LOS ANGELES -- Needing a spark of any kind, Chicago Cubs left fielder Ben Zobrist laid down a bunt, of all things, in the fourth inning for his team's first hit in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Wednesday night. The hit led to a four-run rally that relaxed an entire team -- and its fan base -- as "the floodgates opened" for the Cubs in their 10-2 victory that tied the series 2-2.
"How about the bunt gets the whole thing rolling by your No. 4 hitter?" Cubs manager Joe Maddon asked rhetorically after the game. "How unlikely is that?"
Actually, it's very unlikely -- but not so much when you consider the combination of Maddon and Zobrist. According to ESPN Stats and Information data, the only other time in the postseason a cleanup hitter has bunted for a hit since 2000 was in Game 1 of the 2011 American League Division Series, when the Tampa Bay Rays played the Texas Rangers. The batter back in that game? Ben Zobrist.
"It felt like that spot in the game was the right time," Zobrist said, bringing it back to Wednesday night. "After we hadn't gotten any hits up to that point, I was like ‘Well, it's time. Someone needs to do it.'"
His teammates reacted with high praise as they realized Zobrist might have changed the fate of the series, which the Cubs were trailing 2-1. Dodgers starter Julio Urias had picked up where Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill had left off. Through three innings, the Cubs had zero hits and hadn't scored in 21 consecutive innings -- until Zobrist squared around and laid a bunt down the third base line.
"That's the definition of a good baseball player and a guy that's going to find a way to win," Cubs catcher David Ross said. "That was a huge, huge play. We haven't been getting the leadoff man on. Once we got him on, things happened for us."
Maddon offered his take.
"It's always best when Benny does something extemporaneously," the manager said. "Whenever I give him a sign, it never works. So I'm glad he thought of it on his own."
The Cubs were in no way panicking going into the game, but as Chicago outfielder Jason Heyward pointed out, it's tough to pass the baton when "no one is getting on base." So the Zobrist play was big.
Zobrist said he actually thought about bunting "two days ago" and finally pulled the trigger when nothing else was working. Then things got interesting, as Cubs youngsters Javier Baez and Willson Contreras came up with two huge at-bats, both singling to left field on 0-2 pitches.
"With two strikes, I get even shorter to the ball," Baez explained. "It helps me a lot."
As Contreras added, "I just wasn't trying to do too much. When you try to do less, you're going to have more success."
It's important to understand how mature those two statements are. Baez never used to shorten his swing -- ever. And Contreras has been in and out of the lineup so much, it would be easy for him to do the exact opposite of what he said: Try even harder to get a hit. And when you consider the whole team was slumping, the ability of Baez and Contreras to process those moments behind in the count was huge. When Zobrist crossed the plate after Contreras' hit, the Cubs dugout exploded. They finally had a lead.
"I'm not surprised," Baez said. "The game that we had today, we've done it all year. Everyone is surprised we haven't scored that many runs in the postseason, but we go out there with a plan."
The plan came together as the inning was just getting started. With men on second and third, Heyward's ground out to second base didn't bring the eye rolls it usually does. This time his light contact scored a run.
"It takes pressure off people," Heyward said of guys getting on base.
The Cubs weren't done. Next came the big blow of the night, as a 2-0 lead ballooned to 4-0 on Addison Russell's home run to right-center. He was trending in the right direction, despite an .043 postseason batting average, having gone to right field once on Tuesday and then just missing a home run on an off-speed pitch during his first at-bat on Wednesday. This time, he got all of it and fist-pumped his way around the bases.
"I've been struggling this postseason a little bit but didn't panic," Russell said. "My confidence was still there. I feel like I've been seeing the ball well, taking some pretty good swings. So definitely wasn't panicking. I was a little more frustrated than anything else."
That was the thing about these Cubs after getting shutout twice: There was nothing different about them. The frustration Russell claims he was feeling wasn't something he was wearing on his sleeve. Same goes for other hitters who weren't pulling -- or hitting -- their weight. But once the runs came during that fourth-inning rally, everything changed.
"It was huge for our team, for our confidence, for our offense," Zobrist said. "We haven't been ourselves lately, and that inning busted things out.
"It felt like the floodgates opened, finally."
Six more runs would cross the plate over the next two innings as all of a sudden a tight team at the plate looked immensely relaxed. They took advantage of their newfound confidence by pounding out 13 hits, including several that traveled more than 400 feet. But it was the one that only went about 40 feet that made the difference -- from a cleanup hitter who sparked a rally with a bunt.
"I've said this before," Zobrist stated, with a smile. "I'm not a cleanup hitter. I'm just batting fourth."