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Unlike Basically Always, The Cubs Didn’t Lose

The Chicago Cubs were in the process of doing something very Cubs-ian Tuesday night. They went down 5-2 in the fifth inning of Game 4 of their National League Division Series matchup against the San Francisco Giants, a day after losing Game 3 in 13 gut-wrenching innings. It looked like they could be primed for a collapse after once holding a 2-0 series lead.

As that three-run margin held into the eighth, Chicago’s series win probability dwindled to just 55 percent after Conor Gillaspie singled to lead off the Giants’ half of the inning; that was down from a peak of 96 percent early in Game 3. Nine other times in franchise history, the Cubs had a series win probability of 55 percent or greater and saw it drop from its peak by at least 40 percentage points — and all nine times, they ended up losing the series. (All but one of those series — the 1906 World Series — took place during the Cubs’ epic 108-years-and-still-counting championship drought.)

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So you’d have to forgive Chicago fans if they were on pins and needles as they watched things start to unravel Tuesday.

PEAK CHANCE OF WINNING SERIES
YEAR SERIES OPPONENT GAME INNING PROB. SUBSEQUENT W% LOSS LOST SERIES?
2016 NLDS Giants 3 3rd 96% -41
2008 NLDS Dodgers 1 3rd 60 -60
2003 NLCS Marlins 6 8th 98 -98
1989 NLCS Giants 3 1st 58 -58
1984 NLCS Padres 3 2nd 91 -91
1945 WS Tigers 4 3rd 77 -77
1935 WS Tigers 2 1st 67 -67
1932 WS Yankees 1 4th 58 -58
1929 WS Athletics 1 3rd 55 -55
1906 WS White Sox 5 2nd 62 -62
The Cubs usually fold under pressure … but not Tuesday night

All postseason cases in which the Cubs had a series win probability of at least 55 percent and lost at least 40 percentage points before hitting their low point.

Source: The Baseball Gauge

But then, something unexpected happened: The Cubs didn’t fold. After Gillaspie’s single, Hector Rondon struck out Joe Panik and then induced a double play from Gregor Blanco to end the inning. That set up an explosive top of the ninth, with San Francisco going through four pitchers before recording a single out and the Cubs hanging four runs on the Giants in the frame to take the lead. Three quick Aroldis Chapman outs later, and Chicago had won the ballgame, ending San Francisco’s even-year magic and advancing to the NLCS.

In other words, the Cubs averted disaster in a situation in which they usually succumb to it. Does that mean this is finally their year?

Maybe. FiveThirtyEight’s prediction model, based on Elo ratings, gives the Cubs an MLB-best 64 percent chance of making the World Series and a 39 percent chance of winning it. But Cub fans are a superstitious bunch. (They’ve been through a lot.) As our editor in chief — and former Chicago resident — Nate Silver remarked Tuesday night, this Cubs team was too good to lose in the Division Series, not only baseball-wise but also because a loss this early in the playoffs wouldn’t be painful enough to fit the franchise’s narrative of suffering and disappointment.

If they do end up snapping their 108-year losing streak, the Cubs might look back at Tuesday’s game as the moment their luck finally started to change.


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Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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