CHICAGO – Remember what Joe Maddon said about getting the World Series to Game 6 and how he likes the Cubs chances even in Progressive Field? Hold on tight, we’re about to discover why Maddon is so crazy-confident and if the Cubs can pull off the biggest comeback in almost 40 years.
If sights and sounds count for anything, the National League champs have turned the corner on the Indians. The Wrigley crowd packed the streets and celebrated for hours after the Cubs’ 3-2 win, and not just because they were spared seeing the season come to an embarrassing end.
No, it was the way the Tribe was shut down by Aroldis Chapman that catalyzed this North Side belief that the Series is far from over – in fact, the drama has just begun. The Cuban left-hander went to his after-burners for 42 pitches, getting eight outs with that I Dare You velocity Yankees fans still miss. The result was devastating.
A full 35 of those 42 pitches were fastballs, averaging 101.2 mph and topping out at an insane 103.3. The Indians swung and missed eight times in that span; they looked just as bad even when they made contact. Whenever the Tribe stirred, Chapman shut them down with a four-seamer, including the 102-mph monster he threw by Jose Ramirez to end the game.
Terry Francona was hoping for a chance to humiliate the Cubs at home. Instead he shook his head in admiration for Chapman’s work. “That was a big ask and he answered,” the manager said. “That was impressive.”
The question, of course, is how much carry-over there’ll be Tuesday night – either positive or negative. Chapman came within four pitches of his career-high for a one-game appearance, and while he said afterward, “I was mentally and physically prepared for it” it’s anyone’s guess if he’ll be 100 percent for Game 6 on just one day’s rest.
Not that Maddon could be blamed for placing the season in Chapman’s hands in the seventh inning. He had no choice. Even before the game, the manager approached the closer and told him to prepare for a Herculean effort.
"It's something you can't normally do during the season without beating somebody up too badly,” Maddon conceded. But there was nothing normal about the Cubs’ predicament. The last 10 World Series teams that had trailed 3-1 have gone down to defeat. And the last team to actually recover from a 3-1 deficit by winning the last two games on the road were the 1979 Pirates.
Every last trail of logic leads you to one conclusion: this was a throw-away game that the Indians probably knew they’d never win. They were facing Jon Lester, the Cubs’ ace, and were trying to get away with Trevor Bauer, their No. 3 starter. Now the Tribe gets to play their winning hand – home crowd, the return of the DH, their two best pitchers back to back in the Josh Tomlin and Cory Kluber.
This should be a layup, right? Hold on. Both Tomlin and Kluber are working on short rest. The Cubs have Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks lined up on full rest. One more thing: they’re also getting Kyle Schwarber back, and if you don’t think that matters a lot, trust the words of one scout who said, “[Schwarber] has the kind and discipline that can rub off on the other guys in that lineup.”
That’s what Maddon has been saying all along: the Cubs had struck out 39 times in the first four games, but get to Game 6 and he promises they’ll morph into a different team. They’ll become that National League powerhouse again, unfazed by the hostile crowd, their 3-2 deficit and anything else this Series has thrown at them so far.
Maddon, in fact, was so composed he chose to blow off a pregame speech to his players, even though he could’ve easily gone the Al Pacino route from Any Given Sunday. He could’ve closed the clubhouse doors, asked for his players’ attention. They would’ve given it to him unconditionally. The room would’ve gone quiet. Maddon would’ve had the floor.
If he’d so chosen, Maddon could’ve reminded the Cubs what a terrific season they’d had, how far the franchise had come in just a few years and how the fans – millions of them in the Chicago area – believed in them. It would’ve been a stirring speech, except Maddon ultimately decided it would’ve been a waste of time.
The Cubs knew what was at stake, anyway, and when Ramirez led off the second inning with a home run off Lester, the countdown was on for both teams. Maddon later said go-get-‘em speeches are never a match for “sliders on the black.” What he needed was a lead, quality innings from Lester and a way to get the ball to Chapman.
The moment of truth arrived after the Cubs finally broke through on Bauer, scoring three runs in the fourth inning. They had their advantage and it was time for Maddon to gamble. He pulled Lester after six innings with a 3-2 lead – a counter-intuitive move given his ace’s winning pedigree. But then again, would you really trust a pitcher who can’t hold runners on, can’t throw to first, against a team that’d stolen 134 bases in the regular season?
The Indians are smart and creative, small-ball experts. One-run games are their specialty, but they had no remedy for Chapman’s heat. Every time he ran into trouble – runners on first and second in the seventh, runner on third in the eighth – the big left-hander delivered one more thunderous fastball.
“A pretty gutsy performance there,” is what Kris Bryant said of Chapman’s night. “He just went out there and did his thing. That’s the reason right there why we got him.”
Mission accomplished: on to Cleveland. Now we’ve got a real Series.
Bob Klapisch writes for The (Bergen) Record, part of the USA TODAY Network