SAN FRANCISCO -- Joined by the three Cubs relievers who had entered and exited behind him in Game 4 of the National League Division Series on Tuesday, John Lackey settled around a TV monitor in the far left corner of the AT&T Park visitors' clubhouse as the ninth inning was set to begin. If their offense started to stir, they weren't going to budge.
Out in the dugout, there was a rally cry, a reminder that this team had erased a ninth-inning deficit eight times during the regular season -- and once already in this series -- and so, why couldn't they again?
What followed was the most exhilarating comeback yet, as the Cubs pounced on a fracturing Giants 'pen to flip a three-run deficit into a 6-5 victory that sent them back to the NL Championship Series. Six consecutive hitters reached against five relievers in a span of 22 pitches to end the Giants' string of 10 consecutive elimination-game victories and move the Cubs one rung closer to that elusive World Series championship.
Game 1 of the NLCS is Saturday at Wrigley Field against either the Nationals or Dodgers on FS1 at 8 p.m. ET/7 p.m. CT.
"Once we got to the bullpen," bench coach Dave Martinez said, "we felt we had a chance to do something."
It took the Cubs nine innings to get there, as Giants starter Matt Moore dazzled while holding Chicago to two hits over eight innings. But with his pitch count at 120, Giants manager Bruce Bochy turned to a bullpen that had blown 31 saves this year and had no trusted closer.
He'd summon four pitchers to face the Cubs' first four ninth-inning hitters, none of which would be retired. Kris Bryant foiled the shift to open the inning with a single off Derek Law. Anthony Rizzo, who hadn't reached base in the first three games of the series, did so for the third time Tuesday by drawing a walk off Javier Lopez.
"We've lived by the home run a lot this year, but you really can't do that in the postseason," Zobrist said. "To get several base hits in a row, a walk in there, passing the baton -- that's huge confidence for our offense."
Shortstop Addison Russell was due up next, but manager Joe Maddon didn't like the matchup. He sent Chris Coghlan to the plate as a strategic play, believing that would prompt Bochy to pull Romo. It did. In came Will Smith, and out went Willson Contreras to pinch-hit instead of Coghlan.
"We had it all laid out before the inning began," Maddon said. "If this happened, this is what we're going to do."
The rookie Contreras delivered a two-run single, just the franchise's fourth game-tying postseason hit in the ninth inning or later. It sent the Cubs' dugout into bedlam, and forced those inside the clubhouse to stay just as they were.
"Baseball players, we're a little bit superstitious," Lackey quipped. "Once things started going pretty good, I wasn't moving from that spot."
They'd get even better. After a Brandon Crawford throwing error allowed Jason Heyward, who went home to first in 4.12 seconds (his fastest time in the Statcast™ era), to race to second on a foiled sacrifice attempt, Javier Baez capped his sensational series with an 0-2, RBI single off Hunter Strickland, the fifth Giants pitcher to take the mound in the inning.
"I don't have the words to describe it," Baez later said amid a raucous champagne celebration. "I was trying to hit the ball to right field, second base. When I swung at the first pitch, I thought he'd come back with the same pitch because he wanted me to hit a ground ball to the left side. I adjusted to hit it to the middle."
Suddenly, the Cubs had gone from facing the prospect of an elimination game on Thursday to stunning a Giants team that hadn't lost a postseason game in which it led after eight innings since 1911.
"With the way the ball bounced that last inning, I hate to use the word destiny, but they have had a great year and that's quite a comeback they mounted there," Bochy said.
The Cubs joined the 1986 Mets as the second team to come back from a three-run deficit in the ninth inning to win a postseason-series-clinching game. And it was the first time in 106 years that the Cubs had won a postseason game when trailing after eight innings.
"All it takes is one pitch," Bryant said. "Guys had great at-bats, battling, taking walks. That's something we preach. One pitch at a time. That last inning was perfect."
Jenifer Langosch has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2007. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.