Tonight, at 7 p.m. ET, the Cavaliers will receive their NBA championship rings and hoist Cleveland’s first significant sports banner since 1964. An hour later, just across the street, the Indians will host World Series Game 1 for the first time in their history. The Chicago Cubs, without a pennant since 1945 or a title since 1908, will provide the opposition, as the established order of sports is altered irreparably.
No two baseball teams have waited longer to drink the fruits of championship glory. When the Cubs last won, a guy named Orval Overall pitched the deciding game. He was born in 1881. The Indians, meanwhile, have not triumphed in the Fall Classic since 1948, just a year after Lary Doby integrated the American League. Taken together, these teams have waited 176 years for a World Series championship. They’ve played over 27,000 games between titles. And, in no more than eight days’ time, the interminable wait will be over for one of them. So long as the Apocalypse doesn’t consume us.
It reads like a bad film idea. Another sequel to Major League, perhaps. But here we have two teams of apparent destiny. The Cubs, built in the scintillating vision of Theo Epstein, have busted myths at every turn. The Indians, toiling against long odds in most every regard, have caught lightning in a bottle under the daring hand of Terry Francona. Now, something has to give, as baseball’s most compelling World Series in over a decade begins.
How we got here
The Indians weren’t expected to be here. Only three American League teams began the season with a smaller payroll. The defending world champion Kansas City Royals looked set to repeat as division champs, and if they didn’t, Detroit looked a decent bet after a winter revamp. Yet Francona tends to thrive when his abilities are questioned, when his teams are written off. In that respect, he embodies Cleveland, a city that has battled tough times and conquered misconceptions.
With a cast of veterans fished from the scrapheap, and a sprinkling of cheap homegrown talent, the Indians stumbled upon a winning formula. Francona kept the team chugging along nicely, until a historic 14-game, midsummer win streak catapulted Cleveland to the top of power rankings. Kansas City couldn’t cope. Detroit scrambled to compete but couldn’t keep up. The Indians kept winning, and finished the regular season with a 94-67 record. Oh, and a first division crown since 2007.
In the playoffs, Cleveland stunned the mighty Red Sox, as Francona exacted revenge on the team that fired him despite winning two championships. All logic pointed to a swift Boston victory, as the Indians battled devastating injuries to key players plus a vast disparity in resources. While statheads will never agree, October baseball is often less about talent and more about chemistry. To succeed, a player or team must handle the pressure and conjure more heart than ever before. Cleveland had spirit in abundance, and it eventually swept Boston, to the wonderment of all, before riding a euphoric wave past the Blue Jays to secure a first World Series berth since 1997.
There, they will meet a vastly different animal. Though it still sounds weird in a historical context, the Chicago Cubs were expected to be here. They were expected to win 100 games, sweep through the playoffs and banish every ghost in the closet. When Epstein took over in 2011, he installed a long-term plan for sustainable success, sanctioned by owner Tom Ricketts and enacted by general manager Jed Hoyer and player development czar Jason McLeod. A few years of pain at the Major League level drew ire from some quarters, but all the while, down on the farm, these guys were building a monster like Dr Frankenstein. Last year, we saw glimpses of its potential as Chicago reached the NLCS, but the Mets were too good. However, offseason adjustments made the Cubs a prohibitive favourite going into this campaign, and that they remain.
To the stunning homegrown core of Kris Bryant, Javy Baez and friends, Epstein added proven veteran talent in the shape of Jason Heyward and John Lackey. This was a huge step, for it symbolised a shift in focus away from a brighter tomorrow and towards a jubilant today. A flurry of mid-season moves, including a trade for flamethrower Aroldis Champan, affirmed that notion, as Joe Maddon managed his team admirably en route to a 103-58 record.
The Cubs then toppled San Francisco in the NLDS, winning in situations where past teams would have lost, before taking on the Los Angeles Dodgers in a classic pennant battle. Chicago faced a great deal of adversity in that series, as the bats went on hiatus and the Dodgers took a 2-1 lead. But the Cubs reacted brilliantly to such momentary hardship, winning three straight against the weight of history to spark wild celebrations at Wrigley Field.
A closer look at the players
The old ballpark will have to wait three more days for its first World Series game in 71 years, however. The first two games will be played in Cleveland, thanks to the American League winning home field advantage with its All-Star Game triumph. In Game 1, Jon Lester will face Corey Kluber in a matchup of aces, offering people a swift portal into the tactical chess match that may occur throughout the Series.
It may sound silly, but the opener may be Cleveland’s best shot at winning a game in this series. Lester had a 2.44 ERA and 1.016 WHIP during the regular season as he won 19 games and lost just five. The guy has been even more dominant in the postseason, this year and throughout his career, having won two World Series rings with Boston and shouldered enormous responsibility in 2016. However, a psychological inability to throw to bases makes Lester quite vulnerable, especially against a team like the Indians, who run with aggression and intelligence. Cleveland stole 134 bases during the regular season, and in guys like Rajai Davis, Jose Ramirez, Jason Kipnis and Francisco Lindor, it has the ability to really push the envelope.
Of course, you can’t steal first base, and minimising traffic on the basepaths has been Lester’s strength recently. Still, with a raucous atmosphere in Cleveland, and perhaps a little magic shared from the Cavaliers ceremony, a recipe for success certainly presents itself. Kluber enjoyed another phenomenal season that could win him another Cy Young award, so the Indians may not get a better opportunity to find their feet in this Series.
Once Kluber has pitched, the Indians will not have the edge in any subsequent matchups. No matter how you dice it, that’s a fact. Trevor Bauer is slated to pitch Game 2, but he lasted less than an inning against the Blue Jays thanks to a finger injury. If blood spews from his pinky again, that puts undue pressure on the Cleveland bullpen, and you can’t expect miracles to repeat themselves. Jake Arrieta will oppose Bauer. He slipped somewhat this year from his immortal 2015 performance, but still finished with a 3.10 ERA and 1.084 WHIP.
In Game 3, Kyle Hendricks will take the ball for Chicago, against Josh Tomlin. Hendricks led the league in ERA this year, and he was simply brilliant in the pennant-clinching game against LA, in which he pitched a two-hitter over 7.1 innings. That doesn’t look good for Cleveland, which may rely on rookie Ryan Merritt against the veteran Lackey in Game 4.
The Indians saw their prized rotation ravaged by injury as the regular season finished. Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar went down, and neither has pitched since. However, Salazar threw a side session and simulated game earlier this week, and he will now feature at some point in this series. That’s a real wildcard for the Indians, as Salazar has truly filthy stuff, but the Cubs have a not-so-secret weapon of their own: Kyle Schwarber. The mighty slugger launched 16 home runs in limited duty last year, before injuring his knee early this season. A long rehab process took him to the Arizona Fall League, and Schwarber will make a sensational return in Cleveland. That only strengthens an already potent Cubs lineup, anchored by two bonafide superstars, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.
Bryant was drafted with the second overall pick of the 2013 draft, and his rise through the farm system was meteoric. The tall third baseman debuted in the Majors last season, slashing .275/.369/.488 with 26 home runs and 99 RBI to win Rookie of the Year honours. This year, he was even better across the board, slashing .292/.385/.554 with 39 home runs and 102 RBI. Bryant has greatly reduced his strikeout rate, from 30.6% last year to just 22% this season, and it may yet land him the MVP award.
As for Rizzo? Well, the hulking first baseman is the spiritual leader of this Cubs team. Epstein drafted him while with the Red Sox in 2007, before dealing Rizzo to San Diego in a package for Adrian Gonzalez. Once Theo, Jed and Jason reassembled in Chicago, they decided Rizzo would be the poster child of their rebuild. Andrew Cashner was flipped to the Padres, and Rizzo was duly extended for seven years.
He endured the tough times at Wrigley Field, including a 101-loss season and a year in which he hit just .233. Still, Rizzo is made of tough stuff. The guy defeated cancer, and he applied similar determination to refining his approach at the plate. In the last three seasons, he’s averaged 32 home runs and 96 RBI to accompany a .285/.386/.527 slash line. Now, at 27, Rizzo is a genuine star. Perhaps more importantly, he’s ready to lead the Chicago Cubs into battle.
Plan of attack
If Bryant or Rizzo don’t beat you, chances are pretty high that one of the other Cubs will. Dexter Fowler is a fine leadoff hitter who got on base at a .393 clip this season. Addison Russell, the spindly shortstop, clobbered 21 homers and drove in 95 runs. Ben Zobrist, the Swiss Army Knife, does everything really well, combining a .386 OBP with 31 doubles, 18 homers and 76 RBI. Then there’s Javy Baez, the lightning rod hitting .346 during the postseason, and Willson Contreras, an awesome young catcher who has arguably been even better.
Navigating that lineup will be a nightmare for the Cleveland Indians. It is for any pitcher. Clayton Kershaw, the best our game can currently muster, experienced that first hand when the Cubs touched him for five runs in the pennant-clincher. Yet this team is also exquisite defensively, which makes it really difficult to beat.
The 2016 Cubs led baseball by huge margins in Defensive WAR, Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating. Russell plays shortstop with incredible style. Heyward is truly elite in right field. The catchers are really good. Oh, and just about everybody else on the diamond is above average, too. Chicago plays defence with tremendous agility, hunger and skill. Baez encapsulates it best. The guy is a human highlight reel at second base. If Cleveland consistently beats that defence, it will certainly earn the world championship.
The relentless offence, stunning defence and superlative pitching gave the Cubs a run differential of 252 this season. That’s indicative of a fabulous team. The Indians produced a highly respectable mark of 101, but you can see just how harder Cleveland had to work for its victories. There’s no way to quantify this suggestion, but it feels like the Indians need every player performing close to their maximum ability in order to keep this postseason run alive, whereas two or three Cubs could play below their usual standards and still have somebody else carry the team to victory. That’s pretty daunting.
Of course, Cleveland is no joke team, but it does seemingly rely on extraordinary performances from what are, by and large, rather ordinary players. For instance, Mike Napoli led the Indians with 34 home runs and 101 RBI. That’s great, and it should be praised. I just don’t know how sustainable it is, or when the wheels may fall off. Napoli is 34 years old. And while a full season of production can never be labelled lucky, one would think that he requires greater effort than, say, Rizzo or Bryant to reach similar plateaus. Napoli struck out far more than his younger rivals, and his slash line was nowhere near as potent. Dominating for prolonged periods doesn’t come easy to him at this point, while the younger stars on the Cubs seem to ooze production naturally. Relying on such over-performance should worry Indians fans slightly.
Cleveland does have young talent of its own, however. At 22, Francisco Lindor has morphed into one of the best shortstops in baseball, capable of effecting games in all facets. The lively firecracker carried on where he left off in 2015, slashing .301/.358/.435 this year with 15 homers, 78 RBI, 19 stolen bases and 17 defensive runs saved, the second most among American League shortstops. Lindor is now the face of this Indians team. Indeed, he embodies the philosophy of a front office that needs to be cautious with cash. He’s the toughest out on the team.
The Indians scored 777 runs during the regular season, second most in the American League. Several players finally figured things out and enjoyed rebounds or career years. Napoli heads that class, but Ramirez, the young third baseman, hit .312 and stole 22 bags; Davis, the journeyman outfielder, hit for a low average but swiped 43 bases; and guys like Lonnie Chisenhall and Tyler Naquin finally contributed at the Major League level. The latter was particularly impressive. Then there’s Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana, two stalwarts of this lineup. Jason has five decent tools and can beat you multiple ways, while Carlos is an on-base machine atop the order.
On paper, this may seem like a dysfunctional assemblage of random guys, but it gets the job done under Terry Francona. How this lineup fares against the tough Cubs pitching remains to be seen, but every Cleveland player will give you an honest plate appearance. There’s no pretence with these Indians.
Cleveland does seem to have one advantage in this series, and it lurks in the bullpen. Andrew Miller arrived from the Yankees at the trade deadline, and subsequently appeared in 26 regular season games for the Indians, pitching to a 1.55 ERA with a staggering 14.3 strikeouts per nine innings ratio. He only secured three saves, however, as Francona got creative with reliever usage in accordance with core Sabermetric dogma.
Rather than confining his best reliever to one specific inning or task, Francona deploys Miller at points of optimal need or danger. That’s often the fifth or sixth inning, when the heart of an order comes to the plate for a second or third time. During the playoffs, Miller has thrown 11.2 innings without allowing a single run. In fact, he’s never allowed a postseason run in his career. The Cubs have scored more runs than any other postseason team in the seventh inning or later, so Miller will face a stern test, but this is a huge weapon for Cleveland.
Chicago has a dominant bullpen ace of its own in Aroldis Chapman, also acquired from New York. However, despite possessing a fastball that regularly tops 100-mph, the Cuban is surprisingly hittable. Chapman has a 3.28 ERA this October, with a 1.243 WHIP. Admittedly, it’s a very small sample size, and the wider body of his career is phenomenal. But small margins matter in the postseason, and Miller appears to have usurped Chapman as baseball’s greatest reliever. Zach Britton of Baltimore may also have something to say about that, but Cleveland has the edge here, I feel. Whether it can score enough runs to make effective use of Miller remains to be seen.
Predicting the outcome of any pitch, let alone play or game, is notoriously difficult in baseball. The game is so capricious, and luck plays a pivotal role. That can be even more acute in the postseason, where the margins for success are often blurred by the emotional hubbub. However, I think there’s clearly a better team here. The Chicago Cubs just have too much of an edge in too many departments. I believe Cleveland will win a game, with the opener being its best shot, but sticking with Chicago will prove too much of a task over a full series.
Cubs in five, I say.