-18 and had four innings of four runs or more; the Dodgers haven’t scored more than two runs in an inning or, excepting Game 3, four runs in a game.
The Dodgers have Kershaw and Hill against home field, a better team and cold temperatures. If you’ve played the game of Risk, the Dodgers are concentrated in Australia, hoping the dice belie the odds.
It could happen, of course. The Cubs have yet to score off either, let alone beat them. But if you assume the Cubs have been brought to this position only to mangle it again, consider what they’ve overcome to get here:
- NLDS Game 2: NL ERA champ Kyle Hendricks is knocked out of the game by injury. Curse aftermath: Cubs bullpen blows a 4-2 lead. 2016 aftermath: Bullpen holds the lead and adds to it with a Travis Wood homer. Cubs win 5-2.
- NLDS Game 4: After closer Aroldis Chapman loses a Game 3 lead, Cubs are listless for eight innings and trail 5-2 going to the ninth. Asked what he was thinking in the eighth, Cubs manager Joe Maddon said: “Johnny Cueto in Game 5.” Curse aftermath: Cubs lose Game 4, and Game 5 to Cueto. 2016 aftermath: Cubs score four in the ninth and win the series.
- NLCS Game 1: Chapman enters with the bases loaded and none out in the eighth, fans two, then gives up a game-tying hit to the instant replay-tormented Adrian Gonzalez. Curse aftermath: Cubs give up a few more and lose Game 1. 2016 aftermath: Chapman gets the third out and Cubs score five in the bottom half.
- NLCS Game 4: A potential inning-ending double play deflects off pitcher Mike Montgomery’s glove and trailing 5-0, Dodgers score two and move another runner to third. Curse aftermath: Dodgers score a whole bunch more and don’t bring in Ross Stripling, who gives back five in the sixth. 2016 aftermath: Gonzalez grounds out meekly to first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who holds the third run on third base, Montgomery singles among five hits in the sixth and the Dodgers start heaving the ball aimlessly as if they’re flipping souvenir T-shirts into the stands. Cubs score five and win easily.
The Cubs have had ample opportunities to extend the futility, to add to the angst. They haven’t. Not because they’re a different team than 2003 or any of the others that have failed to win a World Series since 1908, but because they’re a better team.