You can talk about the 2016 Cubs — the 2016 World Series-winning Chicago Cubs – in near-mythological terms, as a cast of titans who stormed their way to 103 regular-season wins and soared to a historic championship. It would be tempting to just paint their trajectory in a single, gently-arcing stroke ending in a title. This is what was written and predicted, after all, in countless words and Vegas odds and maybe, furtively, in your heart before Opening Day even arrived; everything had gone to plan, we were told, and 2016 was to be The Year.
But one of the pleasures of watching this team, this year, has been the Cubs’ spirited independence from the tales others wanted to tell about them, whether these were stories about how unbeatable they were or how cursed they were. Wednesday night, all elements collided to ensure that this Game 7 was without comparison, that it was far from easy, and that the focus was not on stumbles from past Falls, but on the electric, unbelievable present.
The surprises began immediately when the steely Corey Kluber was shaken for a run by Dexter Fowler, who opened the evening with a home run ball just beyond the raised glove of Rajai Davis. Kluber, who had so thoroughly silenced the Cubs in both Games 1 and 4, was making his third start in nine days and already had 30 playoff innings under his belt this year.
Though he brought a sub-1.00 postseason ERA into this outing, it appeared the Cleveland ace had reached a wall in terms of physical ability. He was unable to find quite enough movement on his pitches, and the Cubs scored three more off of him before the night was through. Two runs came in the fourth thanks to an Addison Russell sacrifice fly, plating Kris Bryant, and a double by Willson Contreras, which brought Ben Zobrist home from second.
Kluber got the hook in the fifth following Javier Baez’s solo homer, which gave the Cubs a 4-1 lead. Baez too was having an uncharacteristic night up to that point, having been charged with two errors already, but he was able to jump on Kluber’s very first pitch to launch the no-doubter.
Kluber’s replacement, the usually-mystifying Andrew Miller, was solvable this time for Cubs batters, who didn’t wait to get men on base. Anthony Rizzo singled off Miller then took second while Bryant, who had reached on a walk, hustled home.
Opposing Kluber and Miller on the mound was Kyle Hendricks, who did in fact look in control for the most part. During one bout of wavering command in the third inning, Hendricks allowed a single run on a Carlos Santana double, prompting activity in the Cubs’ bullpen. But the ever-placid Hendricks pushed through to pitch a clean fourth, and by the time the fifth inning rolled around, he looked ready to cruise and go the distance.
This is when things began to get weird. Joe Maddon, perhaps concerned about how long Jon Lester had been warming up, pulled Hendricks after his first walk of the night. Contreras was also removed so the intact battery of Lester and David Ross could be used.
Ideally, one doesn’t drop Lester into a situation where there’s already a runner on first to hold. Cleveland didn’t make his relief gig any easier when Jason Kipnis hit an infield grounder that most pitchers not named Jon Lester would have moved to field. Instead, Ross scrambled unsuccessfully to make the play (and made a subsequent throwing error), which loaded the bases with two outs and Francisco Lindor at the plate. Lindor would eventually strike out swinging, but not before Lester’s wild pitch off the mask of Ross allowed two runners to score, narrowing the lead to 5-3. You could practically see the color draining out of Maddon’s face in the dugout. Kyle Hendricks, in an extreme display of emotion, began to pace.
Lester found a way to lock in though, and Ross contributed in the twilight of his career with a storybook home run off Miller for a 6-3 lead. With two outs in the eighth, one man on, and an end seemingly in sight, Lester had done enough, and Aroldis Chapman was called upon to close it out.
It didn’t happen so nicely as that. It couldn’t, not in this Game 7. Chapman, who of course had made a somewhat inexplicable Game 6 appearance, gave up an RBI double to Brandon Guyer and a two-run homer to Davis. It was Davis’ first home run since August. It was Chapman’s first home run surrendered in a Cubs uniform. The pitch in question registered at an unfamiliar 97 miles per hour, and it seemed that this game was designed to break the hearts of Cubs’ fans in particular. Tie ballgame, 6-6.
Chapman, despite looking like he had nothing left to give, was then sent out again for the 9th inning. Were it not for the brief rain delay that followed, he might have even been tasked with the 10th, and we all would have been soberly (in attitude, if not in any other manner) dissecting the unfathomable ability of Maddon to forget about the rest of his bullpen.
But thanks to a Kyle Schwarber single once the tarps were cleared, some astute base running from pinch runner Albert Almora Jr., and key hits by Ben Zobrist and Miguel Montero against Bryan Shaw, the Cubs regained a two-run lead with just three outs left. Carl Edwards Jr. patched in for two of those, allowing a run in the process, and then it was indeed an important mid-season trade acquisition on the mound for the Cubs’ final, triumphant out: Mike Montgomery, who required all of two pitches to cement the 8-7 W.
In a way, given the deliberate approach taken by Theo Epstein et al. over the past five years, everything really did go according to plan. In another way, within the sometimes-unfriendly confines of an oddity-packed Game 7, absolutely nothing was as foreseen.
“It happened…it happened,” was all Anthony Rizzo could say at first when interviewed for the world to see following the final out. It happened. Of this, at last, we can finally be certain, but repeat it as many times as you need until it fully sinks in.
Lead photo courtesy of David Richard—USA Today Sports