CHICAGO – For six months at Wrigley Field, the sun beat down and the suds flowed, and the world was awash in possibility, possibility that had so rarely been considered over generations. The little park at the corner of Addison and Clark was the epicenter of the baseball world, and who was having more fun than Chicago Cubs fans?
Sunday night, Wrigley will host its 89th and final baseball game of the year. If the Cubs don’t win it, the phrase this franchise was trying so hard to rid itself of – Wait till next year! – will regain its rightful place in the local lexicon.
The Cleveland Indians’ blitz through October continued Saturday night, and by this point it is obvious that the obstacle with which they must deal doesn’t matter one bit. They thoroughly beat the Cubs in Game 4 of the World Series, 7-2, and they now have a three-games-to-one advantage. There is now, for the Cubs, the unsavory possibility that this unforgettable summer at the 102-year-old ballpark will end with another team dancing across their infield, celebrating a championship on their dirt.
The only team that could do that: these Indians, who have fairly dominated the sport over its most important month. Saturday night, as Cleveland won for the 10th time in 12 postseason games, ace Corey Kluber threw six innings of one-run ball on three days’ rest, Carlos Santana had three hits including a solo homer, and second baseman Jason Kipnis finished things off with a three-run blast in the seventh, one that turned something that resembled a ballgame into a slog-to-the-finish blowout.
The Indians have arrived here, considered the Cubs’ supposed superiority and collectively shrugged. If it’s really “Cleveland against the world,” the world is losing, and badly. In those dozen postseason games, the Indians have scored nearly twice as many runs as their opponents, a 42-22 margin that is dominating, and shows that – if indeed this becomes their first championship since 1948 – it will be well-deserved.
But what of Wrigley, so boisterous all summer, so quiet when even the hint of adversity arises now? The Cubs’ dynamic young lineup has disappeared for long stretches, and now at the worst possible time. In their last nine games, the Cubs have been shut out four times and scored just one run once. Joe Maddon, their manager, openly lamented his team’s undisciplined at-bats in Friday’s 1-0 loss, in which his kids expanded the strike zone.
“I think a lot of it has to do with youth,” Maddon said.
The Indians don’t much care what it has to do with. Saturday, the Cubs ran five pitchers at them, and they scored off the first four. The only time Wrigley has at all been able to loosen its collar in the first World Series games here since 1945 came in the bottom of the first, when an Anthony Rizzo single gave the Cubs a 1-0 lead. That advantage lasted all of six pitches into the second, when Santana crushed a 3-2 fastball from Cubs right-hander John Lackey into the right field seats.
Sit back down, Cubs fans. Button the top button again, and straighten out the collar. The Indians won’t allow for relaxing.
If there can be a key exchange in what became a six-run Cleveland lead, it came in that top of the second, not long after Santana had tied it 1-1. With two outs and a runner on second – there by virtue of Kris Bryant’s errant throw from third – Tyler Naquin, the Indians’ eighth-place hitter, came to the plate. One approach might have been: playoff veteran John Lackey is better than rookie Tyler Naquin, who is hitting .200 in the playoffs. Maddon instead chose to intentionally walk Naquin to get to Kluber, who had just six plate appearances with one hit (and two sacrifice bunts) this year.
The problem: Lackey fell behind Kluber 3-1 and then came with three straight two-seam fastballs. Kluber fouled two of them off, including one grounded hard down the third base line, nearly a double, barely foul. On the fourth straight two-seamer, Kluber hacked again and sent a spinner toward Bryant at third base. Bryant charged, but his throw was both late – Kluber was credited with a single – and, worse, wide. Rizzo knocked it down but he couldn’t pick it up before Lonnie Chisenhall raced around from second to score.
That gave the Indians a 2-1 lead, one that grew to 3-1 on Francisco Lindor’s third-inning single, one that grew to 4-1 on Chisenhall’s sixth-inning sacrifice fly.
This all allowed Kluber to relax, to pitch freely. He is, people sometimes need reminding, the 2014 American League Cy Young winner, and his two-seam fastball, which darts in on left-handers, is one of the best pitches in the game. After he allowed that run in the first, he wasn’t bothered by what amounted to lifeless threats from the Cubs – two on with two outs in the third, a leadoff double from Rizzo in the sixth.
And even though Kipnis’ three-run homer off Travis Wood put the game essentially out of reach in the seventh, Cleveland Manager Terry Francona went with what got him here, turning to lefty Andrew Miller in the seventh with a six-run lead. If the Cubs fans weren’t already stunned into silence, maybe the night’s most surprising development would have been that someone actually scored off Miller. Dexter Fowler’s solo homer is now the only blemish against Miller in 17 postseason innings.
So it left Wrigley, on an unseasonably warm night, with winter in reach. In the eighth inning, as a means of firing up the crowd, the behemoth video board in left-center field showed highlights of the Cubs’ ninth-inning comeback win that beat San Francisco and clinched the division series. The 41,706 in attendance seemed not to pay attention, or if they did, barely reacted.
Wait till next year? For now, it’s wait till Sunday night. What those fans know is that it will be the old yard’s last game of the year. What’s to be determined is whether another team ends up in a human pig pile at its center, exorcising the kind of demons the Cubs wanted to purge themselves.