In the era of regional covers, making the front page of Sports Illustrated isn’t what it used to be. Still, there were the Cubs, fronting SI’s 2016 season preview issue, appropriately enough for a young team that had won 97 games in 2015, made the NLCS, and appeared to be on the rise. On April 8, Chicago lost in walkoff fashion to Arizona — the only game out of the first nine the Cubs failed to win, and the one day in the standings that prevented them from going wire-to-wire. Along the way they built a lead in the NL Central that swelled to a season high of 19 games and put four players in the starting lineup in the All-Star Game. They got an issue of ESPN: The Magazine to themselves and earned exuberant features on some aspect of the team or other in every sports publication in the Western world.
And now, thanks to a 5–0 win over Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers in Game 6 of the NLCS, the Cubs are going to the World Series for the first time since 1945. A moment that the weight of historical precedent made to seem impossible has somehow come — exactly when, where, and how everyone expected it.
It took two pitches for things to start going the Cubs’ way, as a lunging tag by Javier Báez erased Andrew Toles’s first-pitch single off Kyle Hendricks. Then, in the bottom of the inning, Kershaw gave up — through no fault of his own — the margin from which Los Angeles never recovered: The inning began with a Dexter Fowler blooper to right, followed by an RBI single by Kris Bryant on a fastball that could not have been more perfectly placed on the outside corner, and a booted fly ball in left that Toles will no doubt take to his grave. And then it was over.
Shame on anyone who calls this game, or series, or season “epic.” Great epics have drama, struggle, doubt of outcome. When, en route to 103 regular-season wins, were the Cubs in peril? Both the Giants and Dodgers pushed the Cubs in individual games this postseason, but when did they push Chicago to the brink? In an epic, Kershaw pitches a shutout in Game 6, and the Cubs eke out a slim Game 7 victory off an exhausted Kenley Jansen, who walks off the mound dolefully to Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” (if Martin Scorsese’s directing this movie) or fireworks and a six-minute post-rock crescendo (if it’s Peter Berg), as the Cubs dogpile in the foreground.
But this cakewalk of a season concluded with a cakewalk of a game, in which the next 21 Dodgers after leadoff man Toles — whether due to fatigue or nerves or the sheer force of Hendricks’s skill — failed to record a hit.
For the 2016 Cubs, “adversity” is Kyle Schwarber blowing out his knee in the third game of the season (they didn’t miss him), or Jason Heyward hitting .230/.306/.325 (ditto), or the Fox broadcast crew invoking Bartman and the Billy Goat up until the very end of Game 6. The toughest thing about the 2016 Cubs will be the ambivalence surrounding the man who got the last five outs of the NLCS, Aroldis Chapman, and whether this team could kill the goat only by selling their soul to the Devil.
The Cubs are closer now to a title than they’ve been in 71 years. The only thing standing in their way is a Cleveland Indians team decimated by injuries, representing a city that, until four months ago, was defined by a legacy of futility that Cubs fans — many of whom cheered on Jordan’s Bulls or Toews’s Blackhawks or Payton’s Bears — could hardly imagine. Never mind that those Indians, whom FiveThirtyEight consider almost a two-to-one underdog, just treated the Red Sox and Blue Jays the way a deboning machine treats a chicken, or that they’ve essentially blocked off the last four innings of every game as a no-scoring zone, or that if anyone can make Jon Lester pay for his inability to throw to the bases, it’s Coco Crisp and Rajai Davis.
Never mind that — it’s going to be a walkover, just like everything else has been.