By Mary Cunningham
Miguel Montero’s dramatic pinch-hit grand slam last night not only won the game for the Cubs, 8-4 over the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series at Wrigley Field, but it may have saved their season.
It was the first time that a pinch-hit grand slam provided the game-winning run in a postseason game, and was only the third pinch-hit grand slam in postseason history.
Really, this was Montero’s Kirk Gibson moment, receiving treatment all day on his sore back, guessing that he was in and out of the hot tub 17 times, when he was called to pinch-hit.
Two outs, three on, and the crowd standing on its feet, Montero slowly walked to the plate, convinced that Dodgers manager Dave Roberts would change pitchers, forcing him out of the game.
Roberts liked the matchup, even more when reliever Joe Blanton got ahead of him with two quick strikes, only to watch Montero swing, and connect.
It was as if time stood still.
Montero, almost stunned, watched it soar into the night, landing deep into the right-field bleachers.
Dexter Fowler, standing in the on-deck circle, dropped his bat, threw his arms into the air, and just kept jumping.
Javier Baez, who became the first Cubs player to steal home in a postseason game since 1907, was inside the clubhouse watching video of his last swing, when he heard the noise.
“I thought the roof was caving in,’’ Baez said. “I really did.’’
The crowd of 42,376 jumped up and down with such force, the ballpark actually shook with elation.
“Obviously as a kid,’’ Montero said, “you always dream of the situations. And that’s what you live for. It’s easy to hit a grand slam in the first inning when nobody is actually screaming at it.
“This one is a lot more special because it’s in front of this special crowd that we have, and you’re always looking for that. You want to see how it feels and you always keep searching for it. It’s a great sensation.
“I’m going to keep searching to see if it gets even better.’’
It was just Game 1, but considering the Cubs’ dreadful postseason history, and knowing they are facing Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw in Game 2, this was bigger than just one victory.
“It was big, real big,’’ Baez said. “We needed that one.’’
The victory, if you can believe it, marks the first time since 1945 that the Cubs have a 1-0 lead a best-of-seven playoff series.
That was the last year the Cubs won the pennant, which happened to be 37 years after their last World Series title.
It was even the Cubs’ first victory in the NLCS since 2003, when Steve Bartman became an overnight household name.
The Cubs, as only they can do, were the ones who created this drama. They were just two strikes away from taking a 3-1 lead into the ninth when Dodgers first basemanAdrian Gonzalez hit a two-run single off Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman — his second blown save of the postseason.
Gonzalez’s hit turned the Wrigley party into a morgue.
“The vibe on the bench was good after we came off the field,’’ Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “Even though they had tied it, the big point there is always you never want to relinquish the lead. That’s where the momentum really swings the other side. I’m really pleased and proud of our guys how they handled difficult situations.’’
Roberts battled wits with Maddon in the eighth inning after Ben Zobrist led off with a double. Russell grounded out for the first out. Roberts then intentionally walked Jason Heyward, who has struggled all season, but tripled earlier in the game. Baez flied out for the second out. Maddon sent up left-handed hitter Chris Coghlan. Roberts intentionally walked him, too, loading the bases. It forced Maddon to take out Chapman, summoning Montero.
“Honestly, I was ready to hit,’’ Montero said, “but I never thought they were going let the right-hander out. I don’t think Joe was expecting that to happen either. But like I kind of looked in a couple times and I didn’t see the manager come out and I’m like, ‘Yeah. Awesome.’ Because I was ready to hit.’’
Roberts didn’t want to bring in a left-handed pitcher to face Montero, believing the Cubs would then turn to power-hitting Willson Contreras. He liked the matchup better with Blanton facing Montero.
“Felt good for us to win the game,’’ Roberts said, “if we could get out of that inning. And it just didn’t work out.’’
Montero certainly made sure of that, after cursing himself for being in an 0-2 hole, swinging and missing at a slider over the middle of the plate.
Montero stepped out, took a deep breath, and exhaled, telling himself to remain calm.
“All I was trying to do was get a base hit,’’ Montero said. “Don’t strike out right here. Get a good pitch and try to put the ball in play and make something happen.
“But to be honest, in the back of my head I was like, ‘I want that slider back,’ because it was such a good pitch to hit.
“I guess he heard me because he threw it back, and luckily, I hit the ball pretty good.’’
Said Blanton: “You can’t do that in that situation, 0-2, it can’t happen. I was trying to bury it in the dirt. You don’t want to throw a strike there.’’
The victory avoided heavy scrutiny for Maddon for his decision to take ace Jon Lesterout of the game after only six innings and 77 pitches. It got Chapman off the hook, too. But it was that kind of night for the Cubs, where even their own mistakes worked out beautifully – such as Baez stealing home after an aborted safety squeeze attempt with Lester.
The Cubs, now buoyed with confidence, believe that nothing can stop them now. This was a game they had to win with Lester on the mound, and if they beat Kershaw on Sunday night, it will only be a bonus.
“We came back to finish what we started last year,’’ Ross said.
“But I just don’t know how much more my heart can take. It’s back and forth. It’s fun. It’s good for baseball. It’s good for the fans. It’s good for everybody.
“Except for my heart.’’