CHICAGO — When the last two outs were made, ironically with a 6-4-3 double play their infamous predecessors in 2003 couldn’t turn, and the Cubs were finally going to the World Series, the beauty of it was how much they seemed to want it for their city as well as themselves.
At every such celebration players make a point to thank their fans for their support, but this felt different.
These Cubs may have succeeded because they were able to play freely, unburdened by the weight of the history surrounding this franchise, but they genuinely seemed to understand and respect the misery it had caused for generations of Chicagoans, knowing their team hadn’t even played in a World Series since 1945.
“We really did want it for them,’’ Anthony Rizzo said on the field after the 5-0 clincher over the Dodgers in this NLCS Game 6. “We know how long they’ve waited.
“They’ve been amazing since I’ve been here, and we lost 103 games my first year. We’ve got four more big ones to go, but to be out there in the ninth inning, and hear it get louder and louder, and see the flashes going off, it was amazing.’’
One after the other, players offered similar versions of Rizzo’s answer. They wanted everyone to know how much the fans are a part of this ride, and it didn’t come off as if they merely felt obligated to say the right thing.
“Are you kidding?’’ Kris Bryant said. “These fans certainly deserve it way more than we do.”
Bryant paused, then made a point of adding:
“And we’re certainly not done.”
Yes, the biggest barrier still stands before them, as they try to win the Cubs’ first championship since 1908. But who would doubt them now, after they not only finished off the Dodgers but made it look easy.
That was the stunner on this night. After 71 years and heartbreak at every close encounter since then, this city fully expected the best scenario to be heart-in-throat suspense to the very end. Nobody thought making it back to the World Series could be so angst-free.
Not against Clayton Kershaw, the best pitcher in baseball.
And yet Game 6 of the NLCS, the setting for the infamous Bartman game back in 2003, the last time the Cubs were this close, turned into one long, joyous party at Wrigley Field.
Cubs players knew how important making the World Series was to the team’s long-suffering fans.
Kershaw lasted only five innings, delivering mediocrity on a night when his team needed — and surely expected — brilliance, while Kyle Hendricks, the Cubs’ soft-tossing NL ERA leader, delivered a gem worthy of Greg Maddux, the pitcher to whom he has often been compared this season.
Who’d have thought?
Not that it was hard to believe these Cubs, winners of 103 games this season, could end the World Series drought. To a large degree, they had already stared down the ghost of postseasons past, responding to two straight shutouts and a 2-1 series deficit by scoring a total of 18 runs in Games 4 and 5.
It was just hard to believe they did it without breaking a sweat in Game 6. Scoring two runs against Kershaw in the first inning, albeit with the help of an error, all but convinced the Cubs this was their night.
As Jon Lester, co-MVP in the series with Javy Baez said, “Getting two runs in the first against a guy like Kershaw, you feel like you got 10.”
Kershaw, after all, had shut down the Cubs in Game 2, going seven scoreless innings. And the Dodgers had resisted the temptation to pitch him on short rest in Game 5 so he’d be at his best here in Game 6.
But as it turned out, the three-time Cy Young winner wasn’t even close to being up to the task. In fact, there’s no other way to say it: he came up small in a huge spot for the Dodgers, off with his fastball location from the start and unable to command his big curveball, which he threw rarely.
So just when it was starting to look as if Kershaw had changed the narrative around him, he again leaves everyone wondering why he can’t pitch with the same dominance in October that he always has in the regular season.
The night belonged instead to Hendricks, an unlikely ace if there ever was one, as an eighth-round draft choice — by the Texas Rangers — out of Dartmouth who pitched with Maddux-like success, baffling hitters with a 90-mph fastball that darts this way and that, as well as a great change-up.
He shut the Dodgers down so convincingly that even the baseball gods seemed to understand it was the Cubs’ time. So they merely amused themselves at the end, sending a ninth-inning pop-up into the stands very near the famous Bartman spot, then the game-ending double-play ground ball that looked similar to one Alex Gonzalez fumbled away in 2003.
Indeed, those final outs seemed to make it official: there is a World Series to be won, but times have officially changed for this franchise.
Fittingly for this city, the players and fans seemed to revel in it as one.