LOS ANGELES — A strange stillness blanketed the vibrant ballpark here, the curiosity on the field keeping the fans stuck to their seats. This is unusual, though they could be forgiven for breaking local protocol. History is often hard to believe as it unfolds.
Then the eighth inning arrived and reality set in. The Dodgers forgot how to catch and the Cubs kept scoring. Soon, in the parking lots beyond the outfield, brake lights twinkled like beacons of surrender. The early migration from Dodger Stadium had begun, signaling a reality the world has known only three times in the last seven decades.
The Cubs stand just one victory from reaching the World Series for the first time since 1945 by virtue of Thursday night’s 8-4 victory in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series.
“That’s been our goal all year, and now we’re very close to it,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said.
Lefthander Jon Lester allowed only one run in seven innings, lowering his postseason ERA to 0.86 despite attempts to throw off his rhythm. Shortstop Addison Russell hammered a two-run homer for the second straight game, continuing a surge after stalling to start the postseason. And the Cubs pushed themselves to the brink of playing for their first championship since 1908.
They return to Wrigley Field for Game 6 on Saturday, their first of two shots to clinch a meeting with the American League champion Indians, another franchise eager to end decades of heartache.
“Our guys will absolutely be ready for the moment, I promise you that,” Maddon said. “It’s great. The city of Chicago has got to be buzzing.”
The Dodgers hoped to disrupt Lester, squaring to bunt and taking long leads on the basepaths, capitalizing on his troubles throwing to first. It didn’t matter. With Lester rolling, the Cubs led 3-1 entering the eighth, then turned the game into a rout with five runs thanks to a second straight night of sloppiness by the Dodgers. The most egregious sins belonged to reliever Pedro Baez.
In one inning, he dropped a feed while covering first base. He let a sacrifice bunt slip through his hand to cost himself a chance to nail the lead runner at third. He failed to cover first base on Dexter Fowler’s infield single to knock in a run.
One batter later, Kris Bryant legged out a cue-shot roller to drive in another, pushing the Cubs’ cushion to four. The Cubs weren’t done, loading the bases for their hottest hitter, Javier Baez.
Baez cleared the bases with a double, raising his RBI count to a team-high seven in the playoffs.
Things could have been different for the Dodgers, who opted against starting their ace Clayton Kershaw on three days’ rest. They chose instead to bump him to Game 6 in Chicago. That left the Game 5 assignment to rookie Kenta Maeda, who has yet to pitch more than four innings in three playoff starts.
Maeda’s latest effort lasted only 3 2/3 innings. He surrendered just one run on Anthony Rizzo’s RBI double into the rightfield corner in the first. But the line did not reveal his true struggles.
He worked like a procrastinator in an office cubicle. Between pitches, Maeda lifted his cap and ran his hand through his hair, he checked for the sign and checked again, he knocked dirt from his cleats and tossed the rosin bag, he used his foot to sweep the dirt off the rubber and smooth the dirt in front of it.
If there were paper clips on hand, he might have counted them and looped them together to a make necklace.
With Maeda, there is no body language barrier. He revealed through actions alone that he possessed only a precarious grip on his fate. In the fourth inning, with the Cubs ahead 1-0, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts had seen enough.
Roberts has made a name for himself this postseason with his aggressive use of his bullpen. Again, he did not hesitate, pulling Maeda even as he had nearly extracted himself from a jam.
After allowing the first two batters to reach, Maeda retired the next two, bringing Lester to the plate. Still, Roberts summoned Josh Fields, entrusting the bullpen to contain the damage after the Dodgers scratched across a game-tying run in the fourth. Instead, the bullpen imploded.
The Dodgers’ rise this season had been fueled partly by Joe Blanton’s transformation into a relief ace. In the NLDS, the Nationals managed just a hit and a walk against him in five innings. But in the NLCS, Blanton has paid for making the same mistake twice.
In Game 1, a hanging slider from Blanton sent Miguel Montero around the bases with a game-winning grand slam. In Game 5, Blanton was summoned with the score tied 1-1 in the sixth, a sign of the Dodgers’ sense of urgency.
Again, he left a hanging slider over the plate. Russell smashed it. In their dugout, the Cubs jumped and hollered and screamed, their lead up to 3-1. Blanton closed his eyes, turned away, and wiped the sweat from his face after allowing his third homer of the series.
Now, the Cubs are close. Baez has continued his postseason heroics. And after slow starts, both Rizzo and Russell have turned the corner.
“Anybody in our lineup can turn the game our way,” Baez said. “When Riz and Addie didn’t start hot, everybody was asking about them. And there you have it. They’re both hot now.”