One Night in Cleveland

BY BOZZA

One night in Cleveland, we were all reminded again of the majesty of sport. This night, the seventh of an enthralling series of games simultaneously, ended Baseball’s longest ever championship drought, and added another devastating chapter to the newly minted longest standing wait. The Chicago Cubs win after extra innings in the deciding Game 7, finally laid to rest talk of the team’s ‘Billy Goat Curse’ but did we see the beginning of another for the long-suffering Cleveland fans?

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Even after the Cubs had successfully navigated the tightrope walk of recovering from a 3-1 deficit to force a Game 7, it was somewhat appropriate that it would take another 4+ hours of edge of the seat riding, sweaty palm, nerve wringing drama, before their 108-year long Championship drought could finally end. There was poetry in the fact that they could only get their hands on the Commissioner’s Trophy once again after enduring the surrender of leads twice then, after leaving the potential winning run on third base in the ninth, a 17-minute rain delay before extra innings could commence.

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Don’t let the romance and emotion surrounding the narrow victory fool you though, this was a most deserving Championship win.

Only 4 years removed from a 100-loss season, after savvy trades and recruiting, Chicago entered this season as most pundits’ tip for the pennant.

Rather than a burden, much like a diamond is produced by pressure, the Cubs produced a rare season under the dual weights of history and expectation. With a young and enthusiastic team, heavy bats and a stingy bullpen, the Cubs dominated the 2016 season. On the back of a run differential of 252 they blasted their way to a Major League leading 103 wins from their 162-game schedule.

Although a 100-win season is widely considered the mark of a great season, when home-field advantage for a Championship deciding series is determined by the result of a hit and giggle All-Star Game, it is fair to say that it guarantees a team nothing but extra pressure when the post season rolls around. Something borne out in the knowledge that of the last 25 teams to pass the mark prior to the Cubs, only two went on to claim the Commissioner’s Trophy too.

Falling behind 3-1 in the World Series, the Cubs would need to survive 3 sudden death games if they were to avoid the same fate. With two of the remaining games on the road, they faced odds that no team had overcome for 37 years. It is fair to say at this stage, their chances appeared unlikely at best.

Where does a team look for inspiration when facing insurmountable odds? Well the Cubs found theirs in the greatest underdog story of all, Rocky Balboa. When the players arrived at Wrigley Field and made their way into the club rooms, they were greeted by TVs showing movies from the Rocky saga, and first baseman Anthony Rizzo shadow boxing, in his jocks. His message was, apparently, that the Cubs needed to be prepared to ‘go the distance’. The unconventional motivation attempts had the desired effect, the Cubs ensured the Series would return to Cleveland with a nail-biting 3-2 win. Then, in Game 6, they unleashed their full attacking force for the first time in the World Series, recording in a 9-3 win.

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Waiting for the resurgent Cubs in Game 7 was Indians Pitcher Corey Kluber. The 2016 All-Star had tormented Chicago in Games 1 and 4 and was looking to become the first pitcher since 1968 to win three starts in one World Series. A lead off a Dexter Fowler Home-Run to start the match would have given the Cubs early confidence. When Javier Baez ended Kluber’s night with a homer in the fifth for a 4-1 Chicago lead, it appeared that they may well have landed the killer blow. It was an illusion though, this contest still had more twists and turns than a mountain stage of the Tour de France.

The bottom of the fifth and top of the sixth innings ended up being all about a journeyman 39-year-old back-up catcher playing his last game in the Major League. David Ross, or ‘Grandpa Rossy’ to his Cubs teammates, after spending 15 years in the Big Leagues at 7 different clubs, owed his position on the Cubs roster to his relationship with pitcher Jon Lester. The pair had played together on the World Series winning Boston Red Sox team and Ross was in effect Lester’s personal catcher. So, with the Cubs leading 5-1 at the bottom of the fifth, manager Joe Maddon looked to his bullpen to relieve starter Kyle Hendricks with two outs and a runner on first. By summoning the left-armer Lester, his mate Ross was also brought into the fray.

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Indians slugger Jason Kipnis gave Ross his first assignment for the innings, his short dribbling hit calling on the veteran catcher to chase it down and relay the ball to Rizzo at first for the out. Grandpa Rossy missed his mark though and instead of giving Rizzo a chance to make the play at first, the errant throw meant Carlos Santana, who was at first, made his way to third and Kipnis advanced untroubled to second.

This error was soon to be compounded two pitches later, when Ross, unable to react in time to a bounced pitch, is only spared a baseball to the face by his protective equipment. In the ensuing chaos, Ross stumbles as he sets off in pursuit of the ricochet ball and Santana advances home. The delay in retrieving the wild pitch, and some excellent base running, sees Kipnis also score from second base. Lester recovers to strike Francisco Lindor out to end the innings before any further damage is sustained. However, in the space of five turbulent minutes, David Ross had played an unfortunate starring role in the halving of the Cubs lead.

The atmosphere at Progressive Field is electric as the Cleveland crowd, mainly subdued since Fowler’s first innings blast, again find their voice. Into this maelstrom, fresh from his nightmarish introduction in the bottom of the fifth, walks David Ross with bat in hand. As the great Roy ‘Tin Cup’ McAvoy once said ‘When a defining moment comes along, you define the moment … or the moment defines you’. With one swing of his bat, becoming the oldest man to hit a home run in a World Series, Ross defined his moment and took the Cubs out to a seemingly commanding 6-3 lead. Equally defining was the unique way Ross celebrated his feat, I have no words, watch for yourself here. In six devastating innings, the Cubs had taken Indians Corey Kluber and Andrew Miller for more runs than the pair had conceded in the whole 2016 Post Season prior.

Lester, in the unusual role of reliever, continued to scythe through the Indians batting line up. With each out, the Cubs inched closer to the victory they had spent over a century craving. Then, four outs away from the promised land, Joe Maddon played his trump card. A controversial mid-season acquisition was about to deliver the ultimate dividend.

In July, the Cubs welcomed closer Aroldis Chapman to the Windy City after agreeing to an exchange with the New York Yankees. The 28-year old Cuban, unquestionably one of the best closers in baseball and owner of perhaps its heaviest fastball, was a massive addition to the Chicago roster but off-field issues brought his signing into question. Adding Chapman, the first player suspended under Major League Baseball’s Domestic Violence Policy, seemingly contradictory to the Cubs long held position that “character matters”. The hulking number 54 soon represented a living, breathing moral conundrum for Cubs fans to wrestle with each and every time he took to the mound to ice another victory for their team.

So it was again, when he was summoned by Maddon, and appeared certain to be the man on the mound when the Cubs closed out the game. It was for this very situation that Chicago had made the unpalatable trade back in July. For a closer who had only conceded 3 earned runs in 28 regular season games for the club, defending a 3-run margin was a relatively simple assignment. It now seemed a foregone conclusion that the Cubs would win but in two pitches their fans were reminded that curses aren’t that easily broken.

Lester had taken care of two of the outs required in the bottom of the eighth, but also left a runner on base for the seemingly invincible Chapman to deal with as he went in search for the third. The former Yankee went to work and sent speed guns into melt down, breaking the 100-mile an hour a mark, as he peppered Indian batter Brandon Guyer with speed ball after speed ball. Guyer, nicknamed la piñata for his knack of getting on base after being hit by pitches, wisely remained out of the line of fire in this at bat. Biding his time, however, he did strike a decisive blow, bringing Lester’s base runner home by driving a Chapman heater for a double to left-centre.

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Rajai Davis stepped up to the plate determined to prevail in his personal battle with the Chicago closer. Chapman had not conceded a home run in Cub colours and even Davis himself, in his 39th game since last homering in the majors, would not have dreamed that the 2-run deficit would be erased by one swing of his bat.

Then as quickly as you could say M. Night Shyamalan, Davis did just that. To the joy of the Cleveland fans, including a flexing LeBron James and topless J.R Smith, a chest pumping Davis rounded the bases to be mobbed by his team-mates in celebratory scenes a little more orthodox than those of their opponents a few innings earlier. Despite having blown the save, Chapman was able to retire the next batter and ensure the score remained tied after eight innings.

As rain began to fall, neither side troubled the scorers in the ninth. Chapman preventing a walk off Cleveland victory by sitting the Indians in order after the Cubs left a go ahead run on base at the top of the innings. So, this game, seemingly in Chicago’s keeping only minutes earlier, would become only the fourth Game 7 in World Series history to be decided in extra innings.

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Before extra innings could commence, the originally light rain fall became too heavy for the game to continue. For both sets of fans, so close to the end of a painful Championship wait, it must have felt like a special kind of Cleveland Water Torture. It seemed an especially cruel and unusual punishment for both teams. The Cubs, who had seemed within touching distance earlier in this game, were now as close to defeat as victory and Indians fans now had the opportunity to contemplate the pain of their Extra Innings Game 7 defeat in the World Series of 1997.

After 17 painful minutes, or an opportunity for Indians fans to be reassured by Split Enz’s iconic ‘History Never Repeats’ five and a bit times, play resumed.

A tactical battle broke out at the top of the 10th. Pinch runners, sacrifice fly balls and intentional walks all on display as Cleveland attempted to counter Chicago’s efforts to score by refusing to give the bats they considered dangerous a chance to hit. As managers Terry Francona and Joe Maddon turned the contest into a chess match, Ben Zobrist, looking to become just the fourth man to win consecutive World Series rings with different teams, stepped up to the plate looking to continue his amazing series. Appropriately, after Cleveland pitched around Rizzo to put Zobrist on the plate, the 2015 Royals World Series Winner got on base from his 10th hit for the series and brought Albert Almora home to regain the lead.

Unfazed by the results of his earlier attempts to advance the batter, Francona gambled it better to pitch at Miguel Montero with loaded bases than pitch at Addison Russell with only two on base, and walked Russell. As it had with Zobrist, Francona’s lesser of two evils managed to bring in another Cubs run. Now trailing by two, with loaded bases and only one out, Cleveland were rescued from the clear and present danger with its bullpen taking care of business without further score.

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The Indians now had only 3 outs with which to work their way back into the game and the series. Efforts that were aided by the news that a man with 182 career saves had been replaced by a man with 2. Aroldis Chapman’s World Series was over, the closer replaced by Carl Edwards Jr.

The Indians answered one of their opponent’s extra innings runs when eight innings hero Davis scoring an RBI and sending Maddon back to his drawing board.  Edwards was removed and replaced by Michael Montgomery. Davis’ late innings heroics were consigned to a losing cause when Montgomery caused a soft ground ball from the last Indian batter. Kris Bryant intercepted the ball, allowed himself a broad and joyous grin as the moment struck him, and fired the ball to Rizzo at first base. After two World Wars, 17 US Presidents and the Titanic was built, sunk, lost and found again, the longest wait in the Major League was over.

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After 10 torturous innings, and having been put the through the ringer one last time, Cubs fans could finally savour the sweet taste of victory. No more talk of lovable losers or whether a goat should have been allowed entry to Wrigley Field 70-odd years ago, it was time, simply, to party like it was 1908. The end of an unprecedented wait deserves an unprecedented celebration. When their conquering heroes returned to the Windy City, 5-million Chicaguans welcomed them home. It has been described as the largest ever gathering in the United States and the 7th largest gathering of people in the history of the world.

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As Chicago began their 12-months as reigning champions, Cleveland were left to rue another lost opportunity in what is now the longest drought in the Major League. In the end the Cubs dominant batting line up was able, after seven titanic battles, to wear down an Indian bullpen ravaged by injuries to two of their best three starting pitchers. However, for those a little more superstitious, there is a more creative explanation.

The city of Cleveland celebrated their first major sporting championship when their Cavaliers, led by LeBron James, won the NBA Finals. The victory achieved in seven games after the Cav’s recovered from a 3-1 deficit against the Golden State Warriors. In the months that followed Cleveland fans had taken great joy in mocking the fate that befell the Warriors. The high-water mark on this ridicule came as Lebron celebrated Halloween, which fell in the middle of the World Series. One of his decorations was a skeleton sitting at a set of drums decorated with ‘3-1 Lead’ written on it ominously. Had something meant to be a reminder of a Golden State nightmare instead become an Indians jinx?

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Some might scoff at this, but if the entry or non-entry of a goat can be discussed 70-odd years later, stranger things have happened.

 

 

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