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The Cubs Aren’t Dead Yet, But They’ve Been Pushed to the Edge

Chicago raced to an early lead, then Cleveland stormed back to take a 3–1 lead in the World Series. Now the Cubs have been cornered — and anything less than perfection would spell the end.

AP Images
AP Images

If you look at it from a certain angle, a baseball stadium looks like a mouth. In the first inning of Game 4 of the World Series, Wrigley Field looked and sounded like the snarling, gaping jaws of a predator, ready to swallow the visiting Indians, who had baited the bear one too many times. The Wrigley crowd wasn’t humbled by a 1–0 loss in Game 3 — instead, defeat (perhaps aided by an early evening cold snap that gave the air a little more bite than Friday) made the fans grow louder and feistier than ever.

But even though the Cubs took a 1–0 first-inning lead on an RBI single by Anthony Rizzo, they then did something no team had done since the divisional round: They relinquished it and fell behind. Cleveland scored seven straight runs over the game’s next six innings to take a 3–1 series edge and push the heavily favored Cubs to the brink of elimination.

The Wrigley crowd’s blood fever lasted only an inning before the Indians struck back through a Carlos Santana solo home run. Later in the top of the second, after Chicago starter John Lackey intentionally walked Tyler Naquin to face Corey Kluber with two outs, the Cleveland ace worked an eight-pitch at-bat. It culminated in an infield single, forcing an errant throw by Kris Bryant that allowed Lonnie Chisenhall to score the go-ahead run.

AP images
AP images

Like so many other games the Indians have led early, that was it. Lackey allowed another run in the top of the third, then Mike Montgomery allowed one in the sixth before Travis Wood surrendered the coup de grace, a three-run home run by Jason Kipnis that put Cleveland up 7–1 before the stretch. We could nitpick a couple of Bryant’s throws, or Cubs manager Joe Maddon’s insistence on trusting the middle innings of a must-win game to the likes of Wood and Justin Grimm while his opposite number, Terry Francona, has been wringing every possible inning out of Andrew Miller for weeks.

You could say that Maddon failed to do everything he could have to put out the fire, but better managing would only have been palliative — Cleveland has allowed just 22 runs in 12 postseason games this fall, offering its opponent a margin of error that’s too small to work with. Perhaps the very ease with which the Cubs have arrived at this point makes the danger seem less real, but from this point, there’s no time to give players rope: The Cubs will have all winter to stew over anything less than a perfect performance henceforth.

And you could feel that in the ballpark, that if Chicago couldn’t get to Kluber early — itself no easy feat — that the bullpen axis of Miller and Cody Allen wouldn’t crack in time for the Cubs to make a game of it. That’s why Santana’s home run, which erased that one-run lead — that lifeline for a Cubs team that had just taken a body blow the night before — was so devastating. It’s also why Kluber’s unlikely two-out RBI single staggered the crowd.

Kluber, starting on short rest for the second time this postseason, wasn’t as dominant as he was in his Game 1 start. He was still outstanding, though, blanking the Cubs for the last five innings of Saturday’s start. Kluber pitched out of a two-on, two-out jam in the third, then worked around a leadoff double by Rizzo in the sixth, and he was able to deliver the Indians to the seventh with a three-run lead.

What comforts the Cubs can draw from this loss — Jason Heyward’s two-hit game in his first start of the series, Dexter Fowler’s eighth-inning home run that proved it isn’t literally impossible to score off Miller in the playoffs — feel like foreshadowing, a setup for plot points that could become important in later episodes of a Cubs’ comeback.

The problem — perhaps reflected in Maddon’s reluctance to use Hector Rondon and Aroldis Chapman in this game until his team had less than a one percent chance of winning — is that there isn’t time for the Cubs to figure things out, to let things go to the edge and then pull back later. The edge is already here.

They say a cornered animal is dangerous, or a wounded animal will lash out. Being up 3–1 in a championship series is a far cry from having won it all, and nobody knows that better than Cleveland. But setting up this deficit as a character-building exercise — Act 3, Scene 1 in this Shakespearian comeback that will shake off 108 years of history — is misguided. The Cubs are cornered and wounded, and a 6-foot-7-inch knife with a knock-you-out-of-your-seat slider is at their throat.

The beast isn’t dead yet, but it’s close.