Last night occurred the greatest World Series game in modern memory. The good guys won.
My dad used to say “I wouldn’t stand in line to watch Jesus Christ pitch for the save in the 9th inning of the 7th game of the World Series.” (He never indicated whether that statement was conditional on the Cubs being in the World Series. Perhaps he thought that was a set of measure zero, and not because he didn’t believe in the Second Coming.) I guarantee that he would have stood in line for last night’s game, Jesus or no Jesus.
And speaking of The Savior, it looks like Jesus just left Chicago, after having performed a miracle. The Cubs did not make it easy, either in the series as a whole, or in the deciding game. They fell behind 3 games to 1. Then after a dicey win in game 5 and a semi-blowout in game 6, they got a 4 run lead in game 7, only to watch it fall apart with two outs in the 8th. After an agonizing rain delay, they raced out to score two runs in the 10th, and hung on to win. A truly miraculous comeback.
For my part, I was fairly laid back throughout the playoffs. This was, in retrospect, a psychological defense against yet another disappointment. But by the middle innings of game 7, what had appeared a remote prospect only a few days before seemed a real likelihood. I was no longer laid back, but instead hung on every pitch and watched with rising anticipation only to be crestfallen when the Indians tied it in the 8th. I sweated through the bottom half of the 9th, exulted during the top half of the 10th, and then hung on for dear life through a shaky bottom half.
Although I slept in late this morning, I awoke exhausted. I felt like I had played all 10 positions–including DH!–for all 10 innings.
It didn’t have to be that hard. Their defense–which some claim is the best in baseball history–had some breakdowns. I am loath to criticize Joe Maddon, given what the Cubs have achieved under his managing, but some of his moves in the last 2 games put me on edge. I couldn’t understand leaving in Chapman to pitch the 9th inning in game 6 with a 6 run lead. I figured they were very likely to need him in a tighter situation in game 7, and worried about him having little left in the tank on Wednesday after pitching extended stints in consecutive games. And so it was.
I groaned when he removed Lester in the 8th inning of game 7. He had retired the first batter on a routine grounder, struck out the next batter, and the hit he then surrendered was a weak infield grounder. He was still in command–leave him in until the tying run was at the plate, at least. They used to call Sparky Anderson Captain Hook for his haste in yanking pitchers. Madden makes Sparky look like a piker.
Then Chapman’s pitch selection freaked me out. Nothing but fastballs, even though Cleveland was not swinging and missing. I don’t care if you throw 100+: if you don’t change speeds major league hitters will eventually catch up with your fastball, and the Indians did. As my friend Tom Kirkendall pointed out, this might have been an indication of fatigue: tired pitchers are worried about hanging the breaking ball. But I seriously believe that it would have been better to throw an 89 MPH spinner than to throw only fastballs when hitters are sitting on them. (He got strikes on the 3d out in the 8th with his slider, and threw some good ones in the 9th as well.)
At the plate, I was mystified that Heyward–a double play waiting to happen–wasn’t bunting with a runner on first, especially since Maddon is usually fond of the bunt. Then Baez (on his own?) tries to bunt with two strikes and the lead runner on third.
I shudder to think what my blood pressure was at this point.
But all’s well that ends well.
Ben Zobrist drove in the go ahead run on a piece of excellent two strike hitting, and was named series MVP. Other than that hit (which is a big caveat, I know) he didn’t do much, so I don’t think he deserved it. If Chapman had held on, he would have won it in a walkover. But, as we know, he didn’t. I would have given it to Kris Bryant, who hit consistently and played an excellent third base. But he arguably won game seven with his legs: how often do you say that about a third baseman? He scored on a short fly ball to left, and from first on a Rizzo double. Those were not routine runs. They were truly difference makers in the game, but were sort of lost in the extra inning drama. And the smile on Bryant’s face when the game ending ground ball was hit to him will be an enduring memory.
What is perhaps most remarkable about the series is that a very young team came through in the clutch time and again. One would normally expect that a young team–and the Cubs are extremely young–would buckle after falling behind in the series and being on the schneid for the entire middle games, and especially in game 7 after surrendering a decent-sized lead. But they rallied in adversity. I can’t think of any parallel in recent baseball history. You couldn’t expect a veteran team to do what a collection of young players did.
One of the indications of youth throughout the series was a tendency to expand the strike zone, and to refuse to go with the pitch even though it was apparent that the Indians were intent on keeping it away, and even when a single would have been big. But last night, two of the biggest culprits–Contreras and Baez–drove the ball the opposite way on outside pitches and drove in runs, Contreras with a double, Baez with a homer.
When these guys mature and become more disciplined at the plate, the Cubs could have Murderers’ Row II.
I said at the outset that the good guys won. This is not to say that the Indians were bad guys, either in personality or performance. To the contrary. They were worthy and admirable adversaries. They didn’t lose. The Cubs won, and barely. The Indians played well, played hard, and have nothing to hang their heads about.
The Indians’ main weakness was depth in starting pitching. Kluber was excellent, but you can’t expect a pitcher to dominate the same team three times in a week. Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt, but it does tend to breed hits. The Indians’ other deficiency was outfield defense. A slip in right field in game 2. An Alphonse and Gaston routine in game 6 that allowed 2 runs to score. A high throw on the sac fly that Bryant scored on. When in Wrigley, Cleveland outfielders played the wall like it was covered in poison ivy, as if they were channeling old time Cub Lou “The Mad Russian” Novikoff.
“Wait ’til next year” was a recurrent theme in the Pirrong household, and in many other Cub fan households for literally decades. I will look forward to next year, but the waiting is over. After more than a century of futility, they have finally won it all. After years of looking forward to next year, 2016 is a year that all Cubs fans will look back on with fondness, for decades to come, even if success becomes the norm, rather than the extreme exception.
I know that there are many families like mine, for whom the championship came too late for a life-long Cubs fan to witness. I’ve already written about my dad and grandfather. A Naval Academy classmate wrote me that the experience was bittersweet, because his grandparents weren’t around to see it. I know there are many more like us. But I will rejoice not just for me, but for my dad. And my daughters (who have also become avid fans) will not have to regret that their dad never saw the Cubs win the World Series. For that I am deeply grateful.