Run for the Ring: Game 7
The greatest baseball game ever played.
The most important four-and-a-half hours in Cubs history.
A game with so many twists and turns, so many unbelievable moments that everybody would scoff and chalk it up as “unrealistic” if they saw the same sequence of events play out in a movie.
Heck, the game even ended with a player carried off the field on the shoulders of his teammates, a la Rudy.
Let’s set the scene:
It was unseasonably warm in Cleveland, reaching a high of 77 degrees with sunny conditions earlier in the day on Nov. 2. By the time the game started at 8:02 p.m. local time, it was still 73 degrees with only a slight breeze.
In other words: Absolutely perfect baseball conditions, though that obviously changed as the night wore on.
The Cubs and Indians were set for the most high-stakes Major League Baseball game the world has ever seen. These were the teams with the two longest current championship droughts – the Cubs at 108 years, the Indians at 68 years. The Cubs hadn’t even earned a trip to the World Series since 1945, while the Indians lost both the 1995 and 1997 Fall Classics.
The Indians had jumped out to a 3-1 lead in the series while the Cubs’ bats once again went into one of their October silent spells. But Kris Bryant’s homer to lead off the 4th inning in Game 5 woke the offense up and – with a day off in between Games 5 and 6 – the Cubs were carrying some momentum into Cleveland.
All the pressure was off the Cubs and had been placed squarely on the Indians. The Cubs had just used their battle-tested veteran Jon Lester to win Game 5, but they also had Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks lined up for Games 6 and 7. With the off-day, the bullpen was rested and it gave Lester another chance to catch his breath after a gutsy performance.
Between all that and the warm, hitter-friendly weather, it was playing perfectly into the Cubs’ favor.
Game 6 proved that, as the Indians fell victim to the pressure immediately and the Cubs lineup suddenly reemerged as the same relentless group that won 103 games in the regular season.
Luckily for the Cubs, there was no off-day between Games 6 and 7, allowing them to carry the momentum from one night to the next.
As managers Joe Maddon and Terry Francona got ready for the pressure-packed, winner-take-all game, here’s how they set their lineups:
Dexter Fowler – CF
Kyle Schwarber – DH
Kris Bryant – 3B
Anthony Rizzo – 1B
Ben Zobrist – LF
Addison Russell – SS
Willson Contreras – C
Jason Heyward – RF
Javy Báez – 2B
Kyle Hendricks – P
Carlos Santana – DH
Jason Kipnis – 2B
Francisco Lindor – SS
Mike Napoli – 1B
José Ramírez – 3B
Lonnie Chisenhall – RF
Rajai Davis – CF
Coco Crisp – LF
Roberto Pérez – C
Corey Kluber – P
Maddon kept his lineup exactly the same as Game 6, while Francona only switched up his centerfielders, inserting Davis to replace Naquin, whose miscommunication led to a pair of 1st-inning runs the night before.
Four pitches into the game, the Cubs already had a lead as Fowler sent Kluber’s 94 mph fastball into the bleachers. Kluber was operating on short rest and making his third start of the World Series after winning Game 4 just four nights earlier.
The Indians tied the game in the bottom of the 3rd when Santana drove Crisp in with a single. The Cubs responded immediately when Russell hit a sacrifice fly to plate Bryant and Contreras followed with an RBI double in the top of the 4th.
They tacked on from there with 2 more runs in the 5th (a Javy homer and a Rizzo RBI single) before the wheels started to come off a bit as the Indians were hitting Hendricks hard, but right at Cubs defenders.
Maddon opted to go against his pregame plan and brought Lester in from the bullpen in a “dirty” inning with a runner on base in the 5th. Lester proceeded to give up a single to Kipnis and then threw a wild pitch that caromed off David Ross’ mask and allowed 2 runs to score. On another night, that moment might’ve been classified as a “Cubbie Occurrence,” but this was not one of those nights.
Ross immediately rebounded by hammering a 2-strike fastball from Indians relief ace Andrew Miller over the center field fence to recoup 1 of the runs given up the previous half-inning.
Things stayed that way for a while, as Lester battled and got the ball to closer Aroldis Chapman in the 8th inning, departing after a 2-out single to Ramírez. As Maddon found out during the regular season, Chapman was of the breed of closers who preferred to work only 1 inning at a time.
But plans change in the playoffs and Maddon had been riding Chapman hard as the only trusted option out of the Cubs bullpen the longer the postseason wore on. That meant Chapman had thrown 62 pitches in the previous 2 games (3 days). Who knows how much that extra workload truly impacted Chapman or affected how familiar the Indians hitters had become with him, but the Cleveland lineup greeted Chapman rudely in the 8th.
Brandon Guyer doubled to drive home Ramírez. After a long battle, Davis smacked Chapman’s 7th pitch of the at-bat off the railing in left field at Progressive Park, tying the game with one of the most unlikely homers in postseason history. Indians fans were delirious, Cubs fans – who have had their share of living through excruciating pain – were speechless.
This wasn’t Lindor or Napoli or Santana – the Indians’ big boppers. This was Rajai Davis, he of 62 homers throughout his entire 1,448-game career. Prior to 2016, he had never hit more than 8 homers in a season (he hit 12 in ‘16). And it came off Chapman, who had surrendered only 2 longballs all season and has allowed homers at a rate of 0.5 per 9 innings throughout his career.
We all know how the rest of the story played out – the two teams remained tied until the 10th inning, with a 17-minute rain delay coming on after the 9th. And, while that 17 minutes was barely enough time for me to take my laptop from the outdoor auxiliary press box into the auxiliary media workroom and try to wrap my head around what just happened, it was the perfect amount of time for Heyward to call all the players into the weight room and deliver the speech that would change the course of history.
Looking back on it, what stuck out to me the most were the most classic “what if” baseball situations. Zobrist’s game-winning hit was struck well, but it was on the ground and not that close to the foul line. If Ramírez was playing closer to the bag, it might’ve been hit right at him. If Bryan Shaw’s 2-seamer to Zobrist was located where he intended to throw it (more in on the hands to align with how the defense was set up), the swing may very well have resulted in an inning-ending double play.
What if Schwarber wasn’t able to make a miraculous recovery? What if Albert Almora Jr. didn’t have a moment of clarity and thought to tag up at first base on a deep fly ball (you hardly ever see baseball players do that, even in the situation of a winning run)? What if Maddon had utilized Almora earlier in the game as a pinch-runner instead of Chris Coghlan? What if the rain delay had lasted longer than 17 minutes or didn’t even occur at all?
What if the Indians did not intentionally walk Russell to bring up Miguel Montero with the bases loaded to drive in the ever-important insurance run?
For all of Maddon’s moves in the game that were criticized, what if he had handled his catchers differently? Carrying three backstops on a postseason roster is – in itself – abnormal, but utilizing all three in the same game is even more rare. Yet Maddon handled it seamlessly and each of the three catchers drove in a run while simultaneously managing their pitchers through tough moments.
Of course, that could all be said the other way: What if Davis had struck out instead of hitting that unlikely homer? What if the ball didn’t bounce off Ross’ facemask so awkwardly that it led to 2 runs coming in on a wild pitch?
That’s just the way baseball works. Sometimes, it’s your day and the ball bounces your way and sometimes it doesn’t.
On this night, the ball bounced the Cubs’ way just enough.
In this season, the Cubs had the perfect amount of baseball luck.
For one year, for one series, for one game, all the talk of Cubbie Occurrences and black cats and curses and billy goats and Bartman were obsolete.
For once, the Cubs had come up on the right side of the coin.
They were World Champions.