The Cubs finally sent the Wrigley faithful home with a home victory on Sunday night, the satisfying result of an ulcer-inducing crucible of a World Series game. It was yet another in a series of “first since X” Cubs World Series feats—the first home World Series win since 1945, of course—and those who have watched the television coverage are likely tired of lists of those feats. The win felt anything but inevitable or routine to the 42,000-plus at Wrigley Field, however, and to all those watching who felt, really felt, the heartbreak that dwelled in the backs of their minds and just inches and seconds away on the field. Cleveland still holds a 3-2 lead in the series, but the best team in the league counters with two Cy Young candidates, a rested bullpen, and a manager finally reaching into the depths of his arsenal to pull out an improbable win.
Ending the drought. No, not that one.
Kris Bryant hit a line drive home run off of Cleveland starter Trevor Bauer in the fourth inning of Sunday’s game, the Cubs’ second homer of the World Series, knotting the game at one run apiece. Bauer, who had managed to quiet the Cubs’ bats through three innings with mostly fourseamers and curveballs, served up a fat fastball to Bryant, who swatted it just into the left-center field bleachers, where it caromed off the hands and arms and abdomens of Cubs fans before falling into the basket. The outcome was the product of Bryant’s adjustments: after flailing, vainly, at breaking balls in the first few games of the series, the presumptive MVP laid off the big curve from the Cleveland righty on Sunday, making Bauer pump a fastball in for a strike. Bauer, for his part, tried to throw that curve as much as possible on Sunday, echoing the game plans of his fellow Cleveland pitchers. It’s a borderline truism that, when you make the pitcher throw strikes that aren’t of his own volition, you will succeed, but forcing Bauer to find the zone was a small change in Bryant’s World Series performance that paid large dividends.
Dexter Fowler’s solo home run in garbage time of Game Four was like a cool drink of water after too many innings of homerless drought. Bryant’s felt more like the iconic scene in Shawshank Redemption, his home run trot the figurative equivalent to Andy Dufresne dropping to his knees in the rain after enduring a, uh, crappy escape from prison. Overwrought analogies aside, it was a necessary blow to Cleveland’s lead, after Lester had served up a surprising home run to José Ramírez and found himself behind 1-0.
Uncharacteristically poor defensive play in the first two games at Wrigley sank any hopes that the Cubs would steal a win while plating precious few runs. Bryant tallied a pair of errors on Saturday, both in the pivotal second inning, and Willson Contreras looked shaky behind the plate. The record-setting defense came back with a vengeance Sunday, though, and, with a one-run margin most of the game, it proved instrumental.
Anthony Rizzo saved bounced throws at first and snagged the foul popup that David Ross failed to corral near the camera next to the visitors’ dugout. Addison Russell slinged a throw to Rizzo on an sure infield hit off the bat of Ramírez with no outs and a runner on second. Jason Heyward clung to the bricks in right field and reached back toward the field to, somewhat counterintuitively, make a play much easier than it looked. Even Ben Zobrist got in on the act, cutting off a rocket to the left-field wall and keeping Mike Napoli to a single. It was a palate-cleansing return to form for the best defensive team in the majors.
The most obvious, and most exciting, play was another David Ross-Javy Baez caught stealing in the top of the sixth. The speedy and smart Cleveland club has, in two games versus Lester, been fairly reserved on the basepaths, especially compared to the skittish Dodgers in the NLCS. Rajai Davis and Francisco Lindor decided to put the pressure on Lester and the Cubs’ defense in Game Five, however, and while the former succeeded in nabbing two bases in the eighth off of Aroldis Chapman, the latter incurred the wrath of Grandpa Rossy.
Lester’s slide step, Ross’s quick pop and bullet throw, and Baez’s tag combined to end the sixth inning. It was a close on both Lester’s night and Ross’s career; the catcher found himself removed for a pinch-hitter in the bottom half of the inning, with his batterymate Lester done for the night and Maddon looking to double switch. If Ross doesn’t get any more defensive innings in the final two games of the series, then it will have been a fitting cap to a solid major-league career.
There’s finally a bit of pushback to the “Javy tag” narrative that dominated the early rounds of these playoffs, as one might have anticipated. As the effusive words poured from writer’s laptops, internet contrarians no doubt sharpened their swords. Aesthetically, the second baseman’s anticipatory body positioning and snipe tags are unimpeachably great. In terms of value added—well, that’s up for debate. Certainly it’s better to have a player with Javy’s ability to shave off tenths of a second on a throw to second base, and, in the World Series, when the marginal advantages are heightened and multiplied in importance, it can save an essential run. Such a skill resists the analytic impulse to translate it into “run” values, though, like one might do with pitch framing or a leaping catch. Baez’s tags probably shouldn’t get him an extra few million dollars in free agency. They should, however, be marvelled at and praised for what they are: beautiful displays of skill that resist interpretation.
My Relievers Are… Unconventional
We know the narrative. We have lived with it for nigh on a month. We loved it, and then we killed it, scorching the earth with our hot takes and leaving no thinkpiece safe. But Joe Maddon, the zany iconoclast, spat on that narrative arc.
I’m speaking of bullpen usage, of course, which has been transformed in these playoffs from a small part of what makes a manager great into a sort of radical reimagining of how pitchers pitch and how managers manage. Besides Terry Francona’s reliance on Cody Allen and the superhuman string bean Andrew Miller, and maybe Dave Roberts’ use of Kenley Jansen and Clayton Kershaw in the first two rounds of the playoffs, the way that managers have used their relievers hasn’t been that different from how they’ve been used in recent history, considering the context of the playoffs. Maddon displayed a bizarre conservatism, sticking with what worked in the regular season even as the mutated conditions of the playoffs stared him down. By the time his club reached the World Series, though, Maddon’s conservatism had reached almost cartoonish proportions, and in recent days has become a counternarrative of its own. He repeatedly went to Mike Montgomery and Carl Edwards, Jr., and Justin Grimm first out of the bullpen, all fine relievers, but not of the same tier as Aroldis Chapman and Pedro Strop. Critics cried that Maddon was managing like it was a getaway day game in May and not a World Series game, and that criticism was rooted in a fair amount of truth.
Like I mentioned above, it’s the marginal decisions and performances that can differentiate a championship team from a mere playoff club, and Maddon frequently refused to put his players in positions to gain marginal advantages. Kyle Schwarber rotted on the bench in both Saturday and Sunday’s games, even with a slim lead in the latter game, while he sent Miguel Montero and Aroldis Chapman to the plate. Jason Heyward, for all his defensive prowess, has been a hitting black hole this season, and he’s garnered too many plate appearances in key spots this postseason. Surely there were spots to get the best bench bat in the game with the season on the line.
So, it was a story in itself that Maddon tapped Chapman to finish Game Five with eight outs remaining. After Edwards failed to find a way out of the seventh inning, Maddon went to his best reliever, and you would have been hard pressed to find a Cubs fan who actually thought the manager would stick with the lefty for the remainder of the game. After all, Chapman himself has expressed displeasure at both entering the game in the middle of an inning and before the ninth. Forty-plus pitches later, and Maddon looks smart again. He might have tied his hands with the sequence of moves in the sixth and seventh, pinch-hitting for Ross with Montero, removing Lester for Edwards, and inserting Contreras behind the plate, but few will remember those moves, considering the explosion of joy and relief that resulted from the first World Series win at Wrigley in 71 years.
Back to the DH
Similarly, no one is going to remember the first two games at Wrigley this weekend, except perhaps a smattering of Cleveland fans. I imagine most Cubs fans blacked out immediately upon first pitch Friday and didn’t come to until Sunday night, a kind of stress-induced mental blankness that I know I needed going into Game Five. If you somehow recall baseball games being played Friday and Saturday (ones that did not feature the performance of your nieces, nephews, or children), I encourage you to repress those memories as swiftly as possible and consult your local video streaming service to watch highlights of Game Five and Kyle Schwarber home runs.
Schwarber is going to have an opportunity to add to that highlight reel on Tuesday, as the series heads back east. The Cubs are the one team in the NL that benefits from AL rules, and the team’s offense stands to rebound from three tough games in which they scored only five runs. It’s going to be warm on the shores of Lake Eries, and Cleveland starter Josh Tomlin faces a tough task in mystifying Cubs hitters just four days after his Friday start. Jake Arrieta has one more opportunity to dominate hitters before winter starts creeping in, and he’ll try to steel himself against the crescendoing pressure of an elimination game. The Cubs need just one victory to push the series to a winner-take-all Game Seven, and then—well, I’m not going to go there just yet. Enjoy Sunday’s win, for your sake.
Lead photo courtesy Tony Gilligan—USA Today Sports.