The clutch moments that landed the Cubs in the NLCS

SAN FRANCISCO -- Goodness knows, it wasn’t easy. The Chicago Cubs teetered on the brink of a Game 5 matchup with the playoff-tested San Francisco Giants, but pulled off a memorable ninth-inning rally to clinch their National League Division Series on Tuesday night. Each game was highly pressurized, the Cubs outhit .252 to .200 in the four games and outscoring the Giants just 17-13.

They had a Cy Young candidate leave a start in the fourth inning after being struck by a grounder, an unbeatable closer who was beaten, and a genius manager who drew some criticism for what some saw as non-genius moves. But the Cubs did what they did all season -- they grinded. Sure, ground is the past tense of “grind” but somehow it doesn’t seem apt. And on to the NLCS we go.

This was about as exciting as a five-game division series can get and so, by definition, the matchup leaves behind a treasure trove of scrapbook moments. With a little light statistical touch, let’s try to nail down the top few sequences that brought the Cubs one step closer to shaking off that damned goat once and for all. We’ll use Win Probability Added data from fangraphs.com for a numerical element, though the actual moments were chosen subjectively.

1. Javier Baez homers off Johnny Cueto in Game 1

(Win Probability Added: 30.2 percent)

This was the Cubs’ first high-stakes game in weeks and though starter Jon Lester and the defense hit the ground running, the hitters were stymied by Giants starter Cueto. They were, that is, until Baez homered into the wind in the eighth inning, dropping a fly ball into the basket in left field that on many days and nights would have been bouncing around Waveland Avenue.

The game set the tone for how the series would be played. It also established the Cubs’ grinding approach that so often pays off late in games. Finally, it put Baez under a spotlight that he excelled in for the entire series, in pretty much every aspect of the game. A star was born.

“I know what I can do,” Baez said. “What I do, I will do it for my teammates, for my fans and for the city of Chicago, to bring this win home.”

You wouldn’t have been surprised to hear that about an hour after Game 4 ended. A few hundred lingering Cubs' fans packed the seats around the team's first-base dugout at AT&T Park, and when Baez emerged on the top step, they erupted into a chant of “Javy! Javy! Javy!” Baez was the Cubs’ best player in the series.

2. Javier Baez singles off Hunter Strickland, driving in the winning run of Game 4

(WPA: 29.9 percent)

It was so fitting that it was Baez’s hit that capped the rally that put the Cubs in the NLCS. Strickland was the Giants' fifth pitcher of the inning, but if felt like it wouldn’t have mattered if manager Bruce Bochy had summoned in Christy Matthewson or Carl Hubbell into the game. Chicago was not going to be denied.

“I think the game of baseball is a game that is 27 outs,” Baez said. “We were fighting and fighting.”

3. Willson Contreras singles off Will Smith to drive in two runs to tie Game 4

(WPA: 23.7 percent)

Baez’s heroics wouldn’t have been possible without Contreras coming through as a pinch hitter in the ninth inning of the clincher. Contreras only got the chance thanks to some machinations from Maddon. But make no mistake, this was the matchup he wanted: Contreras against the lefty.

4. Jake Arrieta homers off Madison Bumgarner in Game 3

(WPA: 29.8 percent)

The Cubs may have lost the classic Game 3, a 13-inning tussle the Giants finally won 6-5 on Monday. But there were some big and possibly lingering moments for the Cubs in defeat. Arrieta’s three-run shot off Bumgarner was the single-most stunning moment of the series, and it established that the Cubs won’t buy into the pre-existing storylines we love to push. Like the one that Bumgarner can’t be beaten in October.

“Pressure. Expectations,” Maddon said. “I want our guys to thrive on those two words for years to come.”

5. Kris Bryant homers off Sergio Romo in the ninth inning to tie Game 3

(WPA: 37.2 percent)

Another huge moment from the loss. Another moment that fits the 27-out meme, and the grinding theme.

“We don’t quit,” Maddon said. “That’s really what it comes down to. You hear that all the time, everybody says it, but you have to actually live it.”

6. Travis Wood strikes out Conor Gillaspie in the fourth inning of Game 2

(WPA: 2.5 percent)

This moment was chosen for its symbolic meaning more than anything, and because it tied into so many other things that happened. (And not because the Cubs pretty much stopped getting Gillaspie out after this.)

Gillaspie was the first batter Wood faced after Kyle Hendricks was struck by an Angel Pagan comebacker and had to leave his start early. It could have been perilous, but Wood began a parade of relievers that shut out the Giants for 5⅓ innings the rest of the way. Overall, other than Aroldis Chapman’s struggles in the eighth inning of Game 3, the relievers were outstanding, for the most part.

And let’s not forget that the very next inning, Wood homered to become the first reliever in 92 years to go deep in a postseason game. That started a two-game theme of Cubs' pitchers doing most of the team’s offensive damage.

7. Aroldis Chapman strikes out Brandon Belt to end the series

(WPA: 3.7 percent)

Chapman said after blowing the lead in Game 3 that it wouldn’t affect him the next time around. It didn’t. He smoked three Giants hitters with triple-digit velocity. And with alarming abruptness, a Giants team that had seemed on the verge of another even-year course in survival mastery saw its season come to an end.

“It kind of gives you an empty stomach to go out like this,” Bochy said.

But in Chicago, where people were singing, "Go Cubs Go" in the streets, it left a lot of hearts full.