CHICAGO -- The Chicago Cubs didn't get to existential crisis stage during their season-saving, 3-2 win in Game 5 of the World Series, but they got darned close. Against a Cleveland Indians staff that was piling up zeros, someone needed to do something. Who better than the presumptive MVP?
We don't know yet if Kris Bryant will actually be named this year's National League Most Valuable Player, but he's the leading candidate, with a Hank Aaron Award already in his possession. The vote has been in for awhile, so nothing Bryant had done in the World Series will matter for the award. But the Cubs needed Bryant to play like an MVP and he did, just in time.
"I loved it, man," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "You could see what happened after that. They kind of put their pitcher on the ropes a little bit. We had better at-bats."
The situation: Jon Lester was terrific against the Cleveland offense, but Jose Ramirez got into a pitch in the second inning, depositing a Lester offering into the left-field bleachers despite a wind that worked against the hitters. Meanwhile, the Cubs were doing little against Cleveland starter Trevor Bauer, managing only a single through the first three innings.
When Bryant stepped to the plate to lead off the fourth, the Cubs were entering the red-alert portion of the game, when the Indians manager Terry Francona was liable to go into lead-protection mode. Sure, there were six innings left, but this is a brave new world in postseason baseball. Bryan Shaw, Cody Allen, Andrew Miller were all ready. With another inning, or maybe even a couple of more outs, Francona's powerful bullpen might have been sprung to lock down the World Series title.
"That's it," Maddon said, said before the game. "I mean, just score first, win innings, and then stay out of the meaty part of their bullpen. That's probably the best way."
Meanwhile, Bryant was not in a good place as he stepped to the plate. He was just 1-for-14 during the World Series, with only a Game 2 single and three walks to show for his efforts. He had seen a steady diet of curveballs, like many of his Cubs teammates, and had done exactly squat against them. Bauer struck him out on a curve in the first. On top of all that, he had committed two throwing errors during the Cubs' 7-2 Game 4 loss that put them in such a bind in the series.
"I feel like as a team, guys are throwing us more curveballs," Bryant said. "I don't know. I don't look into the stats. I don't know if we hit curveballs well, but if they keep throwing them, obviously we don't."
This time, Bauer offered a 1-1 fastball inside at the letters to Bryant, and he laid into it, a 105.3-mph liner off the bat, sneaking into the first couple of rows of the bleachers. It wasn't one of Bryant's signature, majestic homers that disappears into the Chicago night only to re-emerge somewhere over Waveland Avenue, but it meant more than any of those moonshots.
"Not a crazy sense of urgency, but certainly we want to get some runs there so that they're not going to go to Miller and Allen with the lead there," Bryant said. "I wasn't going out there trying to hit a homer or anything like that. It was 'have a good at-bat' and it's nice that it went over the fence. Obviously I haven't been swinging the bat too great, but it was nice to kind of get one to kind of help us all out."
The homer was Bryant's first in a World Series, so he now checked off that box. It snapped a 1-for-18 skid going back to the NLCS. It was also the first World Series homer by a Cubs third baseman. And most important of all, it opened the floodgates. Not wide open, not against this Indians staff, but just enough to start a rally that produced two more runs and ultimately decided the game.
"It's incredible when you do that what it does to your team and what it does to the opposition pitcher," Maddon said. "It's just part of the game. So you have to be able to punch and counter-punch all the time, and we were able to do that tonight. The three runs held up beautifully."
It was the first time this series that Bryant showed the full range of skills that make him one of the premier young talents in all of baseball. He robbed Brandon Guyer with a diving stop and throw in the second. He worked a walk in the fifth and stole second. Most important, he stepped up for the Cubs with the game's biggest play just when they were teetering ever so close to oblivion.
"I like the fact that he wasn't just swinging at anything," Maddon said. "That's what we all have to be able to do. That's the kind of thing that could get him rolling. There is no question about that."
Don't believe it was the biggest moment of the game? Well, according to fangraphs.com, Bryant's blast improved the Cubs chances to win by 14.1 percent, making it the play that had the most impact on the game that could have ended the Cubs' season. That's what you expect from your MVP.
"Their guy was kind of cruising a little bit through the first three," Bryant said. "It was nice to kind of have a big inning there, kind of get us going a little bit. I felt like our at-bats after that inning were just as good. So that's a good sign for us."
The Cubs are alive but remain one game from elimination as they try to do what only five of 44 teams in their spot (down 3-1 in a best-of-seven series) have done before -- come back to win. If it happens, Sunday's performance can't be the last big Bryant moment. The Cubs need a Bryant Game. The game that like, say, Reggie Jackson had in 1977, or Albert Pujols in 2011.
Of course, Bryant isn't focused on that. He is simply focused on the belief that his team can pull of the miracle comeback, a rabbit-out-of-the-hat feat that would set 108 years of Cubs history on its ear.
"Why not us?" Bryant said. "I feel like we play our best with our backs up against the wall. We went out there today, took care of business. Hopefully we can get out there and win Game 6, because you never know what can happen in a Game 7. But we're all about writing our own history."