The Cubs got there with a 5-0 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers and their fearsome ace, Clayton Kershaw. The Cubs jumped on him early, added home runs from Willson Contreras and Anthony Rizzo, and protected the lead with artful pitching from Kyle Hendricks, who allowed just two hits over seven and a third innings.
The Cubs’ opponent in the World Series will be another team with a history of hard luck: the Cleveland Indians, who have not won a championship since 1948. Their futility, of course, pales next to that of the Cubs, who have not won a World Series since 1908. But when the Series begins in Cleveland on Tuesday night, someone’s long drought will be near an end.
The Cubs rolled to the best regular-season record in the major leagues, winning 103 games and clinching a division title with more than two weeks to play, but they have had to prove their mettle in the playoffs.
In their division series, they rallied from four runs down in the ninth inning to finish off battle-tested San Francisco, which had won a record 10 consecutive elimination games in the postseason. And in the National League Championship Series, after being shut out in back-to-back contests, the Cubs bounced back from a two-games-to-one deficit. They did not lose after that, scoring 23 runs in the final three games.
Although the Cubs were home on Saturday, with a loud, insistent Wrigley Field throng urging them on, they knew it would not be easy to beat Kershaw, who had bested them in Game 2 of the series, also at Wrigley, allowing just two hits in seven innings.
They would also have to beat back history. The last time the Cubs had been in this position — playing a Game 6 at home in 2003, needing one victory to capture the National League pennant — they had unraveled, blowing a 3-0 lead to the Florida Marlins after a fan named Steve Bartman accidentally interfered with a foul ball.
On Saturday night, the seat down the left-field line that had been occupied by Bartman — Section 104, Row 8, Seat 113 — was empty until just before game time.
“I sat in it,” said Nancy Mazzone, whose seat was one row in front. “I felt not-bad vibes. It’s all good.”
When a fan arrived to sit in the Bartman seat, he identified himself as Bryan. He said he was 38 and worked for a family-entertainment company, and he was wearing a No. 14 cap in deference to Ernie Banks, one of the great Cubs players who never made it to the World Series.
Bryan was asked by one of a half-dozen reporters present if he knew the history of the seat he was now occupying.
“I kind of do now,” he said. “We’re going to stay out of the way.”
When Maddon had gone out to dinner in Chicago on Friday night, he had gotten a full plate of encouragement from fans, although it came with a side of unease.
“It’s just a fan base that’s been waiting for a while,” Maddon said Saturday before the game. “We’re definitely on the verge of doing something wonderful, and they’re absolutely engaged and involved.”
He added: “You accept it, and you nurture it, and you understand it, but at the end of the day, our boys have got to go out there and play the game like we can tonight, and I want that with a free mind and moment by moment.”
Still, as much as Maddon wanted that from his players, the mix of anxiety and anticipation was hard to ignore as the crowd filtered into Wrigley Field.
“I don’t want to have to say next year — not again,” said Kristine Fuller, 70, a retired nurse whose children chipped in to buy her a ticket to Saturday’s game.
As it turned out, it was not the Cubs who were overcome by jitters but the Dodgers. Left fielder Andrew Toles dropped a fly ball that led to a run in the first, and Josh Reddick was picked off first base in the second.
The baby-faced Hendricks, who graduated from Dartmouth with an economics degree, has made a career out of a pedestrian fastball and operating in the shadows — all the way back to high school when it was his teammate Tyler Matzek who was chosen 11th over all in the draft.
Hendricks had not lasted more than five and a third innings in four previous playoff starts, but in this game, he was masterly. He allowed a single to Toles on the first pitch of the game, but on the second pitch, Hendricks, who induced more soft contact than any pitcher in baseball this season, got Corey Seager to ground into a double play.
Hendricks did not allow another hit until Reddick singled with one out in the eighth. Maddon then strolled out to the mound to a chorus of boos and replaced Hendricks with closer Aroldis Chapman. The first batter Chapman faced — pinch-hitter Howie Kendrick — hit a line drive that second baseman Javier Baez alertly fielded on a short hop instead of catching it on the fly, which allowed him to turn an easy double play and end the inning.
Meanwhile, the Cubs showed no deference toward Kershaw, a three-time Cy Young Award winner. Dexter Fowler lofted a fly ball down the right side that bounced just inside the line and into the stands for a ground-rule double to start off the bottom of the first. Bryant followed with a line-drive single to right, scoring Fowler with the only run the Cubs would need.
After Toles dropped a fly ball hit by Rizzo, Ben Zobrist hit a sacrifice fly to score Bryant, and the Cubs had what seemed like a gift: an early advantage that would limit any anxiety from the crowd.
In the second, Fowler, a .409 career hitter against Kershaw — the highest mark of any active player — hit a two-out single. That scored Addison Russell, who had rattled a double off the left-field wall, and gave the Cubs a 3-0 lead.
Contreras hit a solo home run in the fourth, slugging a line drive down the line that he celebrated with a bat flip, although the ball barely cleared the wall. When Rizzo homered to right-center in the fifth, Kershaw sank to his knees and exclaimed, “No!”
That made the score 5-0. All that was left was for Hendricks to continue carving up the Dodgers and for Chapman to finish them off. The fans passed the time with a rousing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and rose to their feet for the entire top of the ninth, bellowing, “Let’s go, Cubbies.”
There was little anxiety — only anticipation, with some fans wiping away tears and others crossing their fingers until, finally, Yasiel Puig hit a slow bouncing ball with one out and Carlos Ruiz on first. In an echo of Tinkers to Evers to Chance, it was Russell to Baez to Rizzo.
When Rizzo, the first baseman, gloved the ball, the Cubs poured out of the dugout, and the crowd sang the anthem “Go Cubs Go.”
It seemed to be worth the wait.