Two quick runs off the best pitcher on the planet on Saturday night afforded the Cubs exactly what they needed to snap a 71-year-old drought.
Already confident after consecutive offensive outbursts in the previous two games, a two-run first inning against Clayton Kershaw had Cubs hitters in a positive frame of mind.
They rode the surprising rally and a dominant performance by Kyle Hendricks to a 5-0 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers at Wrigley Field in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series. The win earned the Cubs their first NL pennant since 1945 and on Tuesday night they’ll seek their first World Series title since 1908 when they face the Cleveland Indians in Game 1.
“It’s huge for the confidence, the positive momentum from LA, to carry over back home,” left fielder Ben Zobrist said. “Those were the biggest moments in the game early on to help everybody keep pushing and that we got this thing -- that we’re in charge of the game early. That’s a huge momentum builder.”
The Cubs did a little bit of everything in the first inning against Kershaw, who dominated them for seven scoreless frames in a 1-0 Dodgers victory in Game 2 on Sunday night. Some hitters took a more aggressive approach against the three-time NL Cy Young winner while others remained patient. The one constant throughout the 30-pitch frame was that Cubs hitters took advantage whenever Kershaw made a mistake.
Dexter Fowler started with an opposite-field double on a 1-1 slider and Wrigley was rocking when Kris Byrant singled him in to make it 1-0. Andrew Tolles’ error on Anthony Rizzo’s gapper to left center put runners on second and third. Zobrist took advantage and put the Cubs ahead by two with a sac fly to center.
“I think the boys were just ready to go,” Fowler said.
The confidence gained from 18 runs scored in the fourth and fifth games of the series was evident before the Cubs ever took the field. Players looked loose during pregame warmups, whether it was Albert Almora Jr. and several teammates banging air drums to Phil Collins’ ‘In The Air Tonight’ or Javy Baez pumping his fist to a loud beat mere seconds before the Cubs took the field.
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The confidence carried over as the two runs represented the first time all season that Kershaw had allowed a pair to score in the first inning.
“They jumped on it,” catcher Miguel Montero said. “They were all over his fastball and they spit on his breaking ball.
“We felt good coming into the game knowing that we were facing the best pitcher on the planet. But we felt good about ourselves because we got the lead.”
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts thought the key was that the Cubs took advantage of Kershaw’s mistakes as opposed to his previous start when he allowed two hits. Addison Russell kept the pressure on Kershaw when he ripped a hanging slider for a leadoff double in the second inning and he later scored on Fowler’s two-out single to left.
Rookie catcher Willson Contreras crushed a hanging slider for a solo homer in the fourth inning to make it a 4-0 lead.
“They had a great game plan tonight,” Roberts said. “And there was a couple mistake sliders that they took advantage of. But they were running counts, they used the whole field, and there was traffic all night for Clayton. And he gave it everything he had, but when they did -- when he did make a mistake, they made him pay.”
Rizzo gave the Cubs an even bigger lead when he hammered a 1-1 fastball from Kershaw in the fifth inning for a solo homer and a 5-0 lead. Combined with the dominance of Hendricks, the cushion made any talk about curses or billy goats or five outs seem downright silly.
“It felt really good, amazing,” Rizzo said. “We were on the board and I tell our pitchers all the time, ‘If you don’t let ‘em score, it’s impossible (for them) to win.’ ”