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Cubs make history to reach NLCS, end Giants’ even-year playoff magic

So much for the Giants’ even-year magic. The Cubs pulled off a stunning ninth-inning comeback against a struggling Giants bullpen and advanced to a second straight NLCS.

Three thoughts on the Cubs’ remarkable 6–5 comeback win over the Giants in Game 4 of the National League Division Series at AT&T Park on Tuesday night.

Ninth life

For eight innings Chicago barely resembled the offense that scored 808 runs, third most in the majors this year, managing just two runs and two hits against San Francisco starter Matt Moore. As soon as Giants manager Bruce Bochy went to his bullpen, however, the Cubs pounced. Down by three runs and three outs away from a second straight loss that would have forced a decisive Game 5 at Wrigley Field on Thursday, Chicago put up a four-run ninth inning against five different San Francisco relievers to turn a 5–2 deficit into a 6–5 victory.

Kris Bryant started the rally with a single off rookie righty Derek Law, who was then pulled in favor of lefty Javier Lopez, a mainstay of the Giants’ three world championship teams this decade. Lopez walked Anthony Rizzo and was immediately replaced by Sergio Romo, another bullpen anchor of the title teams who had regained the closer’s job late in the year. He too lasted only one batter, as switch-hitter Ben Zobrist yanked a double into the rightfield corner, scoring Bryant and moving Rizzo to third. Bochy made another change, going to lefty Will Smith, who had been acquired at midseason, but Cubs manager Joe Maddon countered by sending up backup catcher Willson Contreras, who promptly singled to center to tie the game.

​• See all of Sports Illustrated’s coverage from the 2016 MLB playoffs here

Jason Heyward, Chicago’s $184 million outfielder, then went up to sacrifice bunt the potential winning run into scoring position, but bunted the ball right back to Smith. He threw to second for the first out but a throwing error by Gold Glove shortstop Brandon Crawford allowed Heyward to reach second. Hunter Strickland relieved Smith and gave up a go-ahead single to Javier Baez before inducing an inning-ending double play from David Ross.

Five pitchers. Four hits. One walk. Four runs. It all added up to the largest ninth-inning comeback win in a postseason clinching game in baseball history. For the Giants, it ended any chance that their #EvenYearMagic would continue, and represented their first postseason series loss since the 2003 NLDS against the Marlins—an incredible span of 11 consecutive series wins (wild-card rounds included). That Florida team went on to beat the Cubs in an infamous NLCS en route to the World Series title.

When the Giants won their first title since moving to San Francisco in 2010, their theme was torture, for the nail-biting journey they took to a championship. Trying to manage that bullpen this year had to be torturous for Bochy, who watched his relievers blow an MLB-high 30 saves, the most ever by a team that reached the postseason. The question Bochy will have to wonder about all winter is, should he have gone to the bullpen at all?

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Moore is more

This season Matt Moore pitched for two teams (the Rays and the Giants), made 33 starts and threw 198 1/3 innings. In that extensive sample size he posted an ERA+ of 100, which makes him the exact definition of an average major league pitcher. On Tuesday, he was anything but average. Moore delivered a brilliant outing that went for naught when San Francisco’s bullpen coughed up more runs (three) without getting a single out than Moore did (two) while securing 24 outs.

In a postseason that has been increasingly reliant on bullpens, Moore delivered a throwback performance to Octobers past. Coming into this game, the average starter in these playoffs had gone five innings. Moore went eight, striking out 10 while allowing just two hits and two walks. He never allowed the Cubs to build a rally—a solo home run by catcher David Ross leading off the third inning and a sacrifice fly by Ross after a three-base error in the fifth accounted for the only runs against him.

It’s not surprising that a Giants lefty delivered a dominant outing in October. What is surprising is that it came from Moore, and not from Madison Bumgarner, who had a pedestrian performance in Game 3. Moore, on the other hand, looked like vintage Bumgarner, cruising through Chicago’s deep and powerful lineup by getting ahead in the count and rarely being threatened. He had already thrown 120 pitches, his second-highest total of the season, and Chicago was sending up the heart of its order for the ninth, so it’s not hard to understand why Bochy took him out, but given the season-long struggles of his relievers, Giants fans will have to wonder if Moore could have kept going.

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Real relief

While the Giants’ counterparts were imploding, Chicago’s relievers were very quietly keeping their team in the game long enough to make the comeback possible. After Justin Grimm came on for starter John Lackey and gave up two runs in the fifth inning to dig the Cubs into a 5-2 hole, he was followed by four more 'pen mates—lefty Travis Wood, righties Carl Edwards Jr. and Hector Rondon and close Aroldis Chapman—who combined to allow just two hits over the final 4 2/3 innings while striking out six.

One day after failing to secure a 3-2 lead in the eighth inning for a six-out save, Chapman was back to being his overpowering self. He came on in the ninth and blew away three San Francisco hitters, getting Brandon Belt to swing through a triple-digit fastball to end it. Chapman was acquired in a trade with the Yankees in late July with exactly this moment in mind: standing on the mound and closing out a postseason series. His performance on Tuesday should quell any fears that he is not up to that task.

That celebration that followed was well-deserved. The Cubs, of course, have not won a World Series since 1908 or a pennant since 1945. Before they can do either of those things, they had to win the Division Series, which is no small feat for a franchise that didn’t win a single postseason series from 1946 to 2002. Now, though, they are back in the NLCS for the third time since 2003 and for the second straight year.

They don’t yet have an opponent—the Nationals and the Dodgers will play Game 5 on Thursday in Washington D.C.—but they will go into that series as heavy favorites to finally get back to the Fall Classic.