Game 5 of the 2017 NLDS between the Cubs and Nationals remains one of the wildest postseason contests of the last decade. It was draining, it was bizarre, and it was a fitting end to a slog of a series between two good teams who couldn't quite get in sync. The Cubs held on to win, and because of the mounting intensity and chaos of the game, they celebrated it with the relief and exuberance usually reserved for winning bigger prizes.
It's a good thing they did so celebrate, though, in hindsight, because that's the last time the Cubs won a truly huge game. Since then, they've had big wins, but only in games whose meaning all laid in making some future games matter. They had a few dramatic wins in the second half of 2018, when it looked like they might win a third straight division title, but as that team came undone, they missed all their good chances to put away the Brewers over the final week. Then, they lost Game 163 against Milwaukee. Then, they lost the Wild Card Game against the Rockies.
In 2019, the struggling Cubs surged just enough to force a four-game showdown with the division-leading Cardinals at Wrigley Field, when they were still within a few games of them. St. Louis swept the series. In 2020, the team limped to a meaningless division title in the lifeless, pandemic-marred, shortened season, and then they were swept in the unserious Wild Card Series against the Marlins.
In 2021 and 2022, the closest they came to playing games of serious consequence was when they visited the Brewers at the end of June 2021. By then, they'd lost three straight games to the Dodgers, but they were still close to first place, and the championship core was trying to hang on for one last run. The Brewers not only swept that series, but had that infamous comeback win to cap it, after the Cubs jumped out to a 7-0 lead. It was the end of that version of the team.
Since that night in Washington, then, the Cubs have only won enough to force genuinely big games. The wins that set up those games are, by definition, important in themselves, but winning just enough to get to big games and then relentlessly losing them engenders nothing but misery in a fan base. It's fundamentally unfulfilling. Playing just well enough to juice the stakes of a game and then being utterly unable to meet that challenge is the kind of small, moral victory the Cubs need to move beyond. The 2015 And Beyond core was supposed to permanently rescue Cubdom from that kind of mode, but within five years, the franchise fell back into it.
That's why what Justin Steele and company just did is so important. That's why, as ugly and lucky and underwhelming as Tuesday night's 1-0 win was, it was vital. The Cubs have another big win for the mental treasuries of their most devoted fans. They didn't quail before the opportunity to do big things, the way they have in each previous chance. They didn't make bad misplays or get antsy at the plate and waste at-bats, as they seemed to do as recently as Monday night.
The Brewers remain, rightfully, heavy favorites to win the NL Central, and winning Tuesday night only set the stage for a game Wednesday afternoon in which the starting pitching matchup favors Milwaukee but the Cubs need another victory. Still, this win was an inflection point. It marks the acceleration of the Cubs' return to contention, beyond the surly counterweight of recent failures and frustrations. They won't win them all, but the North Siders are a team that can win at least some of the must-win games again. That's a lot of fun.
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