CHICAGO — They have more plotlines up their sleeves than Stephen King. They live life so far outside the box, they need GPS just to find the box.
They might be trying to do something that hasn’t been done since 1908. But if the 1908 Chicago Cubs ever spent like three days watching the 2016 Cubs, you would never, ever convince them they were playing the same sport as these guys.
“We’re not your typical best team in baseball, 103-win team,” catcher David Ross said Saturday, after another wacky evening at the Cubs’ October office had led them to an unlikely 5-2 win over the San Francisco Giants. And there were 42,392 eyewitnesses to verify that, yep, there wasn’t even a trace of “typical” in this game.
For the second night in a row, the Cubs beat the Giants, taking a 2-0 lead in their fascinating little National League Division Series. And maybe you saw that coming. But even if you did, we guarantee you never would have figured that Game 2 would have about as much in common with Game 1 as Usher has with, say, Johann Sebastian Bach.
If you’re not totally familiar with the work of the Professor of Madness, Joe Maddon, and his 2016 Cubs, then these past two nights should serve as an excellent refresher course in what they do and how they do it. They win and they win and they win some more. But do they ever win the same way twice? It sure doesn’t feel like it.
They win when their starting pitcher goes eight innings, as Jon Lester did so brilliantly Friday night. And they win when their starting pitcher gets smoked with a line drive in the fourth and then heads for the nearest X-ray machine, which is what happened to Kyle Hendricks on Saturday.
They win when just about nobody hits, as they did when they got exactly three hits in Game 1 of this NLDS. And they win when even one their sweet-swinging relief pitchers hits, as Travis Wood did in Game 2, by whomping the first postseason home run hit by a reliever since 1924.
They win with second basemen making pickoff tags at first base. They win with third basemen fielding ground balls in right field. They win with a starting pitcher who throws 89 mph. And they win with a closer who throws 99 mph — though hard as he throws, that might just be Aroldis Chapman‘s changeup.
“I never knew there were so many ways you could win a ballgame,” said Chicago rookie reliever Carl Edwards Jr., after watching the way the Cubs juggernaut had found to win this one. And to that, we can all reply: “Hey, neither did we.”
It’s safe to say it wasn’t exactly Plan A for Hendricks to take a 94 mph ace-seeking missile off the right forearm, as Hendricks did in this game. And maybe, in some other year, with some other incarnation of the post-1908 Cubs, that would have turned into another Bartman-esque moment of darkness.
But maybe what happened next sums up why this team doesn’t feel like all those other teams, why this year doesn’t feel like all those other years.
In one of those star-crossed seasons from yesteryear, the reliever who replaced the fallen Hendricks undoubtedly would have staggered in and given up 12 consecutive hits, turned victory into defeat and transformed a celebration into a death march. Instead, Wood showed up for work, promptly struck out the first hitter he faced and then headed for home plate to do his best Ron Santo imitation. Because, hey, of course, he did.
He dug in to face Giants reliever George Kontos, saw an 86 mph cutter heading his way and squashed it halfway up the left-field bleachers. And “bedlam” wouldn’t even begin to describe the scene at Wrigley as Wood was making his euphoric romp around the bases.
The first thing you should know about Travis Wood is this: This dude can rake. This was the 10th home run of his seven-year career. Only one pitcher in baseball has gone deep more times over those seven seasons than he has — a gentleman named Madison “The Bumbino” Bumgarner, with 14. But Wood actually has a slightly better home run ratio than MadBum. So take that!
“He keeps giving me crap about my hitting,” said Lester, who has pretty much earned all that sentiment from Wood by going 10-for-157 (.064) in his own glorious offensive career. “But since he’s been here, I think I’ve outhit him. And now he’s got a f—ing homer. So that means I’ve got to listen to all his crap on the plane tonight. We’ve already slipped duct tape all over his mouth so he can’t talk about it.”
But that’s not all you need to know about Travis Wood. Maddon called him “a leader on this team,” which wouldn’t be typical, either, for a long reliever. In this nontraditional ensemble, however, Wood is a veteran and a multifaceted resource — a guy who has done everything from play left field to pinch-hit to ride to the rescue in innings ranging from the third to the ninth. And because he does all of that so well and so cheerfully, he’s a source of extreme amusement to his teammates.
“He’s that guy who thinks he can play first base as good as [Anthony] Rizzo,” Ross said. “And he thinks he can play third as good as [Kris] Bryant. And he thinks he should be batting fourth in the lineup when he’s in there pitching. He’s that guy. And it’s just fun.”
But besides all the fun Wood provided for one and all on this night, are we allowed to mention that there was serious significance to the role he played in a pivotal postseason baseball game? When he showed up on the mound, a 4-0 Cubs lead had shrunk to 4-2, and the tying run was at the plate.
So danger lurked. And since danger has been both lurking and pouncing on the Cubs for the past 108 fun-filled seasons, that’s never good. But Wood just took charge, retiring all four hitters he faced. And that kicked off a beautiful Meet the Relievers bullpen parade that produced 5⅓ innings of two-hit shutout baseball — the most shutout innings by Cubs relievers in a postseason game since Game 4 of the 1945 World Series. (Wait. Did they even have actual bullpens then?)
“In all seriousness, Travis has done that all year,” Lester said, in between trash-talking. “He’s come in two or three times when something like that happens, when a guy gets hurt or a guy gets hit. Then he comes in and throws two innings and gets it to the next guy. And that’s just how we did it tonight.”
After watching Maddon furiously maneuver every piece on his ivy-covered chessboard all season, his team now looks at nutty games like this as practically standard operating procedure. So no matter how upside-down some of these Cubs games might look to the untrained eye, up close they always feel as if the manager and his team have everything under control.
So when the Cubs play a “normal” game one night, they’re ready for mayhem the next night. It’s what they do.
“Last night,” Ross said of Chicago’s Game 1 win, “we played pretty much your typical version of a postseason game. So we just figured that tonight we’d get the other version.”
Oh, they got it, all right. They got the full-service, empty-the-roster Maddon special — including the part where he purposely made Wood his first reliever out of the pen because he knew one of his pitchers had to hit in the next inning. So why not the slugger in their midst? And what happened? You know what happened.
Travis Wood became the first reliever pitcher to hit a home run in a postseason baseball game since the fabled Rosy Ryan of the old New York Giants connected off Allen “Rubberarm” Russell of the Washington Senators in the 1924 World Series. That’s what happened. And this just in: 1924 was a really, really long time ago.
“That is a long time,” said Lester, after the always-helpful media corps had delivered that news. “Well, maybe we’ll win the World Series — because it’s been a long time since we’ve done that, too.”