By Jon Weisman
This game was nothing like it should have been, and everything it shouldn’t have been.
Bloops fell daintily for doubles. Liners zipped into gloves like magnets. Busted squeezes became steals of home.
The Dodgers should have been buried, but weren’t. Then they could have won going away, but didn’t.
Trailing for seven innings, then tying the game in the top of the eighth with Adrián González’s two-run single off human sonic boom Aroldis Chapman, the Dodgers fell to the Chicago Cubs in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series, 8-4, after a pinch-hit grand slam by Miguel Montero off Joe Blanton.
Still hoping for a road split, Los Angeles will send Clayton Kershaw to the Wrigley Field mound Sunday for Game 2, following a night of contemplating how nearly they stole their pennant series opener.
“It stings a little bit,” Dave Roberts said. “But just the way that we kept fighting and we kept playing … I felt that our at-bats all night long were quality. I thought we were gonna win it, but we’ll be ready to go tomorrow.”
Crushing defeat for #Dodgers? Adrian Gonzalez: "This actually gives us a lot of confidence. We know we can beat them."
— Bill Plunkett (@billplunkettocr) October 16, 2016
After Dexter Fowler’s leadoff single off Kenta Maeda in the bottom of the first inning, the Cubs scored the first NLCS run when Kris Bryant hit a ball high and deep that went a bit higher and deeper than Howie Kendrick (whom Dave Roberts said chose to play left field over second base tonight) bargained for. It landed for a double, with Fowler crossing home plate uncontested.
The Cubs tripled their lead in a second inning that started with a triple to right by Jason Heyward. That was actually the normal part. With the Dodgers playing their infield in, Javy Baez reached second base on a pure blooper to short center, Heyward scoring.
Then Baez advanced the final two bases without pitcher Jon Lester taking a swing, taking third on a wild pitch and then, of all things, stealing home when Carlos Ruiz threw down to third trying to nab Baez, who had come far down the line on an aborted squeeze. Baez beat Justin Turner’s return throw to Ruiz, and it was 3-0.
[mlbvideo id=”1206689783″ width=”550″ height=”308″ /]
However much Maeda got himself in trouble in a start that included a number of hard-hit balls and two walks to Lester, he would have been trailing only 1-0 with better defense. And in fact, Maeda nearly had an RBI in the second inning with a single to left field, only for González to be thrown out easily at the plate.
If you want to charge the Dodgers with two unforced errors, your balance sheet needs to reflect the number of balls they ripped that were either right at opposing infielders … or on the same planet as Fowler, who made one diving catch of a Turner drive going left and an even more impressive diving catch of a Ruiz shot going right.
When the Dodgers did score their first run, it came at the intersection of power and the jet stream. Andre Ethier, pinch-hitting for Maeda (four innings, seven baserunners, two strikeouts, 66 pitches), got some good loft on a ball hit to left center. It rose, it arced, it ordered drinks and a caprese sandwich from the food cart and settled in for a movie, and then it landed beyond the ivy.
These are the numbers on Andre Eithier's HR. Wow. pic.twitter.com/doIFWWlfV4
— Daren Willman (@darenw) October 16, 2016
Ethier’s first homer off a southpaw since 2013 cut the deficit to two. By the time Pedro Báez finished pitching shutout ball in the fifth and sixth innings, Lester (77 pitches, seven baserunners, three strikeouts) was out of the game, and a night that looked like it might get out of hand early remained close into the stretch.
Ross Stripling’s swell seventh gave the Dodgers 5 2/3 innings of shutout relief since the steal of home, with only one Cub reaching second base in that time. Nothing gave any hint of a potential Dodger comeback more than the fact that the score had kept a comeback within reach.
Batting for Stripling against southpaw reliever Mike Montgomery, Andrew Toles singled — the Dodgers’ second left-on-left pinch-hit of the game. Batting for Kendrick against righty reliever Pedro Strop, Chase Utley worked a delicate walk.
Then came the play of the game before the play of the game. Turner hit a grounder behind third base, and Toles burned down the basepaths like he was gunning for a first down, rolling into the bag just before Kris Bryant could tap-dance it.
The Cubs brought in their biggest weapon of all, triple-digit flamethrower Aroldis Chapman. Corey Seager struck out. Yasiel Puig struck out.
González took a ball, swung at a strike, then lined one right past Chapman’s head into center field. Toles blitzed home, Utley right behind him, and improbably, the Dodgers were in a new ballgame.
It didn’t last long. Ben Zobrist doubled to lead off the bottom of the eighth against Joe Blanton, who next retired Addison Russell on a grounder. Dave Roberts had Heyward walked intentionally, and it paid off in the short term when Javy Baez flied to right.
Then came Roberts’ boldest move in, well, the past 48 hours. With runners on first and second, Chris Coghlan was given his own intentional walk, in order to force the Cubs to remove Chapman from the game.
“I’m looking at the card and I see Chapman’s still in the game,” Dave Roberts said. “Where we’re at on our side (with the) hitters coming up, I didn’t love the matchups against Chapman. It’s hard to love the matchups against Chapman anyway, but we had some left-handers coming up.”
Pinch-hitter Miguel Montero came to the plate and fell behind 0-2. And then, he absolutely pulverized Blanton’s third slider, launching it into the Chicago night for a grand slam, stunning Blanton and the Dodgers. Fowler followed with a solo homer of his own as the topper.
“If I go to a left-hander, they bring in (Willson) Contreras,” Roberts said. “There’s no matchup advantage. It’s more (that) I trust Joe, I’ve trusted him all year long, he’s been great for us. And he got ahead 0-2 and left a pitch up.”
Joe Blanton said 0-2 slider to Montero was supposed to be in the dirt or toward back foot. It stayed up.
— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) October 16, 2016
The Dodgers had one last comeback bid within them, and it was poetic in its conclusion. With one out against Hector Rendon, Joc Pederson reached first on an infield single. Toles ripped a double to the gap in right center, and the Dodgers had their engine rolling again.
Utley fell behind early, evened the count at 2-2, and then absolutely ripped one toward right field at 104 mph off the bat. But it went right to first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who caught the ball and slinged it to shortstop Addison Russell for a game-ending double play.
“That’s the beautiful thing about this game,” Roberts said. “You can square balls up and get nothing to show for it, which I felt we did tonight a lot, and you can hit some flares that find the outfield grass.
“Ten times out of 10, I’d take Joe Blanton against Montero. He took a good swing on an 0-2 pitch, and it’s gonna happen. That’s baseball.”