It wasn’t going to be easy to end a 108-year drought. So naturally, the Chicago Cubs and their fans had to endure some scary bouts of deja vu before finally, finally, FINALLY locking down their first World Series championship since 1908.
On the other side were the Cleveland Indians, who unfortunately reversed the script of their neighbors, the NBA’s Cavaliers, by blowing a 3-1 lead with a chance to secure a title. The Indians had a whale of a season, navigating through a rash of injuries to move within one win of their first title in 68 years. But it wasn’t to be, because the Cubs just kept at it.
What transpired was one of the all-time classic Game 7s, and it left me thinking about plenty of what ifs, what could be, and what was. A deeper look:
There were millions of games that probably came to mind as this game unfolded. For pessimistic Cubs fans, there is no doubt that the 2003 NLCS and Steve Bartman crossed their minds. For me, it was also deja vu — to the last time that Joe Maddon and Terry Francona squared off in a postseason series, back in the 2008 ALCS.
That year, the Rays were the Cinderellas of baseball, a franchise with 10 miserable, losing seasons encapsulating their existence. Somehow, someway, with Maddon at the helm, they won the rugged American League East and earned homefield advantage in their matchup with the defending champion Boston Red Sox, led by Francona.
After dropping Game 1 at home, the Rays won Game 2 in extra innings, tying the series at 1-1 heading to Fenway Park. The Rays had gone 2-7 at Fenway during the regular season, but thumped Boston in Games 3 and 4 and were doing the same in Game 5 before disaster struck. Tampa Bay blew a 7-0 lead in the seventh inning, losing 8-7 on a walk-off hit by J.D. Drew to send the series back to Tropicana Field.
With that momentum, Boston took Game 6, and looked to be on its way to erasing a 3-1 LCS deficit for the second straight year. But after going up 1-0 early in Game 7, the Red Sox were shut down by series MVP Matt Garza, as the Rays recovered to win the game, 3-1, and ultimately the series.
Eight years later, Maddon and Francona’s teams went the distance, and once again Maddon won the war after losing an early battle.
Going out on top
It seemed like such an obvious narrative that a member of the 2013 World Series champion Red Sox named David would go out with another ring. Except it was supposed to be David Ortiz, not David Ross.
While Big Papi’s last game ended with him in the dugout as a mere spectator, Ross played a pivotal role in winning Game 7, belting a solo home run off of Andrew Miller (another member of the 2013 Sox) to make it 6-3 in the sixth inning. Ross, one of the game’s most respected veterans, also atoned for an error that led to two runs the previous inning. It was hard not to think it truly was the Cubs’ night — and year — when Ross hit that home run off the previously-invincible Miller. Between that omen and Dexter Fowler’s leadoff blast, a first in Game 7 history, it was hard to imagine the Indians pulling off this rally.
It shouldn’t have even been that close
Early on, it looked like another Cubs runaway. It took some bizarre luck, and some poor umpiring, to turn the tides in Cleveland’s favor. Though Chicago benefitted from a missed strike three call on Kris Bryant in the top of the fifth that led to Anthony Rizzo’s RBI double off Miller, there was a more blatant miss by home plate umpire Sam Holbrook. Kyle Hendricks clearly struck out Carlos Santana in the bottom of the fith, but instead ended up walking him. That prompted Maddon to call on Jon Lester. Jason Kipnis hit a dribbler in front of the plate, but Ross misfired to first, putting two runners in scoring position with two out for Francisco Lindor. Lester then uncorked a two-run wild pitch, making it a 5-3 game.
It was Lindor’s defense that allowed the game to go into extra innings, as he ranged far to his left to retire Fowler on a grounder up the middle that would have given Chicago the lead in the ninth.
The Cubs weren’t going to blow it after getting this far
By no means did I think the Cubs were a lock to get to the World Series, even after winning 103 games (and tying one) in the regular season. Both the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers were capable of knocking them out, but somehow I didn’t see the Cubs getting to the Fall Classic and losing.
No, I wasn’t all that confident after they fell behind 3-1 to the Indians and Francona, who at that point was 11-1 in World Series games in his managerial career. But on the flip side, this also all felt too good to be true for the Indians, whose depth was severely tested all throughout October and yet still began the postseason 10-2. Starting Corey Kluber three times in seven games just wasn’t going to be perfect all the way through, nor were Miller or Cody Allen going to just continue to fire zeroes. Actually, Allen did, but Miller’s struggles were key in this game.
In the end, credit the Cubs for continuing to bounce back from disappointment this October. They were shut out four times in a span of eight games, which is unheard of, yet woke up just in time.
Maddon was far from perfect
Had the Cubs lost, Joe Maddon would have been under fire until Opening Day of next year. Maddon made a number of puzzling decisions in Game 7 that opened the door for the Tribe’s near-comeback. His hook with Hendricks was far too quick, even though he had Lester waiting in the wings. His lack of faith in the rest of his bullpen forced him to once again overwork Aroldis Chapman, whose blazing velocity was still down a tick and made him just human enough for Rajai Davis to take him deep. Maddon had overworked Chapman in Game 6 despite a healthy lead, which you knew was going to be a factor in his Game 7 performance.
Then, there was Maddon’s ridiculous call to have Javier Baez bunt with a full count and a runner at third with one out in the ninth. Baez is a free-swinger, but had homered earlier, and was one pitch away from a walk against Bryan Shaw. Yet Maddon basically wasted an out, and the Cubs didn’t score that inning. That gave the Indians their biggest glimmer of hope, a chance for a walk-off win that they did not end up capitalizing on.
The oddsmakers are in love with the Cubbies
Can you believe that even down 3-1, the Cubs were merely about a 3/1 bet to come back and win? That is relatively unheard of on this stage, but the Cubs have been such prohibitive favorites this year that it isn’t a shock. Chicago has opened up with about the same odds to win it all next year, and the next team on the list isn’t even close, with Boston and a few others coming in around 12/1. The Cubs certainly have a chance to repeat, but don’t count on another 103-win season with Cy Young performances from three-fourths of the rotation, or even the same MVP-type numbers from Bryant and Rizzo. The NL Central is down from what it was, but don’t hand next year’s trophy to the Cubbies just yet.