The Cleveland Indians are one win away from their first World Championship in 68 years, and everybody still seems to need a secret ingredient or magic bullet explanation for how this is possible—an “X factor” that could enable a humble farm boy like Luke Skywalker to take down the Deathstar with one shot. The simple truth, of course, is that the Indians have thoroughly and unequivocally out-pitched, out-fielded, out-run, out-coached, and yes, even out-hit the Chicago Cubs—just as they did the heavily-favored Red Sox and Blue Jays. Much has and will be said about Tito Francona’s incomparable “button pushing” and the Swiss Army utilization of Andrew Miller. But make no mistake—the better team is winning so far, and “the force” hasn’t been required.
Tribe, Kluber Club the Cubs
One night after surviving an incredibly intense 1-0 futbol match against baseball’s best offense and the NL’s ERA king, Cleveland entered Saturday’s Game 4 at Wrigley Field with a straight up Fonzian coolness—confident, laid back, and unfazed by the Carnivale-meets-Halloween atmosphere going on in and around the ballpark. This transferred directly into a 7-2 beatdown of the reeling Cubbies, who—by contrast—seemed to feel the vise grip of the moment. For all the boundless talent a roster full of 23 year-old studs presents, Chicago’s youth is also, potentially, its Achilles heel. Compared with the intimidation factor of wise old warlocks like Miguel Cabrera and David Ortiz, the baby-faced Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Addison Russell (and to a lesser extent Anthony Rizzo) are still green enough to get outfoxed by a good game plan. I suppose you could apply the same logic to Francisco Lindor, but his .467 average in the series suggests otherwise.
In their defense, the Cubs hitters did come in with a clever new strategy of their own against Tribe ace Corey Kluber on Saturday. Borrowing from the playbook of the Kansas City Royals, they seemed determined to take a more aggressive approach and prevent Kluber from spinning the deep counts that had resulted in 9 strikeouts in Game 1. Unfortunately for them, Kluber, Mickey Callaway, and Roberto Perez anticipated this potential adjustment and devised a counter-scheme that was quickly implemented. Basically, despite the utter dominance Corey had showcased with his two-seam fastball on Tuesday, he switched things up and leaned almost entirely on breaking stuff this time around, frustrating the Cub hitters who were pressing to jump on early fastballs that never came.
Kluber did surrender a bloop double to Dexter Fowler and a bloop RBI single to Rizzo in the first inning, giving the Wrigley faithful their first World Series run in 71 years. But unlike the previous 12 postseason games, the team that scored first didn’t laugh last this time.
The Swing That Silenced ‘Em
Years from now, we’re likely to remember Jason Kipnis’ three-run homer in the seventh inning as this night’s big moment—the historic death blow. But for the sake of posterity, let it be known here and now that the actual key swing of the night belonged—as it so often does—to Carlos Santana.
In the top of the second inning, just minutes after that aforementioned Rizzo RBI sent the Wrigley crowd into a tizzy, Santana worked a 3-2 count against John Lackey, who’s been re-animated for yet another postseason. Before the payoff pitch, the crowd rose to its feet once more, looking to keep the forward momentum going with a Lackey punchout. The energy in Wrigley was decidedly positive / upbeat / hopeful. Then, within seconds, it was gone. Santana absolutely destroyed a tailing fastball, through a strong wind, into the right field bleachers. The game was suddenly tied 1-1; Francona’s decision to ride Carlos and bench Mike Napoli seemed instantly brilliant; and for all intents and purposes, the electricity went out in Wrigley, never to return.
Kluber Takes an Uber
Corey Kluber certainly didn’t give the celebrity-filled audience many opportunities to reboot, either (though poor Vince Vaughan tried his best). Despite working with a teacup sized strike zone, the artist formerly known as Klubot went six strong once again, giving up just the one run on five hits and striking out six. His 0.89 ERA through his first five playoff starts is the best statistical beginning to a postseason career for a starting pitcher in MLB history.
And did I mention he also had one of the biggest at-bats of the game? In a feat no less impressive than that of Joe Buck’s beloved Kyle Schwarber, Kluber—who doesn’t even own a bat—somehow battled Lackey deep into the count during the Tribe’s second inning rally, eventually chopping a ball to third that led to the first of two Kris Bryant errors on the night, and a 2-1 Cleveland lead.
There is nothing “underdog” or “smoke and mirrors” about Corey Scott Kluber.
The only reason Kluber doesn’t have the best start to a postseason career by any pitcher in history, of course, is because of his teammate Andrew Miller, who had yet to allow a run over 23.1 career innings until last night. And this brings us to our one and only Question Mark Moment of Game 4.
After Kipnis connected on his three-run bomb off of Travis Wood, the Indians suddenly had a 7-1 lead. Logically, this situation would lead one to strongly consider leaving the #MillerTime bullet in the chamber and utilize, say, Mike Clevinger, Ryan Merritt, or even just your standard McAllister or Manship to try and wrap up the game. If one of those guys got in anything remotely close to real trouble, you could then go to Miller if need be.
Instead, Terry Francona—whose infallibility scale is reaching pontiff territory this month—opted to run Miller out for not just the seventh inning, but the eighth, as well. This one is a bit hard to understand. While you can certainly get behind the idea of stepping on the Cubs’ necks with the lanky assassin, a six-run gap was more than enough room to at least TRY letting another guy get some work in. If Manship comes in and walks two guys, then, okay, go to Miller. But why double up on Miller in a blowout and potentially make him unavailable (or at least a bit ragged) for a closeout game on Sunday? I get focusing on the here-and-now, but this seemed unnecessary.
In any case, when the usage of a relief pitcher in a five-run win is your major bone to pick with a manager, things are probably going pretty well. And a 3-1 lead in the World Series with home field advantage is, indeed, a pretty good thing.
Fun Fact: The Indians and Cavs have won as many games in the past five days (6) as the Browns have since Halloween of 2014.
North Sider Perspective
Though I didn’t pony up for tickets to Game 4, I did walk to Wrigley from my home in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago and soaked up the crazy scene for a couple hours on Saturday before the game. Since I have lived in the area for the better part of a decade, I do have empathy and fondness for the Cubs and their fans. Their misery and insecurity right now is all too familiar for any Clevelander who’s watched the Browns blow a two-score lead late in a fourth quarter. That being said, for every hardcore legitimate Cubs fan out there, there are another 500 who couldn’t pick Kris Bryant out of a lineup (Bryant actually famously drove a Lyft car around the city as a stunt last year, and had to inform some passengers in Cubs gear who he was). As any White Sox fan will tell you, the baseball people convene on the South Side, while “happy hour” is held at Wrigley.
It’s semi-true. Wrigleyville, while it has its romantic charm in some spots, is largely a cesspool of frat bars and douchebaggery. And within the “friendly confines” of Wrigley itself, the majority of fans in attendance on any given night in July are there more to drink or join in a work party than to track Addison Russell’s plate discipline. Even last night, after suffering a horribly devastating defeat, there was a huge crowd of Cubbie fans smiling and dancing for the Fox cameras during the postgame show. Would this scene look the same outside Progressive Field after a similar back-breaking loss? Maybe. I’m certainly not going to argue that the Indians’ current fan base isn’t littered with casual bandwagoners, too. But it’s been a reputation of the Cubs faithful for a long time now. And it makes it perhaps a little easier to watch them lose.
So, it is possible the Indians flip the Cavs script and go full Warriors over the next four days? Well, with Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, and Kyle Hendricks set to pitch. . . sure, it’s possible. There is a weird confidence with this Indians team, though, that doesn’t feel like Cleveland teams of the past. No matter how much the national narrative continues to focus on how surprising this club’s dominant run has been, no team wins 10 out of 12 playoff games on luck or grit alone. These guys have created something greater than the sum of its parts, perhaps, and the genuine friendships between the players is almost heartbreakingly appealing—a much needed antidote to a soul-crushing election season. But again, let’s recognize the truth about the 2016 Cleveland Indians. They’re really good! And most of us knew they were. Would they be even better with Carlos Carrasco and Michael Brantley? Sure. But are they good enough to win a championship without them? That’s not even a question anymore.
Kip Apes the Babe
You may be aware that Jason Kipnis’s home run was the first three-run shot in a World Series game at Wrigley since George Herman Ruth in 1932. Well, in the same game Ruth hit that three-run dinger in the first inning, he also hit a far more famous tie-breaking bomb in the fifth—the supposed “called shot” home run in which, legend says, Ruth pointed to center field before swatting a moon-shot to the very spot he’d indicated. Well, here is the original Chicago Tribune account of that moment, where we can see very plainly just how bogus that whole myth actually is.
“The tie-breaking second homer of the Babe’s probably will go down as one of the classics of baseball razzing.
“When Babe came up in the fifth, the Cubs were feeling pretty pert. They had come from three runs behind to tie the score. They scented victory on dear old Wrigley Field. It looked like one of those old August rough houses was in the offing. Yes, the Cubs were very peppery when Mr. Ruth went to bat with the score tied in the fifth.
“The Cub bench jockeys came out of the dugout to shout at Ruth. And Ruth shouted right back. [Pitcher Charley] Root got a strike past Babe, and did those Cub bench jockeys holler and hiss! After a couple of wide ones, Root whizzed another strike past the great man. More hollering and hissing and no small amount of personal abuse.
“Ruth held up two fingers, indicating the two strikes in umpire fashion. Then he made a remark about spotting the Cubs those two strikes. Well, it seems that Charley Root threw another good one. Mr. Ruth smacked the ball right on the nose and it traveled ever so fast. You know that big flag pole just to the right of the scoreboard beyond center field? Well that’s 436 feet from the home plate. Ruth’s drive went past that flag pole and hit the box office at Waveland and Sheffield avenues.
“Ruth resumed his oratory the minute he threw down his bat. He bellowed every foot of the way around the bases, accompanying derisive roarings with wild and eloquent gesticulations. George Herman Ruth always enjoys a homer under any circumstances, but it is doubtful if he ever rocked one that gave him the satisfaction that accompanied that second one yesterday.” –Chicago Tribune, October 2, 1932
A Few More Images from My Brief Wanderings ‘Round Wrigley Before Game 4