October 25, 2016
Thirteen years ago, this was the kind of matchup every non-partisan baseball fan wanted to see: two franchises that have waited nearly a century for a championship to meet up in the World Series.
But then Alex Gonzalez and Steve Bartman happened at Wrigley Field. And then Aaron “Bleepin’ Boone struck at Yankee Stadium. And the Red Sox (who would win it all the next year) and the Cubs couldn’t fight off the Yankees and Marlins, or their respective troublesome history.
But a matchup that’s almost as good is here in 2016.
The Chicago Cubs have not won a World Series since Theodore Roosevelt was president, in 1908. The last time the Cubs even appeared in a World Series (1945), and the last time the Cleveland Indians won a World Series (1948), Harry Truman was still in office and the Dodgers and Giants were still playing home games in New York City.
Both franchises have waited decades for this, a chance to collect baseball’s biggest prize. But even beyond their collective history, the Cubs and Indians have played an exciting brand of baseball in 2016, which should make for not only a historic but also entertaining World Series.
Cubs fans may have waited 72 years to see their team return to the World Series, but the educated guess here is they won’t have to wait anywhere near as long for their next trip after 2016.
Remember that potent Phillies lineup in ’09, the one that featured current or soon-to-be All-Stars at every position except third base? The one that slashed .258/.334/.447 while hitting 224 home runs and averaged five runs per game? The Cubs lineup is on par with that: .256/.343/.429, 199 homers, 4.99 runs per game. Except there’s one difference between those Cubs and those Phillies: the core of Chicago’s lineup is about five years younger.
Twenty-three-year-old, former first-round pick Javier Baez, who jostled for regular playing time in the regular season, has been the Cubs surprise standout star so far this postseason, hitting .342 with five extra-base hits and a .366 OBP. Kris Bryant, 24, has hit .333 with a .409 OBP and something tells us he won’t finish the 2016 playoffs with just one home run.
But the best thing about a balanced, endless lineup is you don’t have to rely on any one or two guys each night. I’d keep a close eye on Anthony Rizzo (hitting just .225 this postseason, but with two home runs in his last three games) and Dexter Fowler (a .367 OBP in the last two years atop the Cubs lineup) as difference makers in the World Series.
The Indians lineup isn’t anywhere near as deep. And while the Cubs added Kyle Schwarber to their roster with intentions to use him as their DH, Cleveland still has the immortal Michael Martinez on its own postseason roster.
Still, don’t sleep on the Indians bats. Twenty-two-year-old Francisco Lindor (.323, .343 OBP this postseason) has been the most consistent cog in Cleveland’s lineup. But the Indians need the other three spots at the top of their order to play to their potential if they hope to keep up with the Cubs. Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis, and Mike Napoli have hit .172 with a .567 OPS this postseason.
But, as they say, small sample size. That same Tribe trio hit 91 home runs with a .348 OBP and .825 OPS in the regular season. If Cleveland can match the Cubs thunder with timely hitting, they can topple the Series favorites.
Tonight will give baseball fans just the kind of matchup you’d hope to see in a Game 1 as Cubs left-hander Jon Lester spars with Indians right-hander Corey Kluber.
The 30-year-old Kluber, the 2014 American League Cy Young winner and one of two former San Diego Padres prospects, along with Rizzo, starring in the Series, has a 3.01 ERA in the last three seasons. Only seven major league pitchers have a lower ERA in that time span … and yes, one of those pitchers happens to be Lester (2.74). With a 2.50 ERA in 19 career postseason games, Lester probably deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Madison Bumgarner (2.11 ERA in 16 games) when it comes to postseason reputation.
The two things I’m watching in Game 1: Can Kluber, who pitched just five innings in his last start, pitch into the seventh tonight and let the Indians really ride their formidable ‘pen in Game 2 tomorrow? Can Lester limit Indians base runners? Because if they reach, the Indians (AL-best 134 stolen bases and 81.2 percent success rate) are going to run against the guy who can’t properly hold runners.
Because of the latter, I like Cleveland in Game 1. But the Series goes beyond one game and the Cubs rotation is as deep and talented as their lineup. Chicago starters had a MLB-best 2.96 ERA in the regular season; the Indians’ rotation sported a 4.08 ERA, 7th best in baseball.
But Game 2 on Wednesday should be just as fascinating as Game 1 because reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta has been somewhat unpredictable in the postseason. Will he be the guy who threw a shutout in his postseason debut against the Pirates last season … or the guy who’s sported a 5.82 ERA in his four starts since that game?
Meanwhile, the Indians pitching staff seemingly gets stronger as it gets deeper into a game. Just as the Cubs activated Schwarber, the Indians are getting Danny Salazar (3.63 ERA, 9.9 strikeout rate in 55 starts since the beginning of 2015) back onto their roster for the World Series, too.
If Kluber outduels Lester (not impossible), Cleveland could possibly go to a Trevor Bauer-Salazar-Andrew Miller trifecta in Game 2. And Miller has been close to unhittable this postseason (0.00 ERA, .171 opponents OBP, struck out 21 of the 41 batters he’s faced).
Cleveland’s bullpen has a 1.67 ERA (6 ER in 32 1/3 IP) this postseason, with a 0.99 WHIP and .252 opponents OBP. Chicago’s ‘pen has Aroldis Chapman at the end, but is a little more uncertain before it can get to him: 3.53 ERA (14 ER in 35 2/3 IP) this postseason, 1.21 WHIP, .315 opp. OBP.
The Cubs will continue to have the starting pitching advantage when the World Series shifts to Wrigley Field this weekend. They’re sending MLB ERA leader Kyle Hendricks and playoff vet John Lackey to the mound in Games 3 and 4, respectively.
But the advantages of the postseason for Terry Francona and Co. are the automatic off days in the schedule, which allow for more flexibility and better usage of his bullpen. Miller, for example, has appeared in six of the Indians eight postseason games this month – and has pitched multiple innings in all of those appearances.
You have to wonder if the Cubs traded for the wrong Yankees left-hander this summer: Miller is still under contract for two more years (at a very reasonable $9 million per year) while Chapman will file for free agency in less than two weeks.
I don’t know much about the Indians in the years since they won the 1989 pennant under Lou Brown. But even then — and correct me if I’m wrong — Ricky Vaughn, Willie Hayes and Pedro Cerrano didn’t bring home a World Series title. Unless Cleveland plans to sacrifice a live billy goat before Game 1, Harry Doyle is going to have to wait yet another year as the Cubs finally end their World Series drought.
Baseball has been killing the NFL over the past month, and it will continue to do so this week. When Sunday Night Football has its best matchup between two huge markets all year, only people in Philadelphia and Dallas will be watching. That night, the Cubs break the drought at a euphoric Wrigley Field.
Understanding it is somehow the more-talented Cubs’ birthright to win this year (unlike 2003, 1984 or, for that matter, 1969), I think it’s actually the Indians who are on the magic-carpet ride after already dispatching the favored Red Sox and Blue Jays. Francona and Maddon are both winners, although only one of them has actually, you know, won.
Kris Bryant has the sheer power and talent to tie Chase Utley and Reggie Jackson’s record of five home runs in a World Series. Jake Arrieta, who has pitched two no-hitters in his last 38 regular season starts, could easily dominate in Game 2. I’m sure some folks wouldn’t be surprised to see the Indians postseason magic disappear as the Cubs, who won 103 games in the regular season, roll to a sweep.
But wouldn’t it be more poetic for the Cubs to finally get to the World Series only to watch another team (following the Red Sox, White Sox, Giants in the last dozen years) end their own lengthy championship drought? The Indians, who lost in walk-off fashion to the Marlins in the ’97 Series, will celebrate a walk-off win a week from Wednesday when pinch-runner Michael Martinez (who scored the Phillies most recent postseason run) crosses home plate on a two-out single from Coco Crisp to crown Cleveland the city of champions.