LOS ANGELES — When the Cubs poached Joe Maddon from the Rays, they knew they were getting more than just a manager. He was a shrink and a spokesman rolled into one, shaped by his willingness to ignore the thousand-pound billy goat in the room.
It was his reassuring voice that a skittish fan base heard when the Cubs stopped hitting in these playoffs. It was his comforting words that his players quoted during one of their rare moments of adversity.
And it was his refusal to rattle that came through on Wednesday night, when the Cubs hammered the Dodgers, 10-2, to even the National League Championship Series at two games apiece.
“That’s the team that got all those wins this year,” Maddon said, the icicles finally melted from a lineup that been shut out on consecutive days.
Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell had been the biggest offenders, combining for three hits in the postseason until Game 4. But Rizzo blasted a long homer and finished with three RBIs. Russell added a cathartic two-run shot that capped a four-run rally in the fourth.
“I’ve been struggling this postseason a little bit,” said Russell, whose average had dipped to .042. “But I didn’t panic.”
Neither did Maddon, even with the Cubs facing the first real threat to their dream season. They won 103 games and showed the talent to win the World Series for the first time since 1908. Yet, they had just been throttled 6-0 in Game 3 on Tuesday night, shut out for the second straight game.
For the first time this October, the Cubs played from behind. Maddon refused an overhaul of his lineup, even when the Cubs entered the day hitting .185 in the postseason and just .161 in the NLCS.
The Dodgers’ sloppiness only aided what became a 13-hit onslaught for the Cubs, committing four errors, three of which led directly to runs. A pair of errors helped fuel the Cubs’ five-run uprising in the sixth.
From the second inning on — when a replay review kept them from taking an early lead — the Dodgers seemed destined to cede the ground that they had gained.
“It happens,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “And obviously it’s more magnified in the postseason. But we haven’t had a game like that in a long time.”
With the game still scoreless, Andrew Toles punched what looked to be a run-scoring single to rightfield. Jason Heyward uncorked a loopy throw. The slow-footed Adrian Gonzalez dove headfirst to the plate, appearing to sneak his left hand onto the plate just before catcher Willson Contreras had applied the tag on his chin.
Convinced that he had won the dash to the plate, Gonzalez immediately extended his arms, though he was called out. But umpires determined there was not enough evidence to overturn the call.
“To get a lead would have been big for us,” said Roberts, who insisted that Clayton Kershaw would not be pressed into service for Game 5 on Thursday.
In the dugout, Gonzalez threw up his hands and slammed them on the padded top rail. Soon, it was the Cubs who found themselves awash in emotion.
The Cubs’ consecutive scoreless innings streak had reached 21 when Ben Zobrist — hitting just .154 at the start of the day — bunted on his own accord to begin the fourth.
Second baseman Javier Baez walked ahead of the catcher Contreras, who knocked in the Cubs’ first run since Dexter Fowler’s homer in Game 1. The Cubs got some help when Toles’ throw sailed wide of the plate, allowing the runners to advance. It’s why Jason Heyward’s groundout to second was enough to score Baez and make it 2-0.
Then, Russell delivered the defining shot, a two-run homer to right-center. He had fallen to 1-for-25 in the postseason and had yet to record a hit in the NLCS. Maddon stuck with him anyway.
As Russell rounded the bases after a homer that made it 4-0, he screamed and pumped his fist. He floated home, freed of the mental burden he had been carrying throughout October.
Rizzo shed his own baggage in the fifth. In a Maddon-esque moment the night before, Cubs slugger Kris Bryant searched for meaning in the shards of Anthony Rizzo’s meaningless broken-bat single, taking it as a sign that the slumping stalwart was about to break out.
“That’s the kind of thing that you see sparks a team,” Bryant said.
Yet, Rizzo struck out twice before stepping to the plate in the fifth. In his hands he held a bat belonging to teammate Matt Szczur. The time had come for a change.
“I hit well with his bat,” said Rizzo, who took a moment to admire his slump-busting homer. “So he has hits in it. Same size, just different model and different name. And it worked.”
As did everything else on Wednesday night. Maddon had treated a managerial decision with sensitivity and touch. He refused to bend beneath the pressure and reshuffle the deck. Again, he reaped the rewards.
“We’ve had 103 wins,” Maddon said. “This is our lineup that got us to that particular juncture. We had two rough nights. So what? I can’t overreact to two tough nights.”