TOP OF THE NINTH: CUBS 7 (3) – 4 REDS
Joe Maddon spits onto the dirt outside the dugout, grinning, his fingers spinning as if he’s winding up string. Dave Martinez smiles. Dexter Fowler smiles. Ten-thousand Cub fan maniacs smile, in the stands around them like an invasion has taken place. A handful of blue figurines lurching ahead on a Risk board—taking Kamchatka, Irkutsk, Cincinnati.
It’s the Reds against the Cubs, against the blues of this very last game of the year. An offseason waiting in the wings to say farewell, the end to summerlong ballpark diversion.
Raisel Iglesias takes a deep breath as he sets up for the final frame of his season, his team’s season, with a Reds’ win on the way for the home crowd. He rocks back into the windup and delivers to Javy Baez.
— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) October 2, 2016
And it’s a giant red K spinning and flashing on all of the TV boards around the ballpark. Baez strikes out on three pitches. Followed by a Coghlan ground out to second, and Joey Votto throws it around the horn.
The Reds fans rise up in thanks for the memory of 2016, smiling even without more October baseball on the way. The fans get loud, get ready to leave, ready for a win, for the onset of winter with one more minute of season left.
And then, Albert Almora Jr. walks. The home fans still standing.
Munenori Kawasaki steps in. Begoggled and scrappy. Choked up on the bat. The most lovable of all major-leaguers. Into the lowest rungs of the Cubs lineup now, the pinch-hitters’ pinch-hitters in as the regulars rest.
Kawasaki always has his champagne goggles on. 🍾👓 pic.twitter.com/6MeFibePSh
— Cubs Lunch (@CubsLunch) September 17, 2016
Iglesias delivers, Kawasaki flicks his bat ahead, and he lifts a low fastball on a line-drive single to center.
One color sits down, another rises. A red-shirt army flops down into the seats, and its blue-shirt opposite jumps up, links arms, sings a song in unison: “Let’s go, Cub-bies!!” There’s a buzz like the last day of school, the last few minutes of church, an antsy wait for any sort of ending.
Matt Szczur steps up to bat, works a full count. Two strikes, two outs—the final pitch left of the second day of October.
And he slaps a half-swing at the next pitch, a low slider outside. Everyone’s running on contact. Almora takes off, Kawasaki takes off. And the ball shoots down into the dirt just past the plate, bounces down the line, knocked the other way past Votto at first, onto the outfield grass in right. Almora’s in, Kawasaki’s running wildly around second, third, charging in to score in record time. Standing up on home plate for a good ten seconds. Stoked out of his mind. In a cloud of dirt and line chalk, Like he’s just stepped foot on the moon, crash landed, elated and confused—How the hell did I get here?
Szczur grins on second base—Brandon Hyde walks all the way out to second to take his batting gloves.
The Reds fans look glum, the away-team crazies rejoice. The loudest that ballpark’s been all year.
“Cubs lead, five to four!” says Len Kasper. “They want one hundred and three!”
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) October 3, 2016
And for the final blow (Cub de grâce?), Miguel Montero steps up. Edging his way out of a slump. Scratch that—exploding his way out of a slump. A two-run homer to right field, fifteen rows into the seats. A patient, lean-back take on a looping outside curveball.
The whole dugout in goofy shock. 7-4 Cubs ahead.
Miggy sprints down into the clubhouse to a sunflower-seed shower. The coaches, the regulars, the entire bench is smiling. The uniformed Reds’ dugout attendant is smiling. Cub fans clad in Bill Murray shirts are smiling, clapping along in the seats above the dugout.
Extra baseball on the way. And a phrase that sounds plain wrong, as if there’s a typo, some unseeable grammar mistake: Playoff baseball for the Cubs. Playoff baseball for the Cubs. Playoff baseball—for—the—CUBS.
The road fans stick around to salute their pride, their joy. W flags all around the ballpark. Kids holding out balls for autographs.
And Jim Deshaies, excited on the TV broadcast: “Let the big-boy games begin.”