On his way off the Dodger Stadium mound after making a one-hop throw to thwart a bunt attempt to end the second inning Thursday night, Cubs starter Jon Lester shot a purposeful stare back at the Dodgers dugout.
After striking out Corey Seager for the third out of the third, Lester pumped his fist twice and swore loudly in the direction of plate umpire Alfonso Marquez, who squeezed the strike zone during Seager's at-bat. The look on Lester's face was just as expressive.
Whenever the Cubs needed a big pitch in a huge 8-4 victory in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series, their ace delivered. As the night grew longer, Lester simply got better.
The Dodgers arrived with a game plan of getting inside Lester's head. The Cubs will return to Wrigley Field with a 3-2 series lead and one victory from their first World Series in 71 years due, in large part, to Lester's heart.
If that thought sends adrenaline coursing through your veins, Cubs fans, now you know how excited Lester felt fearlessly taking the ball with a historical burden and the Dodgers bearing down on him. The emotion the typically reserved Lester showed early created an intensity level that Cubs teammates matched, a collective response to the urgency of this October moment.
There's no way the Cubs wanted to leave Southern California and spend the next two days knowing they had to face Clayton Kershaw on Saturday in a win-or-go-home scenario.
Now they don't have to, thanks to Lester giving up one run in seven gutsy innings and shortstop Addison Russell coming through in the clutch again.
"I just get fired up getting outs. I don't care how it happens," Lester said. "I play this game with emotion, and if it rubs people the wrong way, oh, well."
Emotions swung heavily when, with the score tied at 1 in the sixth, Russell drilled an 0-1 pitch off reliever Joe Blanton 419 feet to center for his second home run in as many nights. And for the second straight night, Cubs bats woke up after his homer.
"I was looking for something up in the zone to drive ... it was elevated and it kind of went," Russell said. "Rounding the bases, I was pumped up. It felt really good."
If Kershaw is the pitcher the Cubs most fear in the NLCS, Blanton is the one they want to welcome. Four days after giving up a pinch grand slam to Miguel Montero, Blanton served up the home-run pitch to Russell. No truth to the rumor the Cubs offered to pay for Blanton's suite in Chicago over the weekend just to make him comfortable.
Speaking of getting comfy, the Dodgers did their best early to keep Lester from feeling too relaxed and developing a rhythm. Manager Dave Roberts made no secret of his game plan to force Lester to field his position and think about making throws to first that he dreads more than facing hitters.
"We're going to get huge leads and try to bunt on them and try to get in his psyche a little bit," Roberts said.
It started with leadoff batter Kike Hernandez, who faked bunt and walked on four pitches. Hernandez took a giant lead and danced around so much, ESPN Radio analyst Aaron Boone said, "It's almost like a skit."
It brought out the fire in Lester after he fielded Joc Pederson's bunt and let the Dodgers know he was ready for whatever they had in mind. The only thing more obvious than Lester's confidence was his command, which remained through his 107th pitch to end the seventh.
Lester coaxed pinch hitter Yasmani Grandal, who had homered in Game 3 and represented the potential tying run, into grounding out with a runner on first. Knowing he was done, Lester pumped his fist again on his way to the dugout, where he hugged grateful teammates.
As manager Joe Maddon suggested, the Cubs were the Cubs again.
"Our guys will absolutely be up for the moment," Maddon said of Game 6. "The city of Chicago is going to be buzzing."
The momentum from Wednesday's 10-run outburst carried over when Dexter Fowler led off the game with a single and scored on Anthony Rizzo's double. Rizzo was again borrowing Matt Szczur's bat, giving him four straight hits since making the switch. All hail Szczur's bat.
Regret surfaced in the fourth when the Cubs stranded two runners after Roberts made a curious decision involving a starting pitcher that has become commonplace in this series. Oddly, with two out and two on, Roberts pulled Kenta Maeda after he had given up one run and three hits on 76 pitches and inserted reliever Josh Fields to face Lester, who joked Wednesday about his hitting. Lester flied out to left.
Howie Kendrick started the fourth ripping a double down the third-base line and aggressively stole third. Initially called out, a replay review showed Kendrick's hand touched third before Bryant applied the tag.
It cost the Cubs when Kendrick, breaking for home at the crack of the bat, scored the tying run after Rizzo couldn't cleanly handle Adrian Gonzalez's grounder. It wouldn't matter, not with the offense revitalized.
After Bryant doubled to center over Pederson's head in the fifth, Roberts brought in lefty Grant Dayton, who struck out Rizzo and retired Ben Zobrist to end the threat. When Roberts hinted pregame he would take an "all hands on deck" approach to Game 5 with a day off Friday, he wasn't kidding.
The Dodgers went deep into their bullpen, using six relievers. Lester reached deep within himself. The difference was the Cubs putting themselves on the doorstep of history. And they show no signs of tripping now.