CHICAGO – This is what baseball looks like sometimes, in case they couldn’t recall. They descended the old concrete ramps at Wrigley Field late on Tuesday night, all the Sandbergs and Santos and Rizzos and Bryants on the backs of their authentic jerseys, past the carts that smelled of sauerkraut, the trash bins that smelled of pretzels, the Kessingers that smelled of beer, leaving the Chicago Cubs for lost. For done. For next year.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon removed his lineup card from his back pocket, sat behind a podium, unfolded the card and smoothed it against the surface. The nearby television showed a guy in the grandstands, one of the few guys left, and his T-shirt held a message, “There’s Always Last Year.”
“Not easy, obviously,” he said of what’s left, before adding, “It’s been done before.”
He’s pretty cool most days. There’d be no reason to change. It wouldn’t be his style to get huffy and wonder where his boys’ games went, where his bullpen went, why the errors and wild pitches and passed balls and clumsy at-bats and two-out, bases-loaded, four-pitch walks to the opposing pitchers. A year ago, these guys, mostly the same guys, were sneaking up on a parade, and today they’re down three-games-to-none to the Los Angeles Dodgers, and it’s not really close, and upon further inspection Maddon attempted to frame how it works.
“It’s called baseball,” he said, because sometimes the only explanation is a shrug and one more round and a slow-moving descent to somewhere else. Anywhere else.
Funny, too, because that’s exactly what the Dodgers were saying. It’s baseball, the kind they played this summer when they hardly ever lost, when their pitchers found the corners when they had to, when the bullpen found precision and ferocity, when they always seemed to get the best from every moment. Now they’re 3-0 against the Cubs after winning 6-1 in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series, 6-0 in the postseason, as if the games themselves are waiting for the Dodgers to win them.
And in case baseball needed to get a little more baseball-ish, the Dodgers’ starting – and winning – pitcher was Yu Darvish, acquired seconds before the trade deadline. The guy who homered was Andre Ethier, who had nursed a single plate appearance since the regular season, and hadn’t had a hit in nearly a month. The other guy who homered, Chris Taylor, simply extended the production the Dodgers have gotten from their shortstops not named Corey Seager. In three games since Seager was declared injured and unavailable, Taylor and Charlie Culberson are 4 for 10 with three RBI, three runs scored, two doubles, a triple and a home run. The bullpen gave up two hits Tuesday night, which might not seem such an accomplishment, except the Cubs had been hitless in their first 29 at-bats against the likes of Kenley Jansen and Brandon Morrow and Tony Watson and everybody else.
So you wouldn’t blame the Santos and Sandbergs and the rest for looking out over their lovely little ballpark, the ivy still holding green on a surprisingly mild day, and wondering where their Cubs have gone. They are a loss from elimination, one that could come as soon as Wednesday night. They’re a little short on explanations for how a bullpen goes sideways, how a fly ball lands in Ian Happ’s glove and then on the warning track, how a lineup of household names bats .160 for even half a week.
“No,” Morrow, the Dodgers’ right-hander, said. “I think it’s us. The feeling, even from Game 1 against Arizona, the feeling has been the same as we had during that run we had in the middle of the season.”
It was then when they’d arrived at the ballpark every day, whatever ballpark it may have been, determined to play for that day. Win today, they’d said aloud. Win today, they’d repeated to themselves. They won 104 games that way. They’d lost some, too, but even those seemed useful in hindsight. Those untidy weeks toward the end seemed to jerk their heads back into today, when the work was to be done.
They stood late Tuesday night as close as most of them had ever been to what they’ve always wanted. They looked out from a dugout built like a foxhole, and from a bullpen tunneled beneath the right-field bleachers, where the view is so poor they watch the game on television, and shook their heads against the notion this is going to happen, that it’s inevitable, that the Cubs are lost. Done.
“We just gotta keep playing,” Jansen said. “It’s not there yet. Tomorrow’s another day. It’s not easy to win a championship. It’s definitely not easier when you get closer.
“Can’t worry about that, man. Worry about tomorrow. Crazy things happen.”
Dave Roberts, their manager, once was on a team that was over and done, which made for one hell of a parade. Theo Epstein built that team, as he has these Cubs. And, so, today, the effort is to look past all that’s gone right, past the 29 years Los Angeles has waited, past a moment that might not ever come.
Maddon stood. He folded his lineup card and returned it to his back pocket. The Dodgers have been better. The Cubs have been worse. It’s a simple game sometimes. What are you supposed to do about that, but show up for another game, see how that goes?
“There is nothing inspirational I could possibly say that’s going to make a difference,” he said. “We’ve just got to go out and play our normal game tomorrow.”
So they’ll turn them all around, all the Sandbergs and Santos and Rizzos and Bryants, past the fresh mounds of sauerkraut and golden pretzels and chilled beers, get them going back up those ramps, at least one more time.