BOTTOM OF THE EIGHTH: CUBS
2 5 – 3 REDS
And into the shrine of great Wrigley Field nights we go, adding the first of 2016 to a list on the brink of doubling, tripling each time this new group of Cubs talent takes the field. (I’m a Cubs fan, so bear with the overflowing homerism here).
Next to nights like this, you’ve got the Kerry Wood home run in Game 7 of the 2003 NLCS against the Marlins, with the whole city hoping nervously that the Bartman-induced collapse the night before would end up a forgotten scare and not a curse-affirming omen of historic proportions.
You’ve got also a few games of the ’07 and ’08 regular seasons, several walk-offs from 2015 as well, and perhaps the most euphoric of all: the six-homer explosion against the rival Cardinals in last year’s NLDS that sent Wrigley spinning in disbelief after seven long years of playoff drought.
These moments, nights, celebrations, playings of Sweet Home, Chicago after big home runs, are bit by bit piling up in a giant ecstatic wall—soon the newest, tallest spike on the Chicago skyline: The Skyscraper that Theo Epstein built. Or maybe a cathedral, more ornate, with Joe Maddon at the altar and Rizzo and the boys smiling out from the stained-glass windows, Addison Russell giving the latest sermon in the form of—well, I won’t spoil it just yet.
But the guy is like a god here in Chicago tonight.
So the Cubs have worked a 5-1 record on the season, matching the predictions of nearly everyone in the baseball world, but without the home crowd as witness, instead doing their thing in the tame, low-pressure contexts of Anaheim and Phoenix, which on TV so far has felt like a lucky dream—winning by as much as 9-0, enjoying warm weather while Chicago snows, Jake Arrieta hitting a deep home run, a combination of easy success that hasn’t yet sunk in.
Tonight, they were back home. Close enough that I can almost hear it, the Cubs charging out onto the field with a big welcome roar from the crowd.
And in the bottom of the 8th, just after foiling a no-hitter from rookie pitcher Brandon Finnegan an inning earlier, Addison Russell took off with his first signature moment as a young pro, reminding everyone we still don’t yet know how good he’ll be, but that the slick infield dives and throws to first are only half of the story.
The kid has some pop.
So the play-by-play, right. 8th inning. Rizzo up. The Cubs down 3-2, having been shut out all night in both runs and hits until Jason Heyward lit a fuse with a two-run single to right, his own first big moment as a Cub.
It’s no sure thing that this late rally will continue, but the Cubs have by now shaken off the nerves/cold and look poised.
Ben Zobrist comes up and draws a walk. Exactly the situation and result Theo Epstein foresaw when choosing the savvy veteran over another roll-of-the-dice season with Starlin Castro and his uncomfortably low on-base numbers.
Jorge Soler comes up now, the silver lining to the recent Kyle Schwarber injury, dodging a wild pitch from Tony Cingrani, in for relief after Finnegan’s spoiled no-hitter flirtation.
The wonky control continues as Soler gets hit by a pitch nowhere near the strike-zone, and out of nothing they’ve now got two men on, just one out, and a chance to steal a win out of a no-hit rut they’d been stuck in all night.
Now: the man you’ve all been waiting for, the chosen one, the key to the comeback, the one who can launch the Cubs into an outright lead in the early NL Central standings, the great Addison Rus—Jumbo Diaz, Reds relief pitcher and favored candidate in the incredible MLB name of the year category.
The man is like a good-luck charm of the best déjà vu you can imagine, with a knack for being in wrong place at the wrong time when it comes to night games at Wrigley Field in April.
To give you a hint of the performance Jumbo turned in tonight, let’s turn back the clock: April 13, 2015. Eighth inning. Cubs v. Reds. Very same Jumbo Diaz on the mound, a chilly night with the ivy not yet grown in on the outfield walls. A two-run deficit.
Jorge Soler stepped up and mashed a two-run homer on an absolute cookie thrown right down the middle.
So if a good coincidence is your cup of tea, or your NL Central affiliations have you enjoying the Cincinnati Reds blow an otherwise great game, then what comes next tonight arrives on a tide of good news.
Addison Russell steps up to the plate, with the best walk-up music in baseball jiving out from the stadium speakers.
Jumbo Diaz has just finished his warmup, fresh out of the bullpen, looking to slot one in for an easy first-pitch strike.
Russell, the youngest of the Cubs’ key long-term pieces, looks ahead and watches a fastball shoot cleanly out of Jumbo’s, well, jumbo-sized fingers, coming right down the middle as if through an invisible pipeline to the center of his strike-zone.
He readies himself with athletic balance, flicking a quick flash of wood through the zone.
High, deep, heading for the forehead of his own richly pixelated image on the left-field jumbotron, with all nine Cincinnati fielders looking up in surprise, then calculation, and finally dejection as the ball lands about 10 rows past the outfield basket into a swarming sea of fans on a cloud-nine high they hope—fingers crossed—just might last all season.
Russell rounds the bases and tags home, with Zobrist and Soler giving big hugs as they look up at the scoreboard and the replay. 5-3 Cubs. No-hitter. Shutout. Deficit. Lead.
He comes out for a curtain call, waving his hat to the nation of Cub fans tuned in for the home opener, the first (or biggest) great moment for a young shortstop who’s become a fan favorite mostly through smaller, subtle moments. But this time he’s arrived with the game-winner. Joe Maddon gives him a big high-five and the dugout is contagious with smiles.
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) April 12, 2016
The Cubs hold off the Reds the next half inning, with Hector Rondon closing out the win. It’s April, the Cubs are in first place, even the White Sox are in first, and all is well in the city of Chicago.
Up next on the docket at this week’s city meetings with mayor Rahm Emanuel: Formal petition to give Mr. Jumbo Diaz a lifetime pass to the Wrigley Field pitching mound.
Welcome that man back anytime he likes.