LOS ANGELES — It was that moment when you’re creeping along through gridlock and, suddenly, the freeway opens up.

Addison Russell re-introduced himself to this National League Championship Series by walloping a home run, Anthony Rizzo reminded folks he hasn’t gone anywhere by crushing another, and pretty soon all that was left in view were the taillights of the Chicago Cubs. Vrooom!

You could feel the exhale from the Cubs’ dugout to Venice Beach. Cruisin’, on a Wednesday night.

Now, the unusual thing in the Cubs’ emphatic 10-2 Game 3 statement to even this series at two games apiece was this: A key weapon in the Cubs’ sudden resurrection was the bat of a guy who was left off Chicago’s NLCS roster.

Matt Szczur is 27 years old, a right-handed outfielder and pinch hitter who had five homers and 24 RBI for the Cubs this season. He was the club’s fifth-round draft pick in 2010 and is with the club despite not being active for this series.

It was in the fifth inning Wednesday night, after Rizzo had whiffed in each of his first two at-bats, when the slumping first baseman did what he sometimes does during the regular season: His own bats mostly useless as he was 2-for-28 with nine strikeouts this postseason, he grabbed one of Szczur’s.

The two both use Marucci models that are 34 inches long and weigh 32 ounces, though there are subtle differences. One’s barrel is a little thicker. One’s handle is a little thinner.

Usually, Rizzo is polite and asks Szczur’s permission to use one of his bats.

Wednesday night in Dodger Stadium, he just took it.

In the Cubs dugout, Szczur looked over at teammate Tommy La Stella and said, “Watch this; he’s going to go deep right here.”

And, ka-boom! Rizzo crushed a full-count Pedro Baez fastball over the center field fence.

That bat was not the first thing Szczur (pronounced SEE-zur) has joyfully donated, and it wasn’t the most important. In 2009, when he was a two-sport athlete at Villanova (football and baseball), Szczur donated bone marrow to a 15-month-old girl in Ukraine named Anastasia, who was suffering from leukemia. His football coach at Villanova, Andy Talley, has encouraged his players for 25 years to be tested as potential bone-marrow matches. Szczur took it to heart and joined the national registry.

Nearly two years later, Szczur learned the bone-marrow transplant had been successful, and for the first time he connected with the Ukranian family. They spoke again last month, and ESPN ran an update of its original E:60 feature on him earlier in the day Wednesday.

“I’ve [borrowed Szczur’s bats] a few times, especially later in the year,” said Rizzo, who hit home run Nos. 30 and 31 this season with one of Szczur’s bats. “Especially today, the first two at-bats weren’t so hot. Szcz came out today with a nice feature on him about giving his bone marrow, so all things were adding up.”

That Szczur would be a match to donate bone marrow to a person in need was a 1-in-80,000 shot, according to the Chicago Tribune.

That Rizzo would break out of a nightmarish slump when the Cubs’ season is on the line and then turn around and offer a tip of the cap to Szczur’s inspirational decision from a few years ago, speaks to the depth of humanity of this Cubs team.

There are reasons some teams win, and sometimes the reasons run deeper than simple talent levels.

Szczur had no idea his most recent donation had found its way onto the national telecast of Wednesday night’s game, so you can imagine his shock when he entered the clubhouse after the game and one of the trainers asked him about it.

Funny thing is, Rizzo used one of Szczur’s bats in his final Game 3 plate appearance—the one where he shattered it into three pieces. Then he used his own bat for his first two plate appearances in Game 4, both strikeouts.

“I swear I’m not making that up,” Szczur said, laughing, surrounded by a dozen reporters. “I think it’s funny this is all happening now.

“I’m not even on the roster, and I’m getting interviews.”

Szczur uses a KB-17 model Marucci bat, named after someone else who uses the same model: teammate Kris Bryant. Szczur and Bryant played together starting at the Double-A level, which is where they both gravitated toward the same bat.

At the big league level, both Bryant and Rizzo have borrowed Szczur’s bats, which finally caused him to mention something to the Marucci representative: “Hey, the big dogs are using my bats, you need to send me some more.”

All it took was for Szczur to mention the names of the big dogs were Bryant and Rizzo.

“That was the fastest I ever got ’em,” Szczur said. “I got six bats in two days.”

After Wednesday, Szczur said, Rizzo can use those bats anytime he wants.

And the way things are going, maybe Rizzo better consider it.

Everybody knows the Cubs cannot win the World Series if Rizzo and Russell don’t hit. They escaped San Francisco with the two in dreadful slumps. They fell behind the Dodgers two games to one and arrived at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday just short of desperation with the two not hitting.

Going back to the last part of September in the regular season, Russell, after flying out to left field in the second inning Wednesday, was four for his last 56. He was 1-for-25 this postseason.

Rizzo, into his fifth-inning at-bat, didn’t have an extra-base hit in the playoffs.  

Heading into Game 4, the two were a combined 1-for-20 in the NLCS and 3-for-50 in the postseason.

Manager Joe Maddon said it plainly before Game 4: Rizzo and Russell have to hit for the Cubs to get to where they need to go. Period.

In Game 4, the two combined to go 6-for-10 with two homers, five RBI and four runs scored.

For Chicago, it was a relief not only because these two key players busting out keyed a win and suddenly made the Cubs feel a whole lot better about themselves heading toward Kenta Maeda and Game 5, but because this is a close team that feels badly when one of them hits the skids.

“This guy had 90-some RBI during the season and 20-some home runs,” catcher Miguel Montero said of Russell. “The man can hit.

“They don’t sell those at Walgreens.”

Said Maddon: “It should help their confidence; there’s no question about that. When you’re going through the moment they were, it’s a confidence issue. It always is. So going into [Game 5], I know when they show up at the ballpark, there’s going to be a good balance about them. They’re probably going to see the ball a little better, slow things down a little bit.

“Those are the kind of buzzwords you’re always looking for when a guy starts swinging the bat well.”

Whoever is the rightful owner of the bat.

As far as Szczur is concerned, Rizzo can keep on borrowing.

“He doesn’t owe me anything,” said the man on the outside looking in who suddenly was the most popular Cub in the clubhouse. “Tony’s picked me up at dinner quite a few times.

“He’s been grinding. He always gets hits with my bat. It’s what he needed, I guess.”

And what the Cubs needed.

All he wants out of it, Szczur said, is what he already has: Rizzo’s friendship.

Well, maybe that and a couple more victories.


Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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