On Saturday night, the Chicago Cubs won their first National League Championship Series game since way back in 2003.

They couldn’t have done it without a few assists from the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The final score of 8-4 in Game 1 of the NLCS makes it look like Chicago won a laugher. Not really. The Cubs were clinging to a 3-1 lead through the first seven innings, but then they seemed doomed to relive the heartbreak of their last two trips to the NLCS when Adrian Gonzalez tied the game with a two-run single off Aroldis Chapman in the eighth.

But then, in the bottom of the inning, the normally reliable Joe Blanton served up this very loud sound off Miguel Montero‘s bat, precipitating even louder sounds from the fans packed into Wrigley Field:

Montero‘s grand slam opened up a 7-3 lead and, according to FanGraphs, skyrocketed Chicago’s win expectancy from 63.2 percent to 98.7 percent. That was the stake through the Dodgers’ heart. When Dexter Fowler added a home run of his own to bump Chicago’s win expectancy to 99.5 percent, that was only the extra little stab to make sure the Dodgers were actually dead.

Oh, they’ll be back. The Cubs still have to win three more games. And in the wake of their heartbreaking loss, at least one Dodger is playing the “This is a good thing!” card.

“This actually gives us a lot of confidence,” said Gonzalez, via Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register. “We know we can beat them.”

Thing is, though, that sense of knowing would be a lot stronger if the Dodgers had actually beaten the Cubs. And make no mistake, they could have.

The 3-1 deficit the Dodgers found themselves in after seven frames was partially owed to bad luck. They put together some tough at-bats against Jon Lester but made the mortal mistake of hitting the ball at the Cubs’ historically great (h/t Aaron Gleeman of Baseball Prospectus) defense.

However, the Dodgers were also guilty of digging a few inches in their own hole. A questionable send home of Gonzalez in the second inning resulted in the death of a rally when he was thrown out by Ben Zobrist. In the bottom of the inning, a 2-0 deficit became a 3-0 deficit when the Dodgers permitted Javier Baez to steal home.

The Dodgers caught a break when the wind helped an Andre Ethier fly ball clear the fence in the fifth inning, but the real breaks came after Cubs skipper Joe Maddon took Lester out after only 77 pitches and decided to get cute with his bullpen. 

That opened the door for the Dodgers to rally off Mike Montgomery and Pedro Strop at the start of the eighth. With a little help from Kris Bryant’s lapse in defensive judgment, they did just that to load the bases with nobody out.

Rather than to prevent any fires, that’s when Maddon finally went to Chapman to put the fire out. Such a decision backfired in Game 3 of the National League Division Series, and it backfired again when Gonzalez turned around a 102 mph fastball. 

Going off this note from ESPN.com’s David Schoenfield, neither of these incidents was a fluke:

Gonzalez’s single dropped Chicago’s win expectancy to 49.8 percent, down from 90.6 a few moments earlier. In that moment, you have to wonder how many in Wrigley Field were keenly aware that it had been the 13-year anniversary of the Steve Bartman incident just a day earlier. Or, maybe some were just thinking “Here we go again” after last year’s NLCS sweep at the hands of the New York Mets.

The game wasn’t lost yet, though. It had become a 50-50 affair. The margin for error was gone, placing even more pressure on each manager’s roulette wheel to land on the right numbers.

Putting Blanton in to start the eighth was an OK move on the part of Dodgers skipper Dave Roberts. He was good in the regular season and had been scoreless in five innings in the postseason. But as soon as he gave up a leadoff double to Zobrist, you had to figure Roberts wasn’t far from getting aggressive with Kenley Jansen like he did in Games 1 and 5 of the NLDS.

Roberts instead decided not only to let Blanton get out of the inning on his own, but to put obstacles in his way. He ordered an intentional walk to Jason Heyward, who OPS’d .631 this season, with one out. And with two outs, he ordered another IBB to Chris Coghlan, who OPS’d .608, to load the bases.

The idea was to bring the pitcher’s spot to the plate and force Maddon to remove Chapman for a pinch-hitter. Per J.P. Hoornstra of the Southern California News Group, this was the card Roberts felt he had to play:

Not the dumbest idea, but the risk would have been far less if Roberts had also put Jansen on the mound. He’s a strikeout pitcher who doesn’t walk guys and who, by virtue of his extreme cutter use, rarely ever throws pitches his catcher can’t handle.

In sticking with Blanton, Roberts was trusting that a pitcher who really likes to throw his slider would execute. He executed two in a row to go up 0-2 on Montero, pinch hitting for Chapman. But the third? Blanton might as well have placed it on a tee: 

And that was pretty much that. The Dodgers did respond to Chicago’s five-spot with an RBI double by Andrew Toles in the top of the ninth, but that was a mere shred of dignity salvaged.

The Dodgers will have their shot at evening the score with Clayton Kershaw on the mound for Game 2 on Sunday. But with this set to be already his fourth postseason appearance following a regular season marred by back trouble, there is a question of how much he can give the Dodgers. And oh yeah, his name and clutch postseason performances are not yet synonymous.

It’s a stretch to say the Dodgers should have won Game 1 when the closest they ever came to doing so was a 0-0 tie in the first and a 3-3 tie in the eighth. But they definitely could have won Game 1. Since it was going to be hard enough to beat this juggernaut of a Cubs team, that’s something for them to kick themselves over.

And as for those Cubs, well, their takeaway from this game should be the same ol‘ 2016 refrain: Maybe this really is their year.


Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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