CHICAGO — Yoenis Cespedes crept off third and lingered there. Having just stolen the base, he was waiting for his chance to take off again as Michael Conforto picked up a second strike, with two outs, in a tied game. All Cespedes needed was an opening.
The Chicago Cubs’ Trevor Cahill threw a nasty knuckle curve, and Conforto swung through, and there came Cespedes’s chance: The ball hit the dirt and spun away from the glove of catcher Miguel Montero, speeding toward the backstop. Montero hopped up and chased the ball, but before he could reach it, Cespedes scored.
These sort of miscues seem to happen to the Cubs this time of year. This is their first league championship series since 2003, and this Chicago team in particular is relying on several rookies, many of whom have not played a full season of major league baseball.
The Mets, of course, are not regulars in the playoffs, either; they last appeared in the postseason in 2006. But their roster is composed of enough veterans that in a tense affair, as much of Game 3 of the National League Championship Series on Tuesday was, they played both calmly and aggressively and won, 5-2, to take a three-games-to-none lead. That left the Mets one win from their first pennant since 2000.
“You can’t block every ball,” Montero said of the wild pitch while summarizing the Cubs’ miscues throughout the game. “There’s nothing I can do.”
For much of the game, the Mets put pressure on the Cubs. Daniel Murphy (of course) hit a home run, Cespedes had a hand in three runs, and Jacob deGrom pitched seven masterly innings, killing the Cubs’ hopes of a comeback.
After the Cubs lost Game 2 at Citi Field, Manager Joe Maddon had played the “Rocky” theme song in the clubhouse as a way to keep his young players loose and motivated and to remind them to keep fighting; the series was not over. Maddon had no plans to drastically change his lineup or approach. He did not want his players to panic.
A reporter later pointed out to Maddon that in the first “Rocky” movie, the protagonist had, in fact, lost, but Maddon did not seem to mind.
In this case, though, the Cubs were seeking a victory, and to get it, they would have to beat deGrom, the Mets’ ace. Just as in the last game he started — Game 5 of the Mets’ division series against the Los Angeles Dodgers — he did not seem to have command of his fastball early on. The Cubs made him throw 29 pitches in the first inning while collecting three hits. But just as deGrom did against the Dodgers, he limited the damage by using his off-speed pitches and making pitches when he needed to most.
DeGrom held the Cubs to just one run during that rally. On a full count, he left a fastball high and about a foot outside, and Kyle Schwarber, one of the Cubs’ rookies, muscled it to left field for a solo home run, his fifth homer of the playoffs, a Cubs record.
“Your adrenaline is flying out there,” said Dan Warthen, the Mets’ pitching coach. “Like we talk about, your adrenaline is like fire. It’s a valuable servant but a dangerous master. He’s got to control that a little bit, keep the shoulders level, throw the ball downhill. And when he does that, he’s in fine shape.”
DeGrom bounced back to retire 18 of the final 20 batters he faced. He allowed only one hit in that stretch, on a 3-1 fastball up that Jorge Soler, another rookie, smacked for a solo home run. After that, deGrom retired 11 batters in order, finishing with seven strikeouts.
The Mets’ hitters, meanwhile, knew their role: wait for Murphy to homer and grind out enough offense otherwise to back their starting pitcher. Murphy has homered in all three games of the series, and the Mets have never trailed.
Following Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta, the Cubs’ top two starters, who had failed to contain Murphy, Kyle Hendricks fared no better in Game 3.
In Murphy’s second at-bat, Hendricks left a sinker up, and Murphy lifted it to center. The crowd groaned as soon as the ball left his bat. Ernie Johnson, calling the game on TBS, chuckled at the absurdity of the moment as the ball cleared the wall. In the dugout, Murphy’s teammates joked that, being in Chicago, Murphy should have shrugged, as Michael Jordan famously did in the 1992 N.B.A. finals.
Cubs fans clamored for the ball and then threw it back onto the field, per tradition. Someone who appreciated history might have held onto it: Murphy had become the second player in baseball history to homer in five consecutive playoff games, after Carlos Beltran in 2004.
Murphy’s streak seemed more unlikely than Beltran’s, though. After averaging about 10 home runs over the last four regular seasons, he has crushed six in his first eight playoff games, over a span of 12 days.
In the clubhouse, a few young Mets marveled at the replay of his latest home run. Manager Terry Collins joked, “Who is this guy?”
Kevin Long, the Mets’ hitting coach said: “At this, you just stay out of his way and let him be. We’re not talking about anything. He came in the cage today and jokingly said, ‘I want to,’ like he was going to change something. I said: ‘Stop! Stop!’ I’m basically just putting the ball on the tee for him.”
Asked for an explanation for his streak, Murphy said: “I don’t know. I wish I could explain it; I would have done it, like, six years ago. I can’t explain it.”
With the Cubs focusing on Murphy, Cespedes, batting behind him and playing in his third postseason, went 3 for 5. He doubled in a run in the first. He singled in the sixth and scored that go-ahead run when the wild pitch bounced away from Montero. He singled in another run during a seventh-inning rally, hitting a line drive that bounced off the glove of the left fielder, Schwarber — a rookie mistake.
“I just misread it,” Schwarber said. “No excuses.”
The Mets scored their second run of the inning when Murphy broke into a full-out sprint for home as Lucas Duda hit a grounder for the second out. Anthony Rizzo, the Cubs’ young first baseman, fired a throw home, but it was a split second too late, and Murphy slid in safely under Montero’s tag.
The Mets were already winning the game, and the series, yet still Murphy — in his first postseason after seven years in the majors — pumped his fist, celebrating another precious run.