In the top of the sixth inning in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series, with one man on and two out, the Chicago Cubs' Anthony Rizzo worked a 3-1 count against 36-year-old Dodgers starter Rich Hill. Chicago had managed only two hits to that point, following a two-hit effort in Game 2, and Rizzo was mired in a postseason-long slump, but this moment had the air of a corrective to it. The blister-prone Hill had just topped 90 pitches, a big number for him. You could just see a down-the-middle fastball triggering the swing that produced 32 regular-season homers and Rizzo rounding the bases; you could hear the announcers talking about how inevitable it was that these Chicago bats, so potent over the year, would wake up.
What really happened was: Hill threw Rizzo a totally delirious curve ball, one that started out aimed at his shoulder blades and ended up perching on the inside corner of the strike zone. Then Hill threw Rizzo a high fastball. Rizzo swung late and low. Inning over.
The Cubs ended up losing, 6-0. They struck out ten times; their 2015 Cy Young winner gave up four runs in five innings. It was their second straight shutout loss, something that never befell them over the season. After the game, manager Joe Maddon could only admit helplessness regarding the evaporated offense: "Obviously, I have no solid explanation." There were plenty of examples of futility to go around.
Still, if you want one moment to summarize how the Cubs now find themselves in a 2-1 series deficit, Hill vs. Rizzo in the sixth may be it. The two players seemed for a moment like nothing so much as stand-ins for their teams, and for the fickleness of October baseball. Hill is an oft-injured expert, occasionally brilliant but unreliable; ditto the Dodgers, who, lacking the sorts of players you can count on every day, have to mix their lineups and go to their bullpen with the sustained anxiety of an obsessive coupon-cutter. Rizzo is an MVP candidate, a plate-crowding line-drive machine, as good a figurehead as any for a Cubs team that has more talent than its opponents at almost every position.
The job of the postseason is to sand away the differences that become obvious over a 162-game season, to throw the virtuosic and the pretty good together in a can labeled "Who the Hell Knows?" and shake it around. The simple truth is that the Dodgers, like any postseason-caliber team, are good enough to be excellent over a stretch of a few games, and the Cubs, like any baseball team anywhere, can rattle off a few clunkers. Or, reduced: Hill is good enough to strike out Rizzo. Upswings and downswings, peaks and swoons, wheels within wheels, Maddon lifting up his glasses and rubbing his eyes.
Despite ample experience to the contrary, we somehow still get to October and expect it to reflect the hard-earned order of the six-month season that came before it. We forget that those nice big numbers and records are made of millions of colliding weirdnesses, that a late-career lefty breezing through the league's best lineup is comfortably within the boundaries of the possible. We expect a game that exists to defy expectation to clean up and make itself presentable for the influx of TV viewers who want to see the famous Cubs advance in five. But that's not what it does. It gives us fine players beating better ones, and fine teams doing the same.