TOP OF THE TWELFTH: CUBS 4
(3) – 3 NATIONALS
The Cubs are tied with the Nationals in the 12th inning, I hear a nasally, lone “Let’s go Cubbiess…” from one of the crowd mics, and I’m instantly reminded of the old days, the dark days, the lean years—of my own voice pouring out weakly over the Wrigley stands, a few half-assed claps, and the depressing, demoralizing sight of a team thirty games below .500, by July. That’s not the voice of a good omen. Warbling and lazy, a bird taking a few steps over toward the worm, then giving up.
What happened to the sold-out crowds in every away-team stadium, all season, with north-siders the new Dead Heads, taking up majority roosts in Chase Field, Turner Field, and every other half-empty ballpark—with the view of a first-place team front and center?
It seems this team is facing a sort of mild mid-season malaise, a fanbase taking some wins for granted, a group of dreamers off enjoying summer before the inevitable dread of playoff baseball returns, and an annual sadness sets in (I really, really hope it won’t).
But this time, there’s youth. Depth. Energy. Three batters set to hit in the top of the twelfth, ages 22, 23, and 22.
And from these three youngsters, we get a game-winning platter set on the table: a single from Almora (in his first major-league week), a passed ball, an advancement to second, and a hard-hit single up the middle from Addison Russell.
He shoots one up the middle, right at the center field camera—hard to tell at first glance if it’s fouled straight back or lined into the outfield. The coverage changes angles, just as it lands in the grass, and Almora sprints home to score from second, one arm in the air and other sliding across the plate, a cloud of dirt in the air around him.
Cubs lead, 4-3.
And I look to Joe Maddon, expecting some great pinch-hit decision to come walking out of the dugout, as I run through who’s still available on the bench. And then, from the on-deck circle, no substitutions, I see the last thing I’d expect, the man-child Francis from Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, maybe the worst option on the whole roster. Cubs reliever Trevor Cahill.
Trevor Cahill is batting? Trevor Cahill? Set to pitch the bottom of the inning, Joe Maddon sticking with his guy, and an awkward waddle up to the batter’s box for a sure out, a sure rally-kill, a sure sign that that bad omen I felt was all too real.
I get that Joe is baseball’s maverick, the untraditional, creative, shaker-upper of the sort I’ve always dreamed for in a manager (and generally love), but… Trevor Cahill? The most mediocre of Cubs relievers, not worth leaving in even to pitch, with Addison Russell in scoring position, one out, a slim lead over a great Nationals team, and—before I can get my thoughts out, he’s struck out. Waddling back to the dugout in off-balance shame.
And with that, ushering me into the commercial break, I hear the nasally “Let’s… go Cubs…” return, and I’ve got that feeling again. That ’03 Game 6 feeling, that ’15 NLCS feeling. That Cubs will be Cubs feeling again. That Trevor Cahill is trotting out to the mound? feeling. Fingers crossed.
— #VoteNats (@Nationals) June 16, 2016
BOTTOM OF THE TWELFTH: CUBS 4 –
(3) 5 NATIONALS
Anthony Rendon comes up first for the Nationals, striding up to the plate from the dugout, with the combined visual of the Antonio Banderas swagger and the jheri-curl mullet flow of Kenny Powers.
On the backs of each seat behind him, beyond the backstop, is an ad for Delta Air Lines, like a tessellation of product placement taking up the top half of the screen. Not a great investment for a great team come playoff time though, I realize—when every sold-out game will make the seat backs invisible. Yankee Stadium should get on this ASAP.
Rendon draws a quick 3-0 from Cahill, and my nerves are on edge. It swings back to full count, with a foul tip shot off the catcher’s mask of David Ross. He shakes it off and settles back into his crouch, flicking his fingers into the sign for a slider—low and away.
The next pitch: a strikeout looking, with Rendon jogging on to first base as the ball comes curling through the zone. He jumps up, spins around to face the ump, pacing in disbelief, bat still in hand, and after five seconds of tantrum he’s tossed.
Nats’ Rendon didn’t like called third strike, said something to home plate ump, and he’s been tossed. #Cubs
— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) June 16, 2016
Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman pop up along the dugout railing, almost over it, almost tumbling over onto the dirt, arms up in protest. Dusty Baker comes out and says “Hey! Come on… come on!!” with the frames of his gold-tinted glasses shaking around and almost off the bridge of his nose.
The broadcast replays the pitch—a slider just, just in for a strike on the low outside corner, and the Nats’ TV guys give him his credit. A strikeout looking on a perfect pitch.
Danny Espinosa up next, and he’s hit in the hip. Cahill wipes a nervous sea of sweat from his forehead, the Nats have a runner on base with the game on the line, and bench coach Dave Martinez is looking up at Joe Maddon for some sort of solution, both consulting their laminated stat sheets.
So, after eleven and a half innings, it’s down to two members of the sub-.230 batting average club, a pair of hitters with no business winning their team a ballgame.
Chris Heisey on-deck, Michael Taylor at the bat. Joe Maddon trots out from the dugout for a chat with Cahill, the infield joins him, baseball gloves over each of their mouths.
“Try not to suck,” he seems to say, with a quick hand clap and trot back to his perch on the top step of the dugout.
LoL apparently Joe Maddon got a shirt that is speaking to his team… pic.twitter.com/FsTMtiDp1E
— Brandon R Bumgarner (@BigBadBumgarner) March 8, 2016
Then, just when a calm had returned, Espinosa takes second with no throw from Ross. Kneeling on the base, adjusting his belt, wiping dirt from his jersey. The tying run on second.
And on a looping breaking ball from Cahill, Taylor waiting on it—sent on a line past Zobrist at second, just past the glove, and it’s onto the grass in right. Espinosa coming home to score, and we’ve got a repeat of the ninth. A rally by the Cubs, a quick response from the Nats, and it’s all tied up.
“A game for the ages today here at Nats Park!” says one of the TV guys.
Cahill gets pulled. A towel over his head in the dugout, his whole world sinking in despair, Pee-Wee Herman has recovered his bright red bike. Adam Warren jogs in from the bullpen.
Chris Heisey comes up next, Maddon checks his charts again, Dusty Baker spits onto the dugout floor. And the camera cuts back to the mound. Line out from Heisey to Kris Bryant.
And now, what I feared may happen—the legitimate half of the Nationals lineup. Jayson Werth walking up to the plate. Baseball Jesus. Beltway Caveman. Free spirit. Rock star. Sporting sage and Norse god, in from the on-deck circle.
A minute away from the best sports post-game speech since Bart Scott, a baseball Gettysburg Address only Werth could deliver.
He steps in bending his knees, back bent, and the bat waggle slowing over his shoulder as Warren winds up. He whips the bat through the zone. A fastball down the middle. Crack! The ball soaring off the bat and over the outfield grass. A thud, off the giant green padding of the GEICO ad in right-center, the ball bouncing back to the center-fielder. Michael Taylor sprinting home to score.
— #VoteNats (@Nationals) June 16, 2016
Werth’s mouth screams open, lungs working a huge, guttural roar and the many hands of a full roster of teammates ripping his jersey off, his hair flowing like a lion, Dusty Baker hobbling out to high-five him, a big leaping hug to MASN reporter Dan Kolko.
“Yeah!!” he says, grabbing the mic from Kolko’s hand. “Let’s hear it!!! Yeahh!!!!” He throws one arm in the air, as if he’s Dee Snider or Axl Rose, in awe of himself, on the brink of a dive into the stands for a crowd-surf.
“Holy shit!!” he says, “Oh man what a game, I mean…we came back, they scored runs, we scored runs…”
A full ice bucket dumps onto his head, teammates running away celebrating—and his hair drapes his face in a dripping, blond mop of Kurt Cobain hair.
Dan Kolko asks about his detractors, folks in the media and fanbase predicting Werth to be too old, too banged up, to contribute to a team of this quality.
“Those people can kiss my ass!!!” Werth shouts, grabbing the mic, pinning his hair behind his ear, with the possessed, crazed look of a neanderthal on the way home from the hunt, with an all-time great haul.
“We got a long ass flight to the west coast!!” says Werth, as WWE comes to Nats Park, Kolko reaches for the mic, and the audio cuts back to the TV booth, the whole stadium clapping as they head for the exits, for a team righting all the wrongs of a year past.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” says one of the TV guys, “you’ve seen one of the best ever games at Nationals Park.”
No doubt about that. And that feeling I had? Those bad omens, those nerves? Not going away anytime soon. We’ll see these teams back in D.C., an October series for the ages.